Stubborn rivals in Bangladesh election farce

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A battle between two stubborn women is spoiling Bangladesh's chances of lifting itself out of poverty. The personal and political rivalry between the Premier, Begum Khaleda Zia, and Sheikh Hasina, opposition leader, is forcing Bangladesh into an election charade that can only intensify the country's turmoil.

Her hair covered in an Islamic veil, Ms Hasina, 48, hopped out of a gaily painted cycle-rickshaw yesterday at her Awami League headquarters looking like any Dhaka housewife out shopping. Instead, she came to deliver threats. Any government candidate, or "vote-thief", as she calls them, who stands in tomorrow's elections will be punished by the mob.

In Chittagong on Monday, thugs stormed a meeting of polling officers, hurling small bombs and blasting away with pistols. And, a few days ago, when Ms Hasina criticised foreign diplomats for trying to mediate between her and Ms Zia, someone threw a home-made bomb at the British deputy high commissioner's house. So Ms Hasina's threats tend to be taken seriously.

Smiling warmly, Ms Hasina arrived in a cycle-rickshaw because a general strike called by her party as an election protest had cleared all the cars and buses off the roads.

Since Ms Hasina's party and others walked out of parliament 22 months ago, Bangladesh has averaged a general strike every five days. Ports have been shut, garment factories have stopped their weaving, and the only people who seem to benefit are Ms Hasina's party and Dhaka's thousands of cycle-rickshaw drivers.

All major opposition parties are boycotting tomorrow's elections. They protest that the Premier and her Bangladesh National Party (BNP) cannot be trusted. Ms Hasina and the Islamic parties are demanding a caretaker government to oversee impartial elections.

The only hope is that once her one-party BNP parliament takes over, Ms Zia may decide to alter the Westminster-style constitution so that an interim government can preside over another round of elections in which all parties join in. Whether Ms Zia is capable of such charity towards her adversary is still in doubt. As one Dhaka political observer sighed: "I'm afraid that schoolgirl sentiment is dominating our politics."

The grudge between the two women is based on jealousy and intrigue. Ms Hasina is the daughter of Bangladesh's founding father, Sheikh Mujib, who in 1975 was assassinated in an army mutiny. Ms Hasina reportedly suspects that Ms Zia's late husband, Major General Zia-ur-Rahman, was one of the officers who took part in the revolt, even though there is little evidence of this, historians claim. Ms Zia's husband was a popular army chief and then President before he too was gunned down in a coup.

In what seems to be a South Asian phenomenon - witnessed in Sri Lanka and Pakistan as well as Bangladesh - the daughters or wives of murdered statesmen are thrust on to the political stage and asked to carry on the dead man's role. Ms Zia, 50, was a timid housewife with little education before she was coerced into running the BNP. Now she enjoys it, and she has toughened, gained poise and confidence.

"Hasina is frustrated. She thinks that as Sheikh Mujib's daughter, she's entitled to rule the country - not this upstart housewife," said a political observer in Dhaka. "She's so desperate that she would probably go for an army coup if necessary to oust Begum Zia." The army, so far, is not taking sides.

The Islamic parties back Ms Hasina in the election boycott. Motiurahman Nizami, secretary general of the Jamat-e-Islam party, said: "We're treating this as a one-party election. Keeping us out will lead to permanent chaos." Over 400,000 security forces and an extra 9,000 soldiers are watching over the polls, but most of the 55 million voters will be too scared to cast their ballots. Foreign diplomats predict voter turnout could be as low as 10 per cent. After Monday's siege of the polling officers in Chittagong, it may be hard to find anyone willing to count the votes.

A government handout boasted proudly that "the same foreigners who once dubbed Bangladesh 'a bottomless basket' are now calling it 'an emerging tiger'.'' Sadly, this is not exactly true. Exports, mainly of garments, are growing at a creditable 5.8 per cent, but Bangladesh's 120 million people are still among some of the most wretched on earth.

While the people of most countries are growing taller, Bangladeshis have shrunk 6cm and lost 2 kilos over the past half a century, stunted by malnutrition. Their average calorie intake is 1,800 a day, from a bowl of rice and a vegetable gruel. One aid agency carried out a survey in the countryside to find out if people were any better off. One diplomat said: "The answer was 'yes' - sort of. Instead of having one set of clothes, a man may now have two."