Bangladeshi politics is characterized by corruption, violence, and bitter disputes between rival parties. Political victories are often viewed as chances to gain access to corruption money. Policies have been influenced by the World Bank and aid agencies, who in turn are also viewed as sources of money.

M. Shamsur Rabb Khan wrote in the Daily Star:“How could a country where 95 percent people speak the same language and share the same culture, and where 90 percent citizens follow the same religion and 98 percent people are of the same ethnic group be deeply divided into factions? This is Bangladesh, a country where normalcy seems a distant dream, and where hartal [political strikes]has become a way of life. People are so accustomed to hartal that they come out on the road on any sundry issue. [Source: M. Shamsur Rabb Khan, Daily Star, April 11, 2013]

According to “Countries of the World and Their Leaders”: “Despite serious problems related to a dysfunctional political system, weak governance, and pervasive corruption, Bangladesh remains one of the few democracies in the Muslim world. Bangladeshis regard democracy as an important legacy of their bloody war for independence, and vote in large numbers. Bangladesh is generally a force for moderation in international forums, and it is also a long-time leader in international peacekeeping operations. Its activities in international organizations, with other governments, and its regional partners to promote human rights, democracy, and free markets are coordinated and high profile. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook” 2009]

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “There are more than 50 political parties. Party adherence extends from the national level down to the village, where factions with links to the national parties vie for local control and help solve local disputes. Leaders at the local level are socioeconomically well-off individuals who gain respect within the party structure, are charismatic, and have strong kinship ties. Local leaders draw and maintain supporters, particularly at election time, by offering tangible, relatively small rewards. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Bangladesh’s Political Struggles

Robert I. Rotberg of Harvard University wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “Bangladesh, once known as East Pakistan, has been a sovereign nation for” only a few decades. “It wrenched itself from the heavy grip of postpartition Pakistan only in 1971, after a short but bloody civil war. Since then, however, Bangladesh has been convulsed by its own internal battles. Many have occurred between civilians, and some between soldiers and civilians. But almost all have been about control and the spoils of Bangladesh. Few of the differences among the various contenders, whether in uniform or civilian dress, have been about ideology. [Source: Robert I. Rotberg, Chicago Tribune, February 17, 2008. Robert I. Rotberg directs Harvard University's Kennedy School program on intrastate conflict and is president of the World Peace Foundation]

“Chief among the civilians have been the dynastic political oligarchies of the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party. The Bangladesh National Party has been somewhat closer to India, and India's size, interests and relative economic power have greatly affected Bangladesh. But otherwise, there is little to separate the Bangladesh National Party from the Awami League. What the two have most in common is a striving for power, a power that has provided access to great wealth. Transparency International has rated Bangladesh either the most corrupt country in the world, or nearly so, consistently since the 1990s.

“Many nations are riven by ethnicity, language, religion or caste. Not so Bangladesh, one of the most homogenous large nations on Earth. About 95 percent of its people are Bengali-speaking Sunni Muslims. The country was governed by Britain and British India until partition in 1947 as East Bengal; from partition to 1971, it was run by... what was then known as West Pakistan.

“The Awami League and the BNP had been feuding, with occasional bloodshed, since 1991, when civilians led by Khaleda Zia of the BNP replaced a previous military junta. Power changed hands a few times over the next decade. But the various governments brought little economic growth and/or stability to Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world. Moeen's intervention, unlike Musharraf's coup in Pakistan in 1999, led not to direct military rule, but to the installation of a caretaker government of civilians. Moeen and the military act as the behind-the-scenes backbone of a largely technocratic government.

