Two ladies eyed each other from their elegant residences in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, last week, each waiting to see whether the other would blink, reports Ellen Barry, The New York Times Bureau chief for the South Asia.
The former prime minister, stern-faced and imperious as a medieval queen, received visitors in a creamy white sitting room as a servant brought pastries. She had spent the week under de facto house arrest, blockaded behind the police and five large trucks loaded with sand, but seemed unruffled.
“Many times I was under house arrest,” she said flatly. “Many times I was in jail.”
A few miles away, the current prime minister — a twinkly, grandmotherly type — had declared victory in a blatantly one-sided round of elections, walking down a red carpet that had been unrolled on her front lawn. Withering criticism was coming in, both from Western governments and Bangladeshi newspapers, but she glowed with confidence, joking easily.
When a journalist asked whether she believed the election had thrust the country deeper into political instability, the prime minister peered at him through her spectacles, saying: “What do you want, that I should start crying, ‘Oh, crisis, we have a crisis!’ Do you want that?”
For the past 20 years, control of Bangladesh has been largely in the hands of the “two ladies,” as they are known: Begum Khaleda Zia, now in opposition, and Sheikh Hasina, now prime minister. Stubborn, autocratic and very popular, they have each won two of the past four elections, and their rivalry has contributed to a kind of balance.
This past week may mark the end of their coexistence — and the beginning of a risky attempt at one-party rule.
Prolonged turmoil here could have profound consequences. A rare Muslim democracy, Bangladesh is experiencing steady economic growth and has porous air, land and maritime borders that could make it an ideal transit point for terrorists. It also has a winner-take-all political tradition epitomized by the dueling matriarchs, each of whom took a major gamble as the election approached.
Mrs. Zia gambled by boycotting the elections and by relying on violent street agitation to advance her agenda. Mrs. Hasina gambled by holding an election that excluded the major opposition party, betting that the international condemnation would not be harsh enough to force her to back down and hold a new vote, as most Western governments are urging.
It seems now that Mrs. Hasina’s bet paid off. No one is talking seriously about new elections in the near future. But in a country with a tradition of stormy protest, few observers expect the new arrangement to be a stable one, especially if Mrs. Zia sees continued strikes as her only defense. Neither woman is ready to back down, and, in their elegant homes, both seem oddly cut off from the turmoil outside.
“In recent years, there has been a strong inclination on the side of both of them to create their own reality,” said a retired Bangladeshi official, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of offending the leaders. “They both think they’ve won.”
Much of the recent history of Bangladesh has been driven by the conflict between these two leaders. Diplomatic cables sent from the embassy in Dhaka, released by WikiLeaks, are a litany of exasperation: “Bangladesh Political Rerun: The Sheikh Hasina-Khaleda Zia Show is Back on Air” and “Zia Rehashes Old Complaints About Awami League.”
The grievances are, in a way, an outgrowth of dynastic politics. Both women were thrust into politics by violence. Mrs. Zia was the tongue-tied wife of Bangladesh’s first military ruler when he was killed in 1981.
The two women have barely ever met in person, and when they try to conduct state business, rage over the past leaps up to blind them. In 2007, Bangladeshi generals grew so frustrated by the friction that they jailed both women on corruption charges, a plan that was known as the “minus two solution.”
But within two years the two were out, greeted by cheering crowds.
“That was really naïve, because the fact of the matter is that these are the two most popular leaders in the country, and there is no space for anyone else,” said a Western diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “These parties and the leaders know how to deal with each other. They’ve been doing so for 22 years.”
This turned out to be the year they could not. One can speculate on the reasons. Both women are in their late 60s and hoping to ensure succession, probably to their sons. Political violence has been at an incendiary level all year because the government began a campaign to root out Islamists from politics. Because Mrs. Zia formed an election-time alliance with Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamic party, government hard-liners began to describe her as a supporter of militants.
Hasanul Haq Inu, Bangladesh’s information minister, said there were debates in government circles about whether Mrs. Zia should be excluded from politics. “They say it is too risky,” he said. “I say Bangladesh will be risky with her.”
Against that backdrop, the two women entered negotiations to organize elections. It is a contorted, idiosyncratic process in Bangladesh, and in the past it was managed through the creation of a neutral “caretaker government” to guard against vote-rigging. Sheikh Hasina scrapped that system. Mrs. Zia prides herself on her ability to take unbending, principled stands, and she decided to take one here.
Though her Bangladesh Nationalist Party still had a chance of winning, she declared a boycott. When it became clear her rival would hold elections anyway, Mrs. Zia called strikes that paralyzed roads and highways. Protesters torched trucks and buses, in some cases with passengers aboard; vote-related deaths climbed to 100. On Election Day, Mrs. Zia’s supporters were under orders to discourage voting.
Turnout for the election on Sunday was indeed low, and the next day’s newspapers described ballot-stuffing by pro-government activists that nudged the figure to almost 40 percent. Western governments were severely critical, and both the United States and Canada called for a new election. Mrs. Zia was delighted. During an interview, she held up a newspaper with a photograph of an empty polling station, remarking, “There isn’t anybody, only doggies.”
“They must be feeling disappointment that the outcome they had wished didn’t happen,” she said of the government. “The people of Bangladesh want an inclusive election. Our people love to vote. The government cannot remain ignorant or blind to that reality.”
Across town, however, Sheikh Hasina jovially brushed off questions about whether her win was tainted by fraud.
Criticism over the elections and even the threat of sanctions did not seem to matter to her. By midweek it seemed that the only force capable of compelling the government to compromise was the military, said Mahfuz Anam, the editor of The Daily Star newspaper here. “If Hasina can keep the military happy, she will have her way all through,” he said. “There is nothing Khaleda Zia can do except burn buses.”
With the swearing in of a new Parliament that does not include the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Mrs. Hasina will effectively introduce one-party rule in Bangladesh, and Mrs. Zia will lose the trappings of power she has enjoyed for two decades. Vicious outbreaks of opposition violence are being reported, and the government, too, has taken a hard line, arresting top leaders of the party and charging thousands of people with taking part in election-related violence.
A close aide to the prime minister, Gowher Rizvi, said he was sure new elections would be held, but he was vague about the timetable. In the interim, he expects a new opposition coalition to take shape to fill the vacuum, attracting breakaway factions from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. He noted, almost in passing, that the disruption might make it impossible for Mrs. Zia to pass power to her son.
“Two things are absolutely sure,” he said. “The elections will happen, and B.N.P. will be there. With or without Khaleda Zia.”