DHAKA, Bangladesh — For two decades, the “Battling Begums” have been at the forefront of this South Asian nation’s politics, vying for power and trading insults in a poisonous rivalry.
Now the longstanding enmity between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and opposition leader Khaleda Zia, both of whom earn the honorific “begum” for Muslim women of rank, is once again at the heart of the country’s latest political crisis.
On Monday, Hasina’s ruling Awami League party won one of the most violent elections in the country’s history, marred by street fighting, low turnout and a boycott by the opposition that made the results a foregone conclusion.
The political gridlock plunges Bangladesh deeper into turmoil and economic stagnation, and could lead to more violence in a deeply impoverished country of 160 million.
Some observers say the rivalry is standing in the way of progress and compromise.
“The economy is declining, democracy is being weakened and Bangladesh’s march toward development is faltering,” said Hassan Shahriar, a political analyst in Bangladesh. “The latest election and the opposition violence linked to it shows how they could not care less about the people they say they want to serve.”
The Awami League won 232 of the 300 elected seats, the Election Commission said, far more than the 151 required to form a government. Because of the opposition boycott, about half the seats were uncontested, allowing the ruling party to rack up many victories.
Sunday’s vote was bloody: At least 18 people were killed as police fired at protesters, and opposition activists torched more than 100 polling stations. Three more people were killed Monday in lingering pockets of unrest.
In a sign of international skepticism over the legitimacy of the elections, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Monday they “do not appear to credibly express the will of the Bangladeshi people.” She urged the government and opposition parties to hold immediate dialogue on holding fresh elections as soon as possible, and called on all sides to desist from violence.
A statement from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s office said he “regrets that the parties did not reach the kind of agreements which could have produced a peaceful, all-inclusive election outcome.” The statement also called for “meaningful dialogue” among the parties.
Political violence has convulsed the country in recent months as opposition activists staged attacks, strikes and transportation blockades to press their demands. Nearly 300 people have been killed since last February.
“We are passing our days in fear and anxiety,” said Abdur Rahman, an accountant and resident of the capital, Dhaka, where soldiers patrolled the streets Monday. “These two major parties don’t care about anything. Only Allah knows what is in store now for us.”
The opposition had demanded that Hasina’s government resign so a neutral administration could oversee the polls, saying Hasina might rig the election if she stayed in office — which she denied.
The opposition, led by Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party, boycotted the election after Hasina refused to step aside. It was the culmination of months of squabbling between the two leaders, who spoke for the first time in years in October in an acrimonious telephone call.
“I called you around noon. You didn’t pick up,” said Hasina, according to a transcript published in The Dhaka Tribune newspaper.
Zia snapped back, “You have to listen to me first.”
The country has been ruled by either of these women — both from powerful political families — for nearly 22 years. Their power is more a reflection of South Asia’s penchant for political dynasties than of the role of women in this Muslim nation.
Hasina is the daughter of Bangladesh’s founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was assassinated in 1975. And Zia is the widow of another assassinated leader, military ruler Ziaur Rahman, who was killed in 1981.
The women have worked together in the past, joining forces to oust a military regime in 1990. But they became rivals in the following year’s elections and the relationship has become deeply bitter and caustic ever since.
Hasina suspects Zia helped plot the military coup that toppled her father in 1975 that also saw the killing of most of his family members. Hasina was forced to stay in exile in India when Zia’s husband was in power.
He was killed in another military coup in 1981 months after Hasina’s return home from exile — and Zia suspects Hasina was involved in her husband’s ouster and assassination.
Another thorn between the two women is Zia’s alliance with Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamic political party. Hasina has put top Jamaat leaders on trial on war crimes charges stemming from Bangladesh’s war of independence against Pakistan in 1971.
Asked Monday about her rivalry with Zia, Hasina said it was not personal but “absolutely ideological.”
“They have failed to stop the election. The election has been fair. I’m satisfied,” she told reporters.
Voter turnout was 40 per cent, according to the Election Commission. In the last election, in 2008, turnout was 87 per cent.
The election raises pressure on Hasina’s government to hold talks with the opposition. An extended impasse will almost certainly continue to batter the economy as Bangladesh tries to emerge from suffocating poverty and reinvigorate its $20 billion garment industry.
Dhaka’s Daily Star newspaper described the polls as the deadliest in the country’s history, and said in an editorial that the Awami League won “a predictable and hollow victory, which gives it neither a mandate nor an ethical standing to govern effectively.”
It also was critical of the opposition’s role in fueling violence.
“Political parties have the right to boycott elections. They also have the right to motivate people to side with their position,” it said. “But what is unacceptable is using violence and intimidation to thwart an election.”