Bangladesh's Model of Military-Interventionist Government

In 2008, at a time when Bangladesh was under military rule and Pakistan was coming apart at the seams under Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Harvard’s Robert I. Rotberg wrote in the Chicago Tribune, Bangladesh has remained stable and largely peaceful under a very differently focused strongman, Gen. Moeen U. Ahmed. Under Moeen's direction, the military intervention in Bangladesh has been largely measured. His approach offers a potential alternative path for developing countries immersed, as so many are, in interminable political conflict and infected by rampant corruption. [Source: Robert I. Rotberg, Chicago Tribune, February 17, 2008]

“The American-trained Moeen assumed power in January 2007 after Bangladeshis, prompted by the Awami League, rioted in the streets of Dhaka, the capital. The protests were aimed at the corrupt rule of the Bangladesh National Party and the prospects of unfair elections that would perpetuate BNP power. Moeen expressed shock at television images, broadcast around the world, of Bangladeshis killing each other and destroying Dhaka. The army had to separate the politicians, according to Moeen, and intervene to prevent bloodshed. Indeed, at the time and since, Bangladeshi public opinion has broadly supported the intervention.

“The acting president is styled as "chief adviser." The various Cabinet ministers are called "advisers" as well, such as "foreign affairs adviser," and so on. Though Moeen and his fellow generals hold the ultimate reins of power, they largely try to stay in the background. Moeen "consults" with the chief adviser only a few times a week, according to officials. And he refrains from issuing "orders." That makes Moeen's approach unusual, and conceivably more effective than the common, hands-on approach of soldiers in the developing world.

“Moeen frequently reiterates that, as promised, full civilian rule will resume and elections will be held in December. Indeed, Moeen asserts that the dangers of soldiers staying on too long are greater than the risks posed should politicians reassert control and further corrupt the country. Moeen has not invented a mechanism for vaccinating Bangladesh against a resumption of the feud between the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party. Nor will he. The army also refuses to intervene in the court cases now under way to determine whether former political rulers should be convicted of corruption, and thus of misrule. Ready or not, the generals in Bangladesh will let civilians retake power in less than a year, in December.

“Conceivably, a new national security council could be installed constitutionally to give the soldiers some continuing oversight of the country's political direction. That would be innovative, and it would provide another lesson for Pakistan and troubled developing countries everywhere. Moeen and his colleagues are attempting to craft a new trajectory for a troubled Muslim country, a nation with its own potential for Islamic extremism. So far, the generals have succeeded in at least charting a new path between corrupt, inefficient civilians and heavy-handed military tyranny without arousing civil discontent or demonstrations.”

Awami League Versus Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)

Since Bangladesh won independence from Pakistan in 1971, the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have been passing control of the country back and forth between themselves. In 1990s and early 2000s, the BNP appeared to have the upper hand. The Awami League ruled from 1996 until 2001 when it suffered a staggering defeat at the polls. In 2001 the BNP won 191 of parliament's 300 seats, while the AL captured only 62. Since 2009, however, Bangladesh has been lead by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, head of the Awami League.

According to “Governments of the World”: “Over the years the two parties have engaged in bitter battles. For instance, in 1994 the AL resigned from parliament to protest BNP rule. When the AL left parliament it touched off a constitutional crisis, forcing new elections, which the AL then won. While the two sides harbor a fair amount of antagonism toward each other, their hostility is based more on personal animosity between the leaders than on significant ideological differences. Sheikh Hasina Wajed (b. 1947) has led the AL since 1981, while the BNP president has been Khaleda Zia (b. 1945) since 1984. As president of the party, Zia became the Bangladeshi prime minister following the BNP's win in 2001. [Source: Governments of the World: A Global Guide to Citizens' Rights and Responsibilities , Thomson Gale, 2006]

“Consolidation of democratic practices remained a continuing challenge, however. Alleging government suppression of its workers, the BNP repeatedly boycotted parliamentary sessions, engaged in street demonstrations, and shut down the country with prolonged strikes. The BNP also refused to participate in any parliamentary by-elections and elections to various local bodies, demanded the organization of all elections for local bodies under a neutral caretaker government, and called for the resignation of the AL-led government. The AL refused to resign, citing its electoral mandate to complete its five-year term. In July 2001 the AL stepped down, and handed over power to a caretaker government headed by the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Latifur Rahman (b. 1936). The results of the October 1 election organized by the caretaker regime saw a reversal of fortune for the AL. The BNP, with its four-party Islamist alliance, won a two-thirds majority of seats in parliament and formed a new government under the prime ministerial leadership of Begum Khaleda Zia (b. 1945).

