Bangladesh holds national parliamentary elections Thursday, but the vote will not resolve a political standoff that has grown into a crisis after two years of failed negotiations.

The gridlock in the Ganges delta centers on the animosity between Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and Sheik Hasina, leader of the largest opposition party. Both women are related to assassinated men who once led Bangladesh, and each is thought to have her reasons, based on the bloody past, for not getting along with the other.

The political deadlock has stirred partisan violence in the streets, shaken the young democracy and damaged the nation's chances to grow out of its deep poverty. And while the politicians have been absorbed in their infighting, the economy of one of the world's poorest nations, where nearly half the people do not get enough to eat, has begun to slide backward.

The country's food deficit has widened and prices have shot up over the past year, making life even harder for the poor. Major opposition parties, charging that the government cannot be trusted to hold a fair election, have boycotted the parliamentary vote. They have called a general strike and imposed a "people's curfew" in an effort to keep an estimated 47 million voters away from the polls.

As the 48-hour strike took hold, bicycle-rickshaws rolled freely today along what are ordinarily congested avenues and businesses were shuttered in Dhaka, the capital. Distant small arms fire and explosions could be heard from downtown tonight, and the Associated Press reported that bomb blasts killed four people and injured nearly 150 in scattered violence across the country. At least 19 people have been killed and 600 injured in campaign-related violence over the last two weeks. Although the government has called out almost all its troops and security forces to maintain order, fear kept most of Dhaka's 9 million residents close to home on election eve. Earlier this week, some frightened civil servants checked themselves into hospitals, while others refused to work at the polls. One senior government adviser said he did not want his wife to vote, out of fear she might be killed by a bomb blast.

Just five years after the freest elections in its history, Bangladesh thus approaches another vote in which the most watched counts are how many die or get hurt -- not how many seats in parliament the ruling Bangladesh National Party and other parties win. Military governments have ruled for most of the nation's 24 years, and now its tender democracy is dominated by politics of confrontation that rejects compromise and often takes the rule of law casually. Nearly every regime has fiddled with the constitution for its own purposes.

Political analysts maintain that the nation's inability to resolve its current political crisis also has much to do with the personal histories and motivations of Prime Minister Zia and Hasina, leader of the Awami League, the largest opposition party. "The standoff doesn't make any sense until you see the personal hatred between the two parties," said a State Department official in Washington.

Zia, 50, was for two decades the wife of an army officer, Ziaur Rahman, who became Bangladesh's leader through a series of coups beginning in 1975. He ruled from 1977 until his assassination in 1981. "I was not interested in politics when my husband was alive," she said. Hasina, 48, is the daughter of Sheik Mujibur Rahman, who is regarded as Bangladesh's founder for having led what was then East Pakistan to independence. In 1975, after he imposed one-party rule, army officers killed him and most of his family in their Dhaka home. Hasina was in Germany visiting her husband, a nuclear physicist who was on a postgraduate fellowship there.

"Everybody knows. They attacked our house. They killed my father, my mother, my three brothers, sister-in-law, other relatives. My younger brother was only 10 years old," Hasina recalled.

Political analysts said Hasina harbors a grudge against the prime minister for three reasons. Abul Hasan Chowdhury, another leader of the Awami League, said that according to news reports of the day, Zia's husband "secretly and indirectly connived in the killing" of Hasina's family -- an accusation that the opposition leader would not make directly in an interview Monday.

The prime minister has also made no move to repeal a law that forbids prosecution of the killers of Hasina's family; one professed killer, Col. Faruqur Rahman, is running for parliament on a minor party ticket. Hasina charged that Zia's husband "indemnified these killers, and he arranged diplomatic assignments for them. Jobs, cars, everything. So I think the prime minister knows very well {what happened}." Zia would not state her view of what is known as the indemnity law.

In addition, Hasina, because of her father's leadership, is said to consider herself more deserving of the power to govern than Zia.

Another woman politician figures in a lesser way in Bangladesh's troubles: Raushan Ershad, 57, wife of jailed former president Hussein Mohammed Ershad. Hussein Ershad, an army general, seized power in 1982, and Zia and Hasina formed a mass movement that forced him to quit in 1990, leading to Zia's election. Now, Hasina and Raushan Ershad, a leader of the Jatiya Party, have joined to oppose the prime minister.

"Khaleda Zia entered politics with a purpose. She thought Ershad was responsible for the killing of Ziaur Rahman," her husband, said Seragul Islam Chowdhury, an English professor at Dhaka University. "She was thinking that she should take some sort of revenge for what happened." Zia said that leaders of the Bangladesh National Party, which her husband founded in 1978, recruited her into politics. "They brought me in," she said in an interview today. "They thought I could do better for the country because they had confidence in my husband."

Raushan Ershad said she has a very narrow interest in politics -- to free her husband from a Dhaka prison, where he is serving a long sentence on corruption charges.

The political confrontation began after the ruling party won a 1994 special election that the opposition charged was rigged. The State Department official said the government had indeed stolen the election after losing mayoral contests in Dhaka and Chittagong, Bangladesh's two largest cities. Another American analyst said too few independent observers monitored the special election to determine its fairness. Zia said her party won because the Awami League's longtime representative, who had died, had for years ignored the part of the district in which he did not live.

This week, Zia called for renewed negotiations, expressed optimism about a settlement and hinted at the possibility of future elections under a caretaker government if the constitution is amended. Zia and Hasina last spoke to each other in late December, when the talks broke off. As Zia softened her stand, the opposition escalated its demands, calling for her to resign before formal talks began. Hasina vowed Monday to lead a movement to overthrow the government if Thursday's election is held.

"How can she overthrow my government? She's in the street. She cannot overthrow me because I'm a legal government. I'm not Ershad," Zia said.

With little prospect of a settlement, Bangladesh continues to suffer losses in production and investor confidence because of the political turmoil and frequent work stoppages.

"For the first time in Bangladesh's history, there was a chance for the Bangladesh economy to be integrated into the world economy and go into an accelerated growth path," said Wahid Uddin Mahmud, a Dhaka University economist. "We have lost that opportunity because of the folly of our political leadership." CAPTION: BANGLADESH AT A GLANCE Bangladesh lies on a low coastal plain divided by two rivers and their deltas. Its climate is one of the world's wettest, and the country is subject to catastrophic floods. A cyclone in 1991 killed more than 131,000 and caused billions of dollars in damage. Geographic area: 57,295 square miles (slightly smaller than Wisconsin). Population: 125,149,000. 83 percent of the population is rural. Life expectancy: 55.6 years. Infant Mortality: 108 per 1,000 live births. Adult literacy: 36.4 percent. Religion: 83 percent Muslim, 16 percent Hindu Economy: 59 percent of Bangladeshis work in agriculture, 28 percent in service jobs, and 13 percent in industry. The per capita gross domestic product is $1,230. Bangladesh ranks 146th of 174 nations catalogued in the 1995 United Nations Human Development report. SOURCES: Human Development Report 1995, United Nations Development Program; World Almanac 1995. CAPTION: Prime Minister Zia, left, and Sheik Hasina, center, are vying for power. Raushan Ershad, right, a Jatiya Party leader, supports Hasina. Zia's slain husband had ruled Bangladesh, while Hasina's slain father is regarded as its founder. CAPTION: Riot police arrest an opposition activist in Dhaka for violating an official ban against political rallies on the eve of national parliamentary elections.