The Bangladesh Vote
Rival Leaders Draw Closer

Following her landslide victory in the recent elections, the Awami League's Sheikh Hasina offered an olive branch to her arch-rival Khaleda Zia from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party in a bid to create a positive political environment in the troubled country. Anne Thomas and Disha Uppal report

Khaleda Zia (photo: Mustafiz Mamun)
Khaleda Zia, Bangladeshi former prime minister, says she is willing to work with her arch-rival Sheikh Hasina, the landslide winner of the recent elections

​​Sheikh Hasina has put forward a Charter for Change and change is what Bangladeshi voters want. They hope that Hasina and her Awami League can bring an end to the political crises which have plagued Bangladesh since its violent birth in 1971.

It will be her second stab at it after running the country from 1996 to 2001 before being replaced by her arch-rival Khaleda Zia.

The mood in the country was generally upbeat, said Professor Nurul Amin from Dhaka University on Friday: "People want to live here in a peaceful atmosphere, after the democratic decision."

He said that the Awami League now had "a great responsibility and should establish a democratic atmosphere, as well as a good relationship with the opposition political parties."

Chequered history

Traditionally, the two rival leaders have found it very difficult to set aside their differences, as a Bangladeshi political expert, Mohammad M. Khan, explained just before the election.

"I feel that in the last two decades, starting from 1991," he said, "we have not been able to master the art of compromise, in the sense of you give something to get something."

"In that sense, our two leaders have not been able to talk to each other in a free and frank manner and make some sort of accommodation to each other, not a compromise but at least accommodation."

But this time, Khaleda Zia has said she is willing to participate in the government-building process. Although it originally claimed there had been vote-rigging, her Bangladesh Nationalist Party said on Thursday it would not do anything to disturb the normal course of events.

Working cordially towards understanding

Sheikh Hasina (photo: Mustafiz Mamun)
Sheikh Hasina has once before held the office of prime minister, from 1996 to 2001

​​Professor Amin believes they are in a position to work together: "They can and they should because in democratic politics both the government and the opposition should work cordially and in an understanding way."

But he does warn that although it is positive that the two parties are making these overtures to each other, they have to take heed of the warning signs from the past: "It is easy to say but difficult to do. If Khaleda Zia wants to have a good relationship with the government it will be good and healthy for the country."

"But in the past, the Awami League did not respond positively when the BNP was in power and vice versa. This time people want to see that the BNP will do positive politics in Bangladesh."

Government faces many challenges

It is important that the government be able to rule within a positive political climate because it faces so many challenges.

Although the army-backed interim government launched a massive anti-graft campaign, corruption remains an intrinsic feature of Bangladeshi public life, which Hasina will have to deal with firmly.

She has also sworn to boost economic development, combat rising food prices and bring an end to widespread poverty. Almost half of the 150 million inhabitants of Bangladesh survive on less than one US dollar a day.

Combating religious fundamentalism

Another challenge Hasina faces is religious fundamentalism. One reason that Khaleda Zia is thought to have suffered such a crushing defeat was her decision to ally herself with the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami.

It would seem that Bangladeshi voters chose the moderate path and share Hasina's view that religion has no place in politics.

In two years, Bangladesh will celebrate its 40th birthday. The hope is that Sheikh Hasina can fulfil her election promises by then and bring some economic and political stability to the troubled country.

Anne Thomas/Disha Uppal

© Deutsche Welle 2009

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