ARLINGTON, Virginia — The Battling Begums of Bangladesh are once again dueling it out. No, this is not a reference to two prize fighters vying for a boxing championship, but an allusion to Bangladesh’s two leading politicians, whose constant bickering has paralyzed the polarized political system of one of the world’s most impoverished nations for more than two decades now.
Unfortunately, for Bangladesh’s 163 million citizens, the only losers in this fight are the Bangladeshi people.
The leading ladies in this political drama are Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina — the daughter of Bangladeshi independence leader Mujibur Rahman — and opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia, the widow of a commander who was instrumental in the Bengali people’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan.
The two women have a long running feud, partially rooted in Sheikh Hasina’s belief that Zia’s husband, former President Ziaur Rahman, had a hand in the 1975 assassination of her father, who was Bangladesh’s first president after independence.
The two antagonists, who have alternated as prime minister since 1991, are once again at each other’s throats, this time arguing over who should rule the country during the forthcoming national elections. Zia, who heads the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), is demanding the formation of a caretaker government to oversee the ballot while Sheikh Hasina — the leader of the ruling Awami League — has insisted that an all-party cabinet headed by herself govern the country during the election, which is now slated to take place on January 5.
Non-party caretaker governments oversaw successful polls in 1996 and 2001, but Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government amended the constitution in 2011 — abandoning the neutral caretaker cabinet system established by a 1996 constitutional amendment and allowing incumbent governments headed by political parties to administer the country during elections.
Late last month, Sheikh Hasina, who previously served as prime minister from 1996 to 2001, rejected Zia’s demands to relinquish power to a neutral caretaker government and instead, formed a multi-party administration with herself at the helm.
Her offer to include Zia, a two time former prime minister, in the cross-party cabinet was rejected by the BNP leader, who continued to insist that the caretaker system scrapped in the 2011 amendments should be reinstated.
The move by Sheikh Hasina infuriated supporters of Zia’s BNP, who took to streets in a 71-hour nationwide transport blockade that paralyzed the country for three days in late November. Supporters of the BNP-lead 18-party opposition alliance tore up railroad tracks, blockaded roads, detonated homemade bombs, set fire to taxis, burned an Election Commission office and even torched a bus packed with 19 passengers.
The violently-enforced blockade of the nations’ roads, railways and waterways by Sheikh Hasina’s opponents left at least 22 people dead and illustrated the zero sum nature of Bangladeshi politics. The day after the 71-hour strike ended on November 30, the BNP and its allies announced the commencement of a new transport blockade, dragging the impoverished country closer to the precipice of complete chaos.
Bangladesh’s slide into the abyss continued unabated this week, as opposition supporters continued with their second transport blockade in as many weeks, attacking buses, trains and cars. Saboteurs uprooted railroad tracks in northern Bangladesh, causing the derailment of a train.
The ensuing crash left at least three people dead and scores wounded. Two members of Jamaat-e-Islami, a BNP-allied Islamist political party that has been barred from competing in January’s election, were arrested at the scene, according to the police.
As the second transport blockade since late November ended on the evening of December 5, the BNP-lead opposition called for yet another strike — known in Bangladesh as a hartel — to commence. At least 45 people have been killed since November 26 in the blockades, the third of which began on December 7.
The strikes have taken a toll on the county’s export-dependent economy.
Shipments of garments, which constitute close to 80 percent of all Bangladeshi exports, have reportedly not occurred in a week. As the economy grinds to a halt and the country teeters on the brink of disaster, analysts are starting to speculate that Prime Minister Hasina’s Awami League government will declare a state of emergency in a bid to halt the chaos orchestrated by the BNP and its allies.
If a state of emergency is declared, there are questions over whether the military, which staged a coup in 2007 to prevent elections overseen by a caretaker government that was perceived as favoring Zia’s BNP, will continue to support to Sheikh Hasina’s administration. The country’s slide towards the abyss could soon transform into a head first leap.