Women in political leadership: Bangladesh a unique model

DHAKA, April 5, 2016 (Xinhua) -- Bangladesh's former Prime Minister and Bangladesh Nationalist Party Chairperson Khaleda Zia (C, front) waves to supporters after being granted bail at a court in Dhaka, Bangladesh, April 5, 2016. (Xinhua/Shariful Islam)

DHAKA, April 5, 2016 (Xinhua) — Bangladesh’s former Prime Minister and Bangladesh Nationalist Party Chairperson Khaleda Zia (C, front) waves to supporters after being granted bail at a court in Dhaka, Bangladesh, April 5, 2016. (Xinhua/Shariful Islam)

Bangladesh has become a unique example of women leadership in politics. One may not find such record in other countries in the globe since women were given political rights to vote and stand in elections more than 100 years ago.

Bangladesh has been run by two women political leaders: Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia for more than last 25 years since 1991. Hasina and Khaleda have also been leading country’s two major political parties-Awami League and BNP- respectively for more than last three decades. Under their leadership, the two parties have been running the country in turn since 1991. They have earlier successfully led a popular street agitation in the 1990s to oust a military autocratic ruler and restored democracy in the country.

Currently, three women are leading two of the three organs of the State. Hasina, daughter of country’s founding father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is the prime minister. This is her third term as the premier. She is also now leader of the House. She was the leader of the opposition in parliament twice since the restoration of democracy in 1991 after the fall of the autocratic ruler in December 1990.

Raushan Ershad, the wife of former military dictator HM Ershad who was ousted by the popular movement in 1990, is now leader of the main opposition in parliament. Ruling AL Shirin Sharmin Choudhury has been elected as the Speaker of the current parliament. She was also elected Speaker in immediate past parliament.

Khaleda Zia, the widow of another former military ruler Gen Ziaur Rahman, was prime minister for three terms since 1991. When she became prime minister for the first term in 1991, she was the first female prime minister in a Muslim-majority country in the world. She was the leader of the opposition in parliament twice.

Khaleda and her party BNP have now no participation in the parliamentary politics for her party’s boycott of the 2014 parliamentary election. Yet, her party is the main challenge of the present ruling AL. The present main opposition in parliament, Jatiya Party has taken the advantage of BNP’s boycott to the last parliamentary election and emerged as the main opposition party in parliament with the blessing of ruling AL.

Sheikh Hasina

Sheikh Hasina

The rise of Hasina and Khaleda in politics was accidental but in a hostile atmosphere. None of the duos was active in politics before they took the leadership of their parties. After brutal murders of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975 and Gen Ziaur Rahman in 1981, both AL and BNP faced internal rifts. Both the parties were split. Amid such a situation, Hasina took the leadership of AL in 1981 and Khaleda took the BNP’s helm in 1984 to keep the party united.

Hasina took the party helm two years after the martial law was withdrawn. Gen Zia who presided over most of the time of the first martial law imposed in 1975 after the brutal assassination of Sheikh Mujib was in power when Hasina returned home to take the charge of her party.

When Khaleda took the leadership, second martial law was in force led by Gen Ershad. Hasina and Khaleda-led the opposition parties to oust the Ershad regime. They also kept their parties unified. They have led their parties to win the elections and to form the governments. Over the years, they have established immense control over their parties. When they form the government, they emerged as the most powerful chief executive. They established full control over the cabinet. They decided who would be inducted into their cabinets. The constitution also helped them to consolidate the state powers. It is difficult to find such powerful leaders in any democratic country in the contemporary history of the world.

In last 25 years, many more women were elected as MPs; some of them were made ministers; many were elected as local government representatives.

But the other side of the rise of Hasina and Khaleda in politics remains bleak. They lost the immense opportunity to lead the country towards peace and prosperity with their sweeping control over politics.

The way they have consolidated absolute powers has diminished the prospect of intra-party democratic practice. Lack of democratic practice within their parties has left a severe impact on state machinery. Whenever their parties are in power, they bother little to run the state political institutions in a democratic way. Whims, personal will, and vengeance frustrated democratic norms and values. Confrontational culture in politics has become pervasive. Criminalisation of politics also appeared as a major problem. Political rivalry between Hasina and Khaleda has turned into enmity. For the enmity, Western media have labeled them as “two battling Begums.”

When Khaleda was in power in 2004, assassination attempt was made on Hasina who narrowly escaped from a grenade attack carried out on her rally in the street. And Khaleda’s elder son Tarique Rahman, who has been living in exile in London for last 8 years, and some BNP leaders were allegedly involved in the plot to assassinate Hasina.

It was Hasina who led a vigorous street agitation to oust Khaleda from power in between 1994 to 1996. Hasina also kept Khaleda confined to her political office for several weeks when her archrival threatened to launch an agitation against the Hasina government in January 2015. In almost of their political speeches, Hasina and Khaleda still blast each other in aggressive words.

In such a situation, Bangladesh is witnessing the significant rise of another women leader in local politics. In a small city- Narayanganj, Selina Hayat Ivy was elected mayor of a city corporation twice in that town. Once she defeated Hasina led AL-backed candidate in the battle of ballots in 2011 and Khaleda-led BNP’s mayoral candidate in December 2016. Her honesty, clean image, and stance against the criminalisation of politics in the small city have put her in limelight in national politics. Though she belongs to the AL camp, people irrespective of party affiliation lauds her leadership. Her rise in politics reflects people’s strong desire for clean politics.

The two supreme leaders- Hasina and Khaleda still hold enormous powers to make game changing move in politics. They can, if they wish, can develop a model of women leadership in politics for rest of the world to follow. All is possible if they burry their differences and want to work together. But in the current political culture in Bangladesh, such expectation sounds unrealistic.

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