"In true democracies, you have political parties running on different platforms but working together to govern," said said Nazim Kamran Chowdhury, a former BNP lawmaker. But both parties are relatively centrist, with few issues separating Zia and Hasina. "They have no conception of what democracy is — they just want to rule," Chowdhury said. "The state, running it — they get to decide who gets government jobs, give business to supporters." [Source: Matthew Rosenberg, Associated Press, January 7, 2007]

Begum Khaleda Zia

Begum Khaleda Zia was the husband of the military ruler General Ziaur Rahman (Gen. Zia), who is believed to have been involved in assassination of Sheik Mujibur Rahman, and then was assassinated himself. She was the first prime minister in Bangladesh after democracy was restored in 1991 She was the first woman in the country's history and second in the Muslim majority countries (after Benazir Bhutto) to head a democratic government as prime minister..

Khaleda Zia is head of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), taking over the party in 1982 which he her husband had founded in 1978. She served twice as prime minister. In 1991 she became the first prime minister of Bangladesh and served until 1996. She became prime minister again in 2001 and served until 2006.

Khaleda Zia dresses well and wears a lot of make up and jewelry. Associated Press reported in 2001: “Tramping through Bangladesh’s dusty villages, Zia, 56, looks like a fashion plate, in her makeup, jewelry and fancy coffeurs. She wears imported chiffon and only partly covers her head with the loose ends of her sari.” She spent much of her early adult life living in barracks surrounded by officers.

Khaleda Zia was born in the remote northern district town of Dinajpur on August 15, 1945. At the age of 15 she Zia married Ziaur Rahman, a captain in the Pakistan army. She was housewife with a 10th grade education and mother of two boys.

Ziaur Rahman seized power in a coup in 1975, was president of Bangladesh from 1977 to 1981, when he was assassinated during a coup in a failed military coup. After the assassination she withdrew from public life and turned down requests to play a role in her husband’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party, After the military coup in 1982 she relented and became leader of the party to stop bickering within the party. After that was harassed by the ruling government and arrested eight times in nine years.

Sheik Hasina Wazed

Sheik Hasina Wazed is the eldest daughter of Sheik Mujibur Rahman, regarded as the father of Bangladesh. She was the second prime minister after democracy was restored in 1991. She is the leader of the Awami League She served five years from 1996 until 2001, longer than any other Bangladeshi prime minister. She is the current prime minister and has been in office since 2009.

Wazed's father, Sheik Mujibur Rahman, was assassinated along with his wife, three sons and one of his three daughters in a coup on August 15, 1975. Ten other close relatives were killed. Wazed and her sister survived because they were in Germany at the time of the killing with Wazed's husband, a nuclear physicist. Wazed spent most the following years in India. When in Bangladesh she lived in the house where the assassination took place. She carefully maintained the bullet holes and blood stains.

In 1981, Sheik Hasina Wazed was appointed head of her father’s party, the Awami League, while she was abroad. Later she told Time Magazine: "When one of the members called me called me from London about the appointment, I was angry with him. 'Who has appointed me? I won't do it,' I shouted, but they needed me, I felt it was my duty."

In 1987, Sheik Hasina was allowed to enter she home of her family. She said that other than bodies being removed the house had been virtually untouched since the killing. Family possessions were still strewn about under a layer of dust. "It was very difficult, very painful," she told Time. "The tragedy still haunts me.

Hasina married M. A. Wazed Miah in 1968. Her husband died in May 2009. She has one son, Sajeeb Wazed, and one daughter, Saima Wazed. Hasina's only living sibling, her sister, is Sheikh Rehana who is also a Bangladesh Awami League politician. [Source: Wikipedia]

Rivalry Between Sheik Hasina and Khaleda Zia

Sheik Hasina and Khaleda Zia have battled each other with nationwide strikes, election boycotts and parliament walk outs. When one takes office she accuses the other of corruption. The two joined forces to oust Ershad in 1990 but have been bitter foes since them. They never speak, each suspecting the other of having a hand in deaths of the relatives.

The feud between Zia and Hasina had split trade unions, universities, hospitals and the news media. Between 1994 and 1996, the government and economy of Bangladesh was paralyzed as the feud escalated to ridiculous levels. Over the years they have sat across from each other in Parliament, never saying a word to each other.

