By: Abdul Ruff

After 24 years of murderous rivalry between Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed, and her hated challenger Begum Khaleda Zia, the country has reached a new phase, an existential struggle for survival between the two women.

The contest between Sheikh Hasina, 67, who heads the Awami League, the head of the coalition leading the government, and Begum Khaleda, 70, the head of the Bangladesh National Party, has now grown so bitter than it is harming the nation’s genuine interests. Each is threatening to jail the other for life depending on who wins the power struggle. Although their political positions are not far apart, the struggle is for power, not policy, with the main difference being that Sheikh Hasina’s government is secular while Begum Khaleda would reinstall a Muslim regime if returned to power.

Although Begum Khaleda is the primary target of the Hasina government, Sheikh Hasina believes she is safe, ensconced in the premiership. However, the intensifying struggle for power means she may not be sure of retaining her position as masses of opponents take to the streets. Losing power to Khaleda means Sheikh Hasina faces jail for life. Hundreds have died on both sides in successive elections.

Since 1991, the two women have traded the premiership twice, serving alternative terms after elections marred by violence. In 2006, the rivalry between the two became so destructive that electoral politics stalled out for two years and both women were jailed temporarily by a caretaker government. Both represent assassinated relatives. Hasina is the eldest daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was assassinated with most of his family in an army coup in 1975. Some of the conspirators were finally put to death earlier this year, 30 years later. Khaleda is the widow of Ziaur Rahman, who founded the BNP and who was assassinated in 1981.

Hasina was reelected in January 2014 in a raucous election termed a sham by the opposition after the BNP and some 20 other opposition parties boycotted the polls, charging they were fixed. Despite the fact that the opposition boycotted the polls, hundreds were still killed or injured in violent attacks from both sides, according to Bangladeshi human rights organizations.

“These were the bloodiest elections since independence, and unless concrete steps are taken to address what happened, the situation in Bangladesh is likely to worsen,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch in the wake of the polls. “It is important that the leaders of the main political parties not only make public statements denouncing this senseless violence, but also take measures to censure party members found responsible for the violence.”

Sporadic violence has ensued since, with two BNP members shot to death on the streets in January as Khaleda sought to force a new election, charging the 2014 one was fraudulent. Hasina, however, has refused all pressure to step down. She is now threatening to charge Khaleda with treason and jail. 

The new phase set on when Bangladeshi Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu repeated a statement by Sheikh Hasina in Parliament that a tribunal would be formed with the end of the Muslim fasting holiday on July 17 for quick disposal of cases filed against Begum Khaleda for allegedly instigating arson attacks during the BNP-led 20-party alliance’s movement.