When, in October, Bangladesh’s two most powerful leaders set aside their differences for a phone date, citizens allowed themselves some hope. After all, the women, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and opposition leader Khaleda Zia, have been at it for years, and the country they’ve governed, tag-team style, since 1991 faces serious challenges: climate change, poverty reduction and war crimes tribunals. On top of all that, Bangladesh is in the middle of a serious political crisis that elections, scheduled for January, could worsen.
Hopes for a rapprochement (or reasonableness) were promptly dashed:
And then the phone date devolved for about 35 more excruciating minutes…
“I called you around noon; you didn’t pick up,” Hasina opened.
“This is not correct,” said Zia.
“I want to inform you that….” said Hasina.
“You have to listen to me first,” said Zia. “You said you called me, but I didn’t get any call around the time you mentioned.”
“I called your red phone,” said Hasina.
“My red phone has been dead for years,” said Zia. “You run the government, you should know that.”
And then it devolved for about 35 more excruciating minutes. According to the Hasina-Khaleda transcript, the pair argued over everything from red phone repair, the legitimacy of upcoming elections and whose party is to blame for protest violence to when Zia should cut her birthday cake. Did we mention that both women are approaching 70? They even bickered over who was doing the quarreling:
“We don’t want to quarrel,” said Hasina.
“You are quarreling,” said Zia.
“You’re the one doing the talking. You are not allowing me to talk,” said Hasina.
For more than 20 years, and largely for the worse, Hasina and Zia have alternated in power.
With a population of about 160 million, the modern state known as Bangladesh is relatively new. Under the British rule, or the Raj, it was considered part of India. In 1947, the British left, and then India and Pakistan were born. Bangladesh was ”East Pakistan” until its bloody war for independence in 1971. And in the 42 years since, it has gained some strategic importance for the United States, especially as nearby India and China become emerging economies, but its politics have been a mess.
Whatever structural issues underlie the mess, the bickering begums only exacerbate them.
For more than 20 years, and largely for the worse, Hasina and Zia have alternated in power. They’re archrivals, lifelong nemeses, mean girls par excellence. And make no mistake: Their war is not ideological. Though Hasina has a reputation as a secular stalwart, while Zia is known for her flirtations with Islamists, they’re quite similar, in all the wrong ways — winners in a dynastic political culture that is heavy on family-style corruption.
Prime Minister Hasina, 66, is the daughter of the first president, who was assassinated with much of the rest of her family on August 15, 1975. As leader of the Awami League, Hasina governed from 1996 to 2001 and came to power again in 2008. Don’t let her granny gray and sweet smile disarm you: Human Rights Watch, among others, have lambasted her for locking up political opponents and persecuting dissidents.
Khaleda Zia, 68, leads the opposition Bangladesh National Party, founded by her husband, who was assassinated in 1981. She governed from 1991 to 1996 and 2001 to 2006. She has fair skin, thin-line eyebrows and seems to like oversized, movie-star sunglasses — as well as stirring the pot. Even her birthday is divisive: Though some allege she was born on August 9, Zia celebrates it on August 15, the day Hasina’s family was murdered.
A general election is slated for January 5. Zia’s BNP may boycott it, and though few in the diplomatic community relish siding with either Zia or Hasina, Zia may have the moral high ground this time. Since Bangladesh’s 1996 elections, a non-partisan caretaker government has stepped in for a few months before elections to prevent the incumbent party from manipulating results. In 2011, however, the Awami-League-dominated parliament scrapped plans for a caretaker government. Instead, it says, an “all party” government — headed, unsurprisingly, by Hasina — will oversee elections. All this has Zia and her supporters protesting in the streets in general strikes called hartals that have paralyzed the country and incurred harsh crackdowns by security forces.
Polls suggest that the BNP could win the election, if it doesn’t boycott it. There are other possible outcomes — including international sanctions, a military takeover or, perhaps, a coup down the line. But if the elections go forth on January 5 as Hasina plans, it’s likely that ordinary Bangladeshis will lose.
Why you should care
They could consolidate stability in Bangladesh and position the country to deal with serious challenges like climate change and poverty reduction — if only they’d stop their Mean Girls act.