In early 1994, the entire opposition led by Sheikh Hasina walked out of parliament, vowing not to return until a neutral "caretaker" government had been installed. Afterward Sheikh Hasina called for a number of strikes and used armed thugs to shut down Dhaka and other cities for 110 days over a two year period. In February 1996, Sheikh Hasina called for the boycott of an election that was marred by bombings and gunfire, leaving 50 people dead, hundreds injured and a turnout of only 10 percent.

Matthew Rosenberg of Associated Press wrote: Since the early 1990s “Bangladesh has been dominated by the revolving-door premiership of two women whose rivalry is among the most ferocious in the democratic world. Former president Jimmy Carter tried to get Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina to shake hands in 2004, but couldn't even persuade them to look at each other. At a party in November, the two held court in different corners of the room....No one has seen the two women speak to each other — not a "Hello," "How are you?" or "Goodbye" — in years... It's the stuff of political slapstick, except that this feud is rooted in the assassination of one woman's father and the other's husband, and the result today is anything but funny. "We have floods, cyclones, many people die. But Zia and Hasina are worse," said Abul Islam, a 51-year-old Dhaka shop owner. "The two ladies are our worst disaster." [Source: Matthew Rosenberg, Associated Press, January 7, 2007]

Many Bangladeshis — illiterate men pedaling rickshaws through Dhaka's squalid streets, or educated women sipping tea in stately homes — will say the rivalry is the cause of all the country's problems of poverty and corruption. "Foreigners think we are a moderate Muslim country because we have two women in charge," said Obaidul Kader, a 42-year-old businessman. "But that's only thinking in religious terms," he said. "Maybe our ladies are not Islamic extremists, but they are not moderate people. Their hate is not moderate."

“At a glance, they don't look all that different. They are close in age — Zia, 61, and Hasina, 59. Both appear in public wearing flowing saris and shawls. Both go by grand feudal titles — Begum Zia and Sheikh Hasina. Some might see them as evidence of women's liberation in Bangladesh. But patriarchal traditions run deep here. "They can't sit down and discuss their problems like men," Kader said, as if Bangladesh had not had coups and assassinations before the women took over.

Reason for the Zia-Sheikh Hasina Feud

The feud is strictly personal. Both women share similar views on economic reform and social improvements but their personalities are different: Sheikh Hasina is a short, aggressive rebel rouser, while Zia is more quiet and dignified. Each suspects the other of being involved in the death of family members.

"Begum Zia's obsessed with Sheik Hasina, and its mutual," one Bangladeshis businessman told the New York Times. "Sheik Hasina thinks that General Zia knew about the plot against her father, and Begum Zia suspects the Awami League may have had something to do with the assassination of her husband. The suspicions underlie everything each of them does." "If you sit around long enough," one Western diplomat told the New York Times, "just about every politician in Bangladesh will tell you the same thing: "They'll tell you, 'You know what the real problem is — the real problem is that they are both women."

Matthew Rosenberg of Associated Press wrote: “Both women became heads of parties that had lost their male leaders to killers. Hasina's father was Prime Minister Mujibur Rahman, assassinated along with most of his family by army officers in 1975. Hasina was out of the country at the time. In the killing's aftermath, Zia's husband, Gen. Ziaur Rahman, became president, a post he held until 1981, when he too was assassinated by soldiers. Zia then took over his party. Zia suspects that Hasina's Awami League was behind her husband's slaying, while Hasina believes Zia's husband knew about the plot against her father. [Source: Matthew Rosenberg, Associated Press, January 7, 2007]

“Despite their suspicions, the two put aside their differences to fight the decade-long dictatorship of Lt. Gen. Hussein Mohammed Ershad, and both spent much of the 1980s in and out of prison. When democracy was restored in 1991, Zia led her husband's Bangladesh Nationalist Party to victory and was elected prime minister. The party had picked her as leader because she "was a symbol that could unify party workers," said Nazim Kamran Chowdhury, a former BNP lawmaker. "We thought she believed in the ideals we had," he said. But "the moment she became prime minister she was more interested in the trappings of power rather than the exercise of power. There was no discussion, no policy initiatives."

