- The Washington Times - Friday, December 29, 2006

DHAKA, Bangladesh — For 15 years Bangladesh has been dominated by the revolving-door premiership of two women whose rivalry is among the most ferocious in the democratic world.

President Jimmy Carter tried to get Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheik Hasina Wajed to shake hands in 2004, but couldn’t even persuade them to look at each other. Last month, at a party, the two held court in different corners of the room.

It’s the stuff of political slapstick, except that this feud is rooted in the assassination of one woman’s father and the other’s husband, and the result today is anything but funny.

“We have floods, cyclones, many people die. But Zia and Hasina are worse,” said Dhaka shop owner Abul Islam, 51. “The two ladies are our worst disaster.”

Many people here — illiterate men pedaling rickshaws through Dhaka’s squalid streets, or educated women sipping tea in stately homes — will tell you the rivalry is the cause of all the country’s problems of poverty and corruption.

That’s an overstatement, perhaps. Such problems existed before and after 1971, the year Bangladesh became independent while the two women were at home raising their children. It was political instability, wholly male-generated, that led to the assassinations that propelled Mrs. Zia and Mrs. Hasina to prominence.

But their rivalry has done nothing to improve things. Bangladesh is deeply corrupt and, in many parts, barely governed, raising concerns about instability in this strategic Muslim country already contending with Islamist militancy. Now, with an election due Jan. 23 in which both women are likely to seek another term, tempers are rising again.

Mrs. Zia was elected in 1991, Mrs. Hasina in 1996, and Mrs. Zia again in 2001.

The latter’s most recent term in office has just ended, and the race between her Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Mrs. Hasina’s Awami League is already bloody, with at least 34 killed in street clashes since October.

As each serves a term and is replaced by the other, a well-worn pattern has emerged: one party wins the election, and the other spends the next five years doing its best to make the country ungovernable through strikes and protests.

Bangladesh is roughly the size of New York state with four times the population — 147 million at last count — and grindingly poor. Yet nationwide strikes repeatedly bring it to a standstill, shutting factories that churn out J. Crew sweaters and Banana Republic shirts and earn more than 75 percent of the country’s hard currency.

“Foreigners think we are a moderate Muslim country because we have two women in charge,” said businessman Obaidul Kader, 42. “But that’s only thinking in religious terms,” he added. “Maybe our ladies are not Islamic extremists, but they are not moderate people. Their hate is not moderate.”

At a glance, they don’t look all that different. They are close in age — Mrs. Zia is 61 and Mrs. Hasina, 59. Both appear in public wearing flowing saris and shawls. Both go by grand feudal titles — Begum Zia and Sheik Hasina.

Some might see them as evidence of women’s liberation in Bangladesh, but patriarchal traditions run deep here.

“They can’t sit down and discuss their problems like men,” Mr. Kader said, though Bangladesh had coups and assassinations before the women took over.

Both women became heads of parties that had lost their male leaders to killers. Mrs. Hasina’s father was Sheik Mujibur Rahman, independent Bangladesh’s first prime minister, assassinated along with most of his family by army officers in 1975. Mrs. Hasina was out of the country at the time.

In the aftermath of Sheik Mujibur’s murder, Mrs. Zia’s husband, Gen. Ziaur Rahman, became prime minister — a post he held until 1981, when he, too, was assassinated by soldiers. Mrs. Zia then took over his party.

She suspects that Mrs. Hasina’s Awami League was behind her husband’s slaying, while Mrs. Hasina thinks Mrs. Zia’s husband knew about the plot against her father.

Despite their suspicions, the two put aside their differences to fight the decade-long dictatorship of Hussein Muhammed Ershad, and both spent much of the 1980s in and out of prison.

When democracy was restored in 1991, Mrs. Zia led her husband’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party to victory and was elected prime minister. The party chose her as leader because she “was a symbol that could unify party workers,” said Nazim Kamran Chowdhury, a former BNP lawmaker.

“We thought she believed in the ideals we had,” he said. But “the moment she became prime minister, she was more interested in the trappings of power rather than the exercise of power. There was no discussion, no policy initiatives.”

He and others describe Mrs. Zia as having lived a cloistered life until her husband’s assassination.

“She was a person who never had to go to a market, has never been to a bank to open a bank account — doesn’t know everyday life,” Mr. Chowdhury said.

Mrs. Hasina, who has been married to nuclear scientist Dr. Wajed Miah since 1968, was active in student politics at Dhaka University but shares the same reputation for being removed from the many who live on less than a dollar a day.

No one has seen the two women speak — not a “hello,” “how are you?” or “goodbye” — in years.

“In true democracies, you have political parties running on different platforms but working together to govern,” said Mr. Chowdhury, the former lawmaker.

The two parties to which the women belong are relatively centrist, with few issues separating Mrs. Zia and Mrs. Hasina. “They have no conception of what democracy is — they just want to rule,” said Mr. Chowdhury. “The state: Running it, they get to decide who gets government jobs, give business to supporters.”

So why not elect someone else?

Analysts blame social conservatism — a reluctance of the poor and illiterate to question those perceived as their betters — and thuggish political tactics to ensure that people who don’t support either party turn out anyway to vote for one of them.

As for the small middle and upper class, most are tied to one party or the other — and the rest are simply afraid to gamble on something new.

“I’ve got major property holdings, I import electronics,” said a middle-aged businessman who maintains ties with both camps and refused to be named. “I can’t take foolish risks. They could shut me down.”

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