Moving Toward Chaos in Bangladesh

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Abir Abdullah / EPA

Bangladeshi political activists set a fire in the street during the third day of a country-wide blockade at Gulistan, Dhaka, January 9, 2007.

What happens when divas clash? In Bangladesh, it's chaos in the streets. On Thursday, the country's caretaker president called a state of emergency, imposed indefinite night curfews in cities and towns across the country and said he was indefinitely delaying elections scheduled for Jan. 22. This was after months of clashes between political activists who have fought each other and with police and soldiers, leaving at least 45 dead and hundreds injured. Who are the central figures in the crisis? Bangladesh's two political prima donnas.

To be accurate, the women in question are more than prima donnas. They are the rival former Prime Ministers of the country, who despise each other and whose political organizations — complete with congenital corruption and violent tendencies — have been getting in the way of Bangladesh's progress for a decade and a half. Khaleda Zia, 61, heads the Bangladesh National Party and is the widow of assassinated President Ziaur Rahman; and Sheik Hasina, 59, leads the Awami League and is the daughter of Bangladesh's first President, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Zia blames Hasina's Awami League for her husband's killing, while Hasina believes Zia's husband knew of the plot to kill her father and brothers. Three years ago former U.S. President Jimmy Carter tried to get the two women to shake hands, but neither could bring herself to even look at the other. At a service for Armed Forces Day two months ago the two women sat on a dais with 14 chairs between them. "God forbid that they should talk and work through some issues," says Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury, editor of the Bangladesh Observer, the oldest English-language paper in the country.

The immediate cause of the unrest is one of the few things the women have ever agreed on. After Bangladesh returned to democracy in 1991 following years of military rule, the two main political parties agreed that the incumbent party would step down a couple of months before every election and allow a neutral caretaker government to run the country and oversee the election commission until a new government was elected and sworn in. The system is an admission of the coddling Bangladesh's democracy needs just to survive but, with some hiccups, it had worked. Until now.

This time, the Awami League accused the BNP of stacking the caretaker government and the electoral commission with partisans. Former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced earlier this month that her coalition would boycott the poll and called for her supporters to "resist" the "one-sided" elections. Bitter rival Khaleda Zia, who was prime minister until last October when she and her government stood down for the agreed-upon caretaker body to take over ahead of the election, insisted the poll should take place no matter what.

Hasina's accusation has been backed by diplomats such as U.S. ambassador Patricia A. Butenis, who said last month that the interim body "has not always conducted itself neutrally, and the nation has suffered as a result." But the Awami League too must take some of the blame for the unfolding crisis. Western diplomats in Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital, say that the party's stubborn refusal to compromise on any of its demands and its early calls to take the fight to the streets — riots in late October set the tone for much that has followed — made confrontation inevitable. "Tactically, they don't seem to think one step ahead," says one Western diplomat. "It's hard to see that there's a good faith effort on either side."

This should be a golden time for Bangladesh. The country's economy galloped along at almost 7% last year, driven by strong growth in foreign investment and exports and a resurgent agricultural sector. Three months ago, Bangladesh's most famous son, Mohamed Yunus, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work developing microcredit banking, a concept that has changed the lives of millions. Even the country's perennially underperforming cricket team has improved of late. Instead, the south Asian nation of 145 million people is lurching towards chaos again.