“He and others describe Zia as having lived a cloistered life until her husband's assassination. "She was a person who never had to go to a market, has never been to a bank to open a bank account — doesn't know everyday life," Chowdhury said. Hasina, who has been married to nuclear scientist Wajed Miah since 1968, was active in student politics at Dhaka University but shares the same reputation for being removed from the many who live on less than a dollar a day.

“So why not elect someone else? Analysts blame social conservatism — a reluctance of the poor and illiterate to question those perceived as their betters — and thuggish political tactics to ensure that people who do not support either party nonetheless turn out to vote for one of them. As for the small middle and upper classes, most are tied to one party or the other — and the rest are simply afraid to gamble on something new. "I've got major property holdings, I import electronics," said a middle-aged businessman who maintains ties with both camps and spoke on condition of anonymity. "I can't take foolish risks. They could shut me down."

Political Dynamics in Bangladesh: Local Elites

Politics in what is now Bangladesh has traditionally been dominated by a network of small landowners knows as the Bengali “bhadralok” ("gentlefolk"). For the vast majority of Bangladeshis, politics revolves around the institutions of the village or the union of neighboring villages. Traditionally, the main base for political influence in rural areas has been landownership. During the British colonial period, zamindars controlled huge estates as if they were their personal kingdoms. With the abolition of zamindar tenure in 1950, a new local elite of rich Muslim peasants developed. The members of the new elite owned far less land than the zamindars had once possessed, but they were able to feed their families well, sell surplus produce, send their children to school, and form new links with the bureaucracy of East Pakistan and later Bangladesh. Amid the large majority of poor and generally illiterate peasants, well-to-do farmers formed a new rural leadership that dominated local affairs. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Village society is often divided into a number of factions that follow the lines of kinship. At the center of each faction is a family that owns more land than most of the other villagers. In the colonial and Pakistani periods, local leaders were old men, but the trend since independence is for younger men to head factions as well. The heart of the local elder's authority is his control over land and the ability to provide land or employment to poorer villagers, who are often his kin. Land control may be an ancient prerogative, stretching back to the zamindars, or it may be the result of gradual purchases since independence. A village may have only one faction, but typically there will be several factions within the village, each competing for influence over villagers and struggling for resources from local administrative and development offices.*

The leaders of local factions exercise their influence in village courts and as managers of village affairs with other administrative units. The traditional means for resolving local disputes is through the village court, which comprises leaders of village factions and other members of union councils. Throughout Bangladesh, village courts address the vast majority of disputes, but it is rare for the courts to decide in favor of a poor peasant over a rich peasant, or for the weaker faction over the stronger. The relative security of village leaders makes it possible for some of their children to attend secondary schools, or even colleges or universities; some factions also base much of their authority on their knowledge of sharia. Education is much esteemed in Bangladesh, and degrees are tickets to highly prized government positions or to urban jobs that give the involved families a cosmopolitan outlook. These contacts outside the village include necessary links with bureaucratic institutions that ultimately bring economic aid and patronage jobs to the village. In these ways, the factional leadership of the village provides vital links to the development process, while retaining its traditional position at the top of village society.*

Local leaders who control land, people, and education also tend to control the disbursement of rural credit and development funds through their positions in union and subdistrict government. Studies of the leadership of union council members have demonstrated this dominance of local elites over rural political and economic life. Among the chairmen of union councils in 1984, over 60 percent owned more than 3 hectares of land, with an average of almost 8 hectares. Sixty percent were primarily engaged in agriculture, 30 percent were businessmen, and 75 percent had a marketable surplus each year. Eighty percent had incomes greater than TK40,000 per year, and 50 percent had incomes greater than Tk100,000. Almost all union council leaders took part in village courts as judges, and most were heavily involved in the support of local mosques and madrasah (religious school attached to a mosque) committees. For victorious campaigns for union council chairmanships, winners spent an average of more than Tk1 million in 1978; most of them mobilized at least 25 people for their campaigns, and 20 percent mobilized between 200 and 2,000 supporters. In 1978 only 7 percent of the chairmen of union councils had college degrees, but the percentage of graduates had increased to 50 percent by 1984.*

