'Battling begums' face off as Bangladesh goes to polls

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The Independent Online

One is a greying 63-year-old former prime minister whose husband, the country's then ruler was assassinated by his political opponents. The other is a greying 61-year-old former prime minister whose father, also the head of the country, met a similar fate.

These two women, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wazed, have between them ruled Bangladesh for the best part of two decades. Now as voters head to the polls tomorrow for the first ballot in seven years, the two politicians - often dubbed Bangladesh's battling begums - are once again fighting to lead their country against a backdrop of economic and environmental problems.

Until a fortnight ago the election campaign had been a muted affair. Regulations issued by a military-controlled interim government, had prevented the holding of street rallies, the posting of political banners or the daubing of political graffiti. But in the closing days of the campaign, the contest became more tense.

Scattered violence broke out on Saturday between Zia and Hasina supporters, leaving some 85 people injured in three different districts, and the two rivals traded accusations of corruption and vote-rigging, raising fears of post-election clashes.

“Khaleda Zia and her sons have pushed the country into serious political turmoil and ruined the economy," Mrs Wazed, head of the Awami League (AL), charged at a rally. "During BNP rule we fought against terrorism and corruption, something (the AL) started and lived with," countered Mrs Zia, who heads the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

Today Fakhruddin Ahmed, the head of the interim government that took power when elections were cancelled in 2007 following weeks of deadly rioting, urged both sides to respect the verdict of the Bangladeshi people. "We hope all will accept the election results in good grace," Ahmed said in a televised speech. "We want unity in diversity. It is critically important to have mutual respect, harmony and tolerance."

Some 50,000 troops, 75,000 police and 6,000 members of the elite Rapid Action Battalion have been deployed across the country ahead of the tense poll. Over the weekend security officials said they had found 40 bombs around the country and detained more than a dozen Islamist militant suspects linked to possible violent plots.

In this beautiful but beleaguered country of 130m people, where more than 80 per cent of the population struggle on less than $2 a day, politicians do not have the best of reputations. Both the conservative BNP and the AL, positioned slightly to the left, have been accused of widespread corruption during their time in power and the two begums - the word is a traditional term of respect for an older woman - were arrested and temporarily detained by the interim government.

Many people in Bangladesh, while welcoming the return to democracy after two years of authoritarian rule, will tell you that the interim government, Mr Ahmed, a former head of the country's central bank, has not only brought stability but made a serious effort to crack-down on corruption.

The level of corruption that existed in Bangladesh, listed as the most corrupt nation in the world between 2000-2005, appears astonishing. A recent report by a commission established to uncover the scale of the problem revealed a number of extraordinary fraudulent claims such as one filed by the Bangladesh Telecommunications Company to employ 126 people to repair a single broken toilet.

It is little wonder, perhaps, that many young Bangladeshis are disillusioned with politics. One recent afternoon, a group of college students were gathered at a simple tea shop located next to the AL headquarters. All were scornful of the people seeking the public's backing in this month's poll. “I think politicians are just in it for business. They are doing things for themselves,” said Afit, a law student. One of his friends, Tridiv, who was studying marketing, added: “The main problem is that everyone is corrupt.”

Somewhat surprisingly both of the two main parties do not dispute the allegations of corruption. However, both accuse the other party of overseeing more corruption than themselves.

For whichever party wins today's - many observers believe the AL will secure a victory - it will be presented with a host of pressing problems. In a sign of the desperate economic circumstances facing many Bangladeshis, the Indian coastguard said yesterday that 300 illegal migrants, mostly from Bangladesh, were feared dead after they had jumped from a boat and tried to swim ashore at India's remote Andaman islands.

Environmental issues have also emerged as a major issue, with rising sea-levels, caused by global warming, eating away the flat, low-lying nation's landmass. Around a third of Bangladesh is no more than one metre above sea level. Last year Mr Ahmed, head of the interim government declared: “Today we are confronted with the difficult reality that the phenomenon of climate change is not a myth and that its impacts are no more a conjecture. I speak for Bangladesh and many others who are on the threshold of a climate Armageddon, foretold by increasingly violent and unpredictable weather patterns.”