Bangladesh is often called the battleground of battling Begums. Such is the toxic rivalry between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and opposition leader Khaleda Zia that when they cross swords, the entire country can come to a halt. And the country is going through such a phase now.
Bu the latest crisis has triggered questions about the future of democracy in the impoverished country. As Bangladeshis go to the polls on Sunday, reports say Sheikh Hasina is guaranteed to be re-elected in what is effectively a one-party contest. Zia is under de facto house arrest after her party decided to boycott the election claiming that it would be rigged. There were hopes until this week that the two women would be able to put aside their differences and come to some kind of compromise after the deadliest year of political violence in the country’s short history. But those hopes were dashed when mediation failed and the two sides stuck to their positions.
In the early years of their political life, the two women worked together, combining to help topple another military regime in 1990. But the allies become rivals in elections the following year, trading often personal insults at rallies. Both leaders have enough numbers of supporters who can paralyse the country, turning it into one of the politically most unstable countries in Asia. That a country which is struggling to feed its people should waste its precious time and resources on political rivalry between two Begums is reprehensible. And it’s all the more painful that people have never learnt from their experiences and are falling victims to the machinations of politicians.
The onus now is on the government in Dhaka to make sure that the country doesn’t slide into chaos. The planned election must be free and fair, and must be held under the supervision of international monitors. Doubts of rigging must be dispelled completely. Ever since the elections were called in October, Zia has been demanding that Hasina stand aside and let a neutral caretaker government organise the contest. But Hasina has refused and instead accused Zia of holding the country hostage after her Bangladesh Nationalist Party organised a series of blockades.
It’s time for both Begums to reach a compromise in the interest of their country. Both have suffered enough, and even their entry into politics is the result of tragedies in their families. Zia entered politics after her husband, general-turned-president Ziaur Rahman was killed in an attempted coup in 1981. Hasina took on the mantle as leader of the Awami League after her father, Bangladesh’s founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was gunned down by renegade army officers in 1975.
Enough is enough, many Bangladeshis are saying. But their desperate pleas are falling on deaf ears•