Political elites were more varied in urban environments. The metropolitan areas of Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna, and Rajshahi had large numbers of conflicting constituencies and political machines linked to national parties. In smaller cities and towns serving as district and subdistrict administrative centers, some leaders emerged directly from the local social system, whereas others became politically established as a result of their professional activities. Members of the government bureaucracy and the military, for example, form an important part of a district town's leadership, but they typically have roots, and connections to land, in other parts of the country. Members of the permanent local elite, such as businessmen, union leaders, lawyers, or religious figures, are more concerned with strictly local issues and have strong support from family networks stretching into the nearby countryside. One of the outstanding characteristics of the urban leadership is its relatively short history. In the late 1980s, it was clear that many had emerged from middle-class or rich peasant backgrounds since 1947 or, in many cases, since 1971. Most retained close links with their rural relatives, either locally or elsewhere. Urban elites included professional politicians of national parties, and the entire social group that made up the urban leadership — military, professional, administrative, religious, and business personnel — interacted in a hotbed of national politics.*

Effort to Consolidate Political Power in Bangladesh

One of the most salient characteristics of Bangladeshi politics has been the drive toward the concentration of power in a single party headed by a strong executive. This process began in 1975 when the Awami League, even with a huge mandate from the people, proved incapable of governing the country, prompting Mujib to form a monolithic national party, the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (Bangladesh Peasants, Workers, and People's League). After Zia consolidated his military dictatorship, he formed his own Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which took control of Parliament and attracted opportunistic politicians from the opposition to a strong, centrist platform. Ershad's regime followed Zia's model, with martial law succeeded by the formation of a centrist party — the Jatiyo Party — and the orchestration of a civilian government supporting a strong executive. Each time a new national party came to power, it banished the opposition into illegal status or manipulated the administrative machinery for its own advantage, driving the opposition into the streets. Parliamentary elections mirrored this process. The Awami League, which was dominant in the early 1970s, progressively moved to the periphery of the electoral process in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, despite continuing support for its programs from large segments of the population. The same fate was in store for the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which thrived while Zia lived but was reduced to boycotting the electoral process after 1981. The Jatiyo Party, created by Ershad and his colleagues, became stronger over time as it attracted increasing numbers of politicians. This process continued into the late 1980s because the strong executive, who controlled the country's administration, media, and security forces, was able to keep opposition parties off balance with a "carrot and stick" strategy. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

The party in power periodically offered attractive government posts to opposition leaders in return for political loyalty or neutrality. During the presidencies of Zia and Ershad, the number of cabinet positions steadily expanded, as potentially influential politicians received rewards for cooperating with the party in power. Before elections, or at about the time of major parliamentary votes, newspapers have carried stories about entire labor unions or blocs of opposition workers who joined the president's party. Reverse currents were observed in the mid-1980s, as individual leaders fell from favor and lost their cabinet posts or else left the national party to form their own political factions, but the overall trend was toward a steady increase in the membership and influence of the dominant party.*

Ershad, following the example of Zia's Self-Sufficient Village Government Plan, used administrative decentralization to allocate resources to the grass-roots level, bypassing the local opposition party apparatus and providing a strong incentive for leaders at the village level to support his party. This strategy isolated the opposition parties in urban areas, while the national party disbursed patronage in rural areas. The local elites were opportunistic, changing their affiliations in order to obtain the largest amount of aid for their constituencies. A study of union council chairmen after the 1984 elections revealed that 38 percent had changed party affiliations within the previous 10 years; 53 percent supported the Jana Dal, which had been in existence for 12 months, while only 19 percent supported the Awami League and 8 percent backed the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. In the 1985 subdistrict elections, after the Jana Dal had existed for 2 years, 207 of 460 chairmen supported Ershad's party, and the Jana Dal exercised political control over 44 percent of the nation's districts. This was notable progress for a party with a program essentially the same as that of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (the party in total control only five years earlier), which controlled only 34 (7.4 percent) of the subdistrict chairmanships. The Awami League, which had dominated the nation 10 years earlier, controlled only 53 (11.5 percent) of the chairmanships.*

Military support has been a crucial component of the success of the national party. In the 1970s, observers were unwilling to predict the actions of the military because it was torn by internal divisions between freedom fighters and returnees from West Pakistan, political groups of the far left and the right, and factional infighting among leftist factions. Zia moved to stabilize the military through a purge of unreliable personnel, more than 1,100 of whom were executed, and through steady progress in professionalizing the services, incorporating elements from both freedom fighters and returnees. The strong trend under Zia and Ershad away from the Awami League and the Soviet Union decreased communist and Maoist influences, which had been very strong during the 1970s. By the 1980s, it appeared that military officers were the most interested in adequate financial support for the armed forces and limitation of civilian political turmoil. The slow expansion of the military and the opportunity for military leaders to gain administrative positions under Ershad convinced potential military rivals that he represented their interests. Ershad at first followed up on his promises to include the military in civil administration through legislative means, but when he later backed away from the District Council Bill, there were no major stirrings within the military. A more difficult challenge was the Siege of Dhaka in late 1987, with massive street violence, but again the military did not act. Apparently, Ershad and his Jatiyo Party were able to keep political disorder within bounds acceptable to the military leadership.*

Party Politics and Alliances in Bangladesh

The government estimated in 1988 that there were 102 different political parties in Bangladesh. The majority of these parties were based solely in urban areas and had tiny constituencies. Many of them were formed by small cliques of like-minded intellectuals or by political leaders who, with their small followings, had broken away from larger political groups. There was a steady turnover in the composition of the smaller fringe groups, which nevertheless continued to organize periodic demonstrations and issue press releases. Amid the welter of conflicting groups, there were five main political forces in the country that had long histories or some claim to support from wide constituencies. At the center in 1988 was the pro-government Jatiyo Party. Opposing it were two centrist parties, the Awami League, led by Mujib's daughter, Hasina, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by Khaleda Zia. To the left were the pro-Soviet Bangladesh Communist Party, factions of the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal, and other socialist groups advocating revolutionary change. To the right was a group of parties, including Jamaat e Islami and the Muslim League, that called for an increased role for Islam in public life. All of the minor political parties in Bangladesh clustered around the policies and the activities of these five main political forces. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

The disruptive nature of the Bangladeshi political process was the result of a lack of consensus as to national direction even among the major political forces. In the late 1980s, for example, the Awami League viewed the Bangladesh Nationalist Party as a military-based faction that climbed to power over the bodies of Mujib and his family. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party saw Ershad's regime as the usurper of Zia's legacy, and both the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jatiyo Party feared a return to socialism and the anti-military stance of the Awami League. Meanwhile, the radical left and the Islamic-oriented right held diametrically opposed views of social organization. Observers believed that any one of these groups, if it were established in power, would do everything it could to eliminate its rivals.*

Control of the political process and its resources is a life-and-death proposition for vast numbers of poor people in the urban slums and villages of Bangladesh, and in many cases crucial political decisions, such as local elections or major parliamentary votes, precipitate massive violence. In the midst of this struggle for existence, politicians of all persuasions publicly advocate democratic freedoms but exhibit authoritarian viewpoints and high levels of distrust for their colleagues. Within their own parties, leaders such as Hasina and Khaleda Zia have often behaved in a manner as dictatorial as that for which they have criticized Ershad. In addition, factional divisions have been a constant feature of party life, as political opponents excluded from decision making have "headed to the streets" with their followers. The call for a restoration of democracy, echoed by all groups out of power, therefore has seemed to be a call for a political opening through which one of the opposition parties could seize power. Unhappiness with this state of near-anarchy has kept the military in power and attracted many middle-of-the-road politicians to a strong executive that could control political competition.*

Political Problems

According to the “Gale Encyclopedia of World History: Governments”: “There is much intolerance among Bangladeshis with opposing views. Violent demonstrations and enforced strikes pepper the country no matter which party is in power. Opposition parties often organize boycotts of parliamentary sessions or elections. Parties in power take advantage of state resources to suppress opposing voices. They portray opposition activity as anti-state or treasonable. Politically motivated arrests are common. [Source: “Gale Encyclopedia of World History: Governments”, Thomson Gale, 2008]

“As a result of political corruption and strikes, Bangladesh has been challenged in establishing a strong infrastructure for its economy. Transportation, communication, and power are poorly developed. Rapid population growth, urbanization, underemployment, and food shortages pose further complications. Bangladesh might find some solutions by developing the successful garment industry established in recent years and tapping into the country’s natural gas reserves.

“Bangladesh confronts the global issues surrounding terrorism. Sitting at the crossroads of South and Southeast Asia, it has potential for terrorist movement and activity within and through its borders. Concerns center particularly around both Indian insurgents and extreme Islamic forces that may use Bangladesh as a convenient gathering point.

Political Violence in Bangladesh

Fazlur Rahman Raju wrote in the Dhaka Tribune: “Politicians and commentators say violence has been a staple of Bangladeshi politics for a long time, largely due to the inherent nature of political organizations, which is built around loyalty purchased through the distribution of spoils. Researcher, journalist and political commentator Afsan Chowdhury said: “Politics in Bangladesh is driven by money; there is nothing in it about people’s welfare and political parties carry out attacks on rival groups for issues related to money.” Political leaders and activists never clash on ideological grounds; it’s always for personal interest. Usually leaders engage in clashes while trying to grab tenders, different government projects and lands [Source: Fazlur Rahman Raju, Dhaka Tribune, November 20, 2017]

Afsan pointed out that the Awami League has been in power for” a long time “and during this time, people from different backgrounds with different interests have joined the party, which often leads to infighting and clashes. Nur Khan, former director (investigation) of Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), told the Dhaka Tribune that political conflicts are the manifestations of unstable and unethical politics. He said: “Unethical politicians who lust for power and money are normalizing conflicts among political parties.”

“Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader said that decency and tolerance are no longer present in politics, but only in posters and banners. Awami League Presidium Member Pijush Kanti Bhattacharya said: “Awami League is a huge political party. There are many people with different perspectives which lead to conflicts.”He said: “Political leaders and activists never clash on ideological grounds; it’s always for personal interest. Usually leaders engage in clashes while trying to grab tenders, different government projects and lands.”

“National University Vice-Chancellor and political scientist Harun-or-Rashid said the basic principles of democracy were absent in Bangladeshi politics. “Politicians, intolerant towards opposing views, usually engage in violent clashes over frivolous matters,” he told the Dhaka Tribune. “These are people who think they are above the law and hence have no qualms about ordering the deaths of others.” Mahmudur Rahman Manna, former vice-president of Dhaka University Central Students Union (DUCSU), told the Dhaka Tribune that the culture of political violence emerged in the wake of the 1971 Liberation War and has been thriving since. “Today, political parties are more dependent on weapons, money and muscle, which are the main reasons behind any political conflict,” he claimed.

Incidents of Political Violence in Bangladesh

At least 1,028 people were killed and 52,066 were injured in 3,540 instances of political violence between 2012 and 2017 according to data from the Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK). Fazlur Rahman Raju wrote in the Dhaka Tribune: The ASK data is based on reports compiled over 57 months from January 1, 2013 to September 30, 2017. Awami League and its affiliate organizations have had 15 incidents of internal conflict per month on average, leading to the loss of three lives on every occasion. Over the past five years, BNP has engaged in 160 clashes — killing 14 and injuring 1,702. BNP Joint General Secretary Syed Moazzem Hossain Alal said: “There are all sorts of people in BNP. There are some disputes among the leadership and activists, which leads to the clashes. It is completely normal.” [Source: Fazlur Rahman Raju, Dhaka Tribune, November 20, 2017]

In 2017, there were 256 clashes from January to September — at least 44 were killed and 3,506 injured across the country. Among them, at least 28 people were killed and 1,917 suffered various injuries during 115 incidents of infighting between Awami League and its affiliates. Nine people were also killed during the same period when law enforcement agencies clashed with political activists. On January 17, 2017 three people — Tajul Islam, 35, Shaharul, 25, and Ujjal Miah, 28