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Bangladesh: Contentious Elections to be held Monday - 2001-09-29

Two powerful women politicians are the frontrunners in Bangladesh's parliamentary elections, being held Monday. The two women,, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, have dominated the political landscape of this poor South Asian country since 1990, but they are divided by a bitter rivalry.

Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia are former prime ministers and leaders of Bangladesh's two main rival political parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

A decade ago both parties united in a popular movement to restore democracy. But since then, their leaders have been at loggerheads. So bitter is the rivalry between Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia that they seldom meet and never talk to each other.

It is almost certain that one of the two women will become the country's next prime minister, what is not so certain is if the winner will be allowed to run the country without confrontation from the losing candidate.

Khaleda Zia became prime minister in 1991, but had to resign in 1996 after a violent campaign of street protests led by Sheikh Hasina's Awami League. Sheikh Hasina was then elected prime minister but in the past five-years she was at the receiving end of a similar bitter campaign of opposition sponsored strikes and parliamentary boycotts.

The rivalry between the two women is rooted in the string of coups and political slayings that are part of Bangladesh's history.

Sheikh Hasina's father, the country's first president Mujibur Rahman, was killed in an army coup in 1975. Khaleda Zia's husband (Ziaur Rahman), a general turned president, was also assassinated in a 1981 military coup. Both women suspect the other's family had a role in the violence that killed their relatives.

Political observers say political strife is unlikely to end with this election. Independent political analyst Ataus Samad says the two leaders intense political antagonism has spilled into the ranks of ordinary party workers and Bangladesh is virtually split down the middle.

"This [rivalry] has gone to such an extent that in the villages that there are areas which belong to this party, and there are areas which belong to that party, and they are feuding and they are fighting," Mr. Samad says. "And this is also in the upper strata in the sense that in the universities and in other institutions where there are good jobs, everywhere there is a competition between the two sides, and each one wants to dominate. Like if you are the head of an organization, and you support the Awami League, you are unlikely to recruit anyone who belongs to the BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party), it is like that.

The election campaign in recent weeks has been the most violent in the nation's history. More than 120 people have been killed and thousands injured many more than the number of casualties compared to the 1996 campaign. Most of the violence has taken place in clashes between rival party workers who have fought each other with sticks, guns, and homemade bombs.

As they campaigned through the country, both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia have pledged to promote democracy, end corruption, and reduce poverty. But analysts say the pledge they did not make is more significant. Neither has promised to refrain from holding strikes that have been crippling the nation's economy, or to allow parliament to function if they are defeated.