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Bangladesh's "Battling Begums" rule the roost again

DHAKA (Reuters) - Bangladesh’s “Battling Begums”, behind bars and suspected to be heading towards the end of their careers just a few months ago, are back with a vengeance at the helm of the country’s politics as December elections approach.

Former prime minister and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) chief Begum Khaleda Zia attends a meeting with the leaders of the Islamic Oikko Jot, a radical Islamic party, in Dhaka in this September 22, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

That fact has analysts worried that changes needed to rid the country of corruption and put its politics on a more stable and less violent course are not going to come anytime soon.

The pair, Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia, were heirs to political dynasties and alternated as prime ministers in the 15 years through 2006.

But after they jointly ousted a military ruler in 1990, they seldom even spoke to each other as they vied for power, gaining the “Battling Begums” nickname.

“Begum” is an honorific for Muslim women of rank in the overwhelmingly Islamic country.

The two leaders’ squabbling and lack of trust in one another was blamed by many analysts for unrest and violence that brought a takeover by a military-backed government on January 11, 2007, which postponed the election scheduled for that month.

“Had the major political parties and their allies not been involved in ... political mayhem, the country probably would not have gone through the changes of 1/11,” Ferdous Ahmed Qureshi, chairman of the Progressive Democratic Party, told reporters.

“But they (the interim authority) failed to live up to their promises and now pushed the country back to Square One,” he said.

The interim government of the impoverished Indian Ocean nation initially hit hard at the two women, detaining them on charges of corruption and abuse of power.

Until mid-2008 it looked like they might spend most or all of their remaining lives in jail as they faced dozens of charges, which they said were false and politically motivated.

But their respective political parties -- Hasina’s Awami League and Khaleda’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) -- held firm behind their long-time leaders, while the general public lost much of its initial enthusiasm for the interim government because of rising food and other commodity prices.


Jamiruddin Sircar, speaker of parliament during Khaleda’s government, said the interim government was “living in a fool’s paradise” hoping to restore democracy sans the former prime ministers and to oust them from politics.

“They probably had forgotten that the soil of Bangladesh is slippery,” he told a newspaper on Wednesday, referring to perceived government backsliding in dealing with corruption.

Political analysts say the interim authority now looks more intent on finding an honourable exit for itself than forcing reform on the top political parties.

“The interim government burdened itself with too many tasks beyond its capacity to implement within a limited span of time, and then it tried to remove the two ex-premiers from politics,” goals that were too ambitious, Akbar Ali Khan, a retired top bureaucrat and former interim government adviser, told Reuters.

To many Bangladeshis, the sudden rebound in the historically dominant parties was too much, too soon.

People away from mainstream politics said the powerful armed forces were taking too low key a role.

“They were so eloquent and supportive when the caretaker government took over,” said a senior government official who asked not to be identified.

“Now as the government seems to fumble in carrying forward its missions, they are somewhat silent,” he said.


The government, headed by former central bank chief Fakhruddin Ahmed, has long pledged to hold free, fair and credible elections by the end of this year, and recently set the parliamentary election date for December 18, followed by rural upazilla (sub-district) polls on Dec. 24 and 28.

Independent groups and some foreign governments said the interim authorities would be hard-pressed to claim the new elections were legitimate if the women’s parties boycotted the polls because of the detentions.

In the context of those developments, Hasina and Khaleda found themselves out of jail.

Hasina was paroled in June to go abroad on health grounds while Khaleda was released on bail early this month. They were both warmly greeted back at the tops of their respective parties.

Though the cases against the women are still being pursued, some political analysts doubt they will be concluded before the December elections, and say if the women are elected to parliament chances of further prosecution would be slim to none.

With the release of the ex-premiers and dozens of relatives and colleagues also detained on corruption charges, the BNP and Awami League look set to be the main contenders in December.

That may make the election credible, analysts say, but does little for hope the authoritarian and personality-oriented nature of the main political parties might change, or that leaders might emerge untainted by allegations of graft or abuse of power.