Merry Go around
The politician begums of Bangladesh could do well to end their tussle.
Politics in Bangladesh is not for the faint-hearted. Death is a common occupational hazard and “hartals” (strikes) an everyday possibility. As a long-standing political “matriarchy,” Bangladesh is unique among modern democracies. Indeed, many times in its short national history, the simple contest for public votes has morphed into a gladiatorial showdown. Since 1991, the two battle-maidens: Sheikh Hasina Wajid of the Awami League (A.L.), and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (B.N.P.) have dueled endlessly for the premiership.
Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia are the two constants of Bangladeshi democracy. Barring a two year military interlude in 2007, both have taken turns at the top for two terms each. They have deep roots in the bureaucracy and judiciary, and counterbalance each other’s political ambitions. In a winner-takes-all electoral system, this rivalry has let the economy tick without turbulence and prevented self-serving legislation from going unquestioned. The “battling begums,” as they are mockingly known, embrace opposite ideologies. Hasina is staunchly secular and left-leaning, while Zia courts the country’s Islamists to wield power.
The latest round of riots started on January 5, 2015, when the B.N.P. announced a national transportation blockade marking “Murder of Democracy Day.” Exactly a year ago, the A.L. had swept the national polls boycotted by the B.N.P. -led opposition amid low voter turnout. Tarique Rahman, the B.N.P.’s vice-chairman and Khaleda Zia’s son, said then that the boycott was “not for personal interest but for the sake of the country's existence." In June 2011, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina abolished the caretaker system of government by amending the constitution. The B.N.P. accused her of scheming to keep power in a "one-party election" by forcing the opposition’s hand.
Todate, 120 people have died in the ensuing violence; the World Bank puts the material cost at $2.2 billion. Most of the fatalities happened when rioters petrol-bombed innocent bystanders and set fires to public transport. The B.N.P insists that new elections be held soon under a caretaker government. After her recent electoral walkover, however, Sheikh Hasina is unwilling to play ball. The Jamaat-e-Islaami (J.I.) is also looking for payback against her. In 2013, the party was banned from contesting polls for patronizing terrorism and its senior leaders are now being queued up for the gallows.
This face-off escalated on April 28 when the B.N.P. pulled out of major mayoral races, citing mass rigging. Its spokesperson, Moudud Ahmed, declared “There were riggings in 98 per cent of the voting booths." Even the U.S chimed in, saying it was “disappointed by widespread, firsthand, and credible reports of vote-rigging.” Earlier that month, a mob had attacked Khaleda Zia in Dhaka and shot at her car as it sped away. The B.N.P. accused Sheikh Hasina of complicity, but she fired back “Stop your drama and let the people live in peace.” Things got worse when the B.N.P. called for yet another strike on April 22 to protest the incident.
The back-story of the “battling
begums” is one mired in personal loss and the crusade to right old wrongs. Their mutual hostility dates back to 1975, when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, father to both Hasina and Bangladesh, was assassinated in a military coup. She has always believed that Khaleda Zia’s spouse, Gen. Zia-ur-Rahman, who came to power afterwards was the one responsible. In 1987, at a National Democratic Institute dinner in the U.S. attended by both women, Hasina pointedly introduced herself as “I am Sheikh Hasina. The woman on your left, her husband assassinated my father.”
Sheikh Hasina has not taken the B.N.P. -sponsored mayhem lying down. When the protests began in January, she quickly suspended intercity transportation, banned all public gatherings, and celebrated January 5 as “Constitution and Democracy Protection Day.” She also ordered the arrests of key opposition figures under the country’s anti-terrorism laws, and the B.N.P. headquarters were padlocked. Meanwhile, Khaleda Zia was put under house arrest for 17 days to prevent incitement. Mahfuz Anam, the Daily Star editor, condemned Hasina’s heavy-handed ways, saying they made “a mockery of our claim to be a democratic country.” In February 2015, arrest warrants were issued for Zia on corruption charges, who decried them as politically motivated.
The West has thus far mumbled muted condemnations due to Sheikh Hasina’s masterfully played “freedom” card. By positioning herself as a bulwark against Islamic extremism, Hasina has also gained strength at home. The urban, social-media savvy youth that started the “Shahbag” movement applaud her crackdown on the Jamaat-e-Islaami, who they call a “terrorist group.” Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) has already hanged its senior leaders Abdul Quader Mollah and Muhammad Kamaruzzaman. In 2010, the Bangladesh Supreme Court also restored “secularism” as a basic tenet of the constitution. Furthermore, in May 2015, the Indian Lok Sabha validated the 1974 Indo-Bangla deal, meaning Bangladesh will reclaim 10,000 acres of disputed territory on Hasina’s watch.
The supporting cast of the Hasina-Zia show has moved according to its own interests. The Bangladesh military, master of many a coup since the country’s independence, has shown no inclination to intervene as it did in 2007. Sheikh Hasina has cleverly curbed its enthusiasm by providing the army a greater role in the economy and lobbying for its lucrative UN peacekeeping role. The generals don’t want to play “bad cop” anymore either, especially after the public relations fallout from their last stint in office. They even foiled a coup attempt in 2012 by officers holding "extreme religious views."
India likes Sheikh Hasina because she espouses a similar secular philosophy and is traditionally Delhi-- friendly. Unlike Khaleda Zia, she appeals to Bangladesh’s minorities, who are mostly Hindus. With its own Islamist concerns, India is happy seeing Hasina tackle the Jamaat-e-Islaami and its satellite groups, thereby diminishing their capacity to breed across borders. Her son, and the A.L heir, Sajeeb Wazed is India-educated and Delhi won’t mind the political erasure of Zia, if it leaves Bangladesh with pro-India prime ministers in the long term.
That said, recent statements from the B.N.P. leadership imply that this confrontation will not taper off tamely. In an April editorial for Al-Jazeera, Tarique Rahman wrote: “What we need now is for our friends in the West to insist on a dialogue that can return the country to a truly legitimate democratic government and bring fresh elections that have the confidence of the whole country.” Even if a dialogue between Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia is the first step, this crisis can only be resolved through an inclusive mid-term election managed by a nonpartisan administration.
Additionally, the B.N.P demands that the constitutional provision for caretaker governments be reinstated, while the A.L. insists that the B.N.P. sever its political partnership with the Jamaat-e-Islaami. If bilateral talks fail, the U.S. can flex its economic muscle and incentivize Sheikh Hasina to bring back political stability. America is Bangladesh’s biggest export market and President Obama can promise more investment should Hasina proactively defuse the situation. That said, considering the deeply entrenched nature of the Hasina-Zia rivalry, things will likely get worse before they get any better.