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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 April 2007, 17:28 GMT 18:28 UK
Bangladesh's leading ladies hit the buffers
By Alastair Lawson
BBC News

Khaleda Zia (l) and arch-rival Sheikh Hasina
The two women are bitter enemies

The political careers of the former Bangladeshi Prime Ministers Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia have been inextricably linked.

For much of the last two decades the two women - leaders of the Awami league and Bangladesh Nationalist Party respectively - have alternated between being prime minister and opposition leader.

When one was on a high, claiming a fair and clean election following a landslide victory, the other was on a down, complaining of poll rigging and electoral fraud.

But now it is no exaggeration to say that the careers of both women - who have made no secret of their bitter enmity - are in jeopardy following charges against Sheikh Hasina for murder and the virtual house arrest of Khaleda Zia.

Firing line

"They have spent their entire political careers trying to scratch each others' eyes out and now it looks as if they could both depart the political scene still bent on mutual destruction," one diplomat in Dhaka said.

Bangladesh's caretaker government - backed by the military - has made it abundantly clear that it wants to rid the country of corruption before polling takes place.

Bangladeshi soldiers
The army could curtail the careers of both women

It has arrested numerous senior politicians and civil servants as part of its "clear-up" drive and most analysts agree that despite denials from the government, the two leading ladies could be next in the firing line.

Both come from well-known political families.

Sheikh Hasina's father, Mujibur Rahman, was the country's first president.

He was killed by army officers who she says had links with Khaleda Zia's husband, Ziaur Rahman, who ruled Bangladesh as a military dictator in the 1970s.

Dirty tactics

Animosity between the pair over this issue - and violent disagreements between them over which of their men folk was the first to declare independence from Pakistan in 1971 - has meant that the political hatreds from Bangladesh's past are still apparent today.

The tension and the acrimony between them has been exacerbated because both have over the years held vice-like grips over their parties, resulting in often violent confrontations between their respective sets of supporters.

Over the years, each has blamed the other for the violence.

Crowds in Bangladesh
The people of Bangladesh face an uncertain political future

Critics say that before and after elections, neither leader was ever prepared to entertain the notion they might lose, and both have over the years shown no scruples about using some dirty tactics to undermine their opponents.

There has been little moral high ground.

The two women have often hurled bitter personal insults at each other.

On one occasion, Khaleda Zia was reported to have declared that she would celebrate her birthday on the anniversary of the assassination of Sheikh Hasina's father, along with more than 20 of his close relatives.

While most Bangladeshis welcomed the country's return to democracy in the early 1990s, many complain that corruption has increased drastically during the years that the two women have held power.

For them, politicians have got richer while in many cases they still have to pay bribes to obtain simple things like a passport, driving license or landline telephone.

Yet the ideological differences between the two main parties of Bangladesh are slight.

The Awami League has traditionally been seen as more pro-Indian and left-leaning, while the BNP is arguably more right wing - it has been criticised for forming alliances with hardline Islamic parties.

But the two women have done little to stop these marginal policy differences from interfering in their bitter feud - now it looks as if the army may well do it for them.

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