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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

A New Start

Bangladesh's Begum Zia and Sheikh Hasina
should step down


"IF AT FIRST YOU don't succeed, try and try again" seems to be Bangladesh's national motto. In May, its citizens will choose their representatives in Parliament for the second time this year. Less than a fifth of registered voters turned out for last month's election, largely because of the futility of the exercise. The government ran unopposed, earning an overwhelming but empty majority. This time, the opposition may join the contest.

The aim of both exercises: to break a debilitating deadlock of the political process. For two years, oppositionists have been boycotting Parliament and leading a campaign of general strikes in a bid to topple the government of Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia. After the February polls, she finally accepted opposition demands that a fresh election be held under a neutral caretaker administration. Meetings between her Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and the opposition Awami League have lifted the public mood. But the new election is unlikely to produce any lasting compromise between the two main parties.

Why? Because the fundamental problem is less political than it is personal. Begum Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the Awami League leader, have been bitter rivals for more than a decade. Given the lengths to which each has gone to foil the other's ambitions, another spiral of vindictiveness and political paralysis is on the cards -- whoever wins the May polls.

The time has come for a simple, if radical, solution: Begum Zia and Sheikh Hasina should both withdraw from the May election and retire from politics. By doing so, they would give their parties a chance to develop new leaders and platforms. That would strengthen Bangladesh's fledgling democratic system. More important, their departure would finally give their country a desperately needed chance to extricate itself from the quagmire into which their rivalry has sunk it -- and get on with the business of development.

Indeed, Bangladesh's recent political history has virtually been defined by the tussle between the two women. Begum Zia inherited the BNP leadership from her husband, President Zia-ur-Rahman, after his assassination in 1981 by rebel army officers. Sheikh Hasina is the daughter of the nation's founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was also murdered in a military coup in 1975. Given their common experience of loss and persecution by successor governments, the women need not have become rivals. But President Hussain Muhammad Ershad, who took power in a 1982 putsch, played them and their political machines off against each other. Despite their differences, they united to oust him in 1990.

But Begum Zia and Sheikh Hasina soon fell again to squabbling. A surprising 1993 by-election victory by the BNP in an Awami League stronghold sparked charges of vote-rigging -- and Sheikh Hasina launched a campaign of revenge. Awami League MPs and their allies walked out of Parliament in March 1994 and never returned. Last year, the opposition called 150 strikes, convulsing the country.

The damage has been severe. Before the civil disobedience began, Bangladesh's GDP was growing at a 4.5% clip on the back of economic reforms and robust textile exports. Now, indicators are increasingly negative. Import payments are outpacing export earnings. The work stoppages cost the clothing industry some $7 million a day. About 500 garment factories have already closed. And more than 100 people have died in the two-year cycle of stoppages and shutdowns.

Despite the toll, Begum Zia and Sheikh Hasina remain incapable of rising above their feud. This is almost criminal in a country that has long languished among the world's poorest. The Awami League now wants Begum Zia to set up a caretaker administration within days -- a blatantly unreasonable demand. The government, for its own part, has been jailing oppositionists and other activist leaders.

Such politics of vengeance recalls the experience of another recently restored democracy in Asia: the Philippines. After ousting Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, Mrs. Corazon Aquino expended an excessive amount of her government's energy in a bid to marginalize and punish the late president's allies and cronies. The result: a highly polarized political society. Only after she left office could Manila devote its full attention to governance and the critical task of economic development.

Both Begum Zia and Sheikh Hasina remain popular -- and it is unclear who might succeed them, should they step down. But one thing is certain: unless they relinquish their grip, no one will emerge to give the nation a fresh start. The agenda for any new leader would be daunting: the restoration of law and order, eroded by frequent strikes and riots, as well as a renewal of the people's faith in national politics.

Responsible, effective statecraft requires compromise and cooperation -- something Begum Zia and Sheikh Hasina have unequivocally demonstrated is beyond their grasp. The most valuable contribution they can make to their nation now is to stand aside so others can try to achieve what they have so dismally failed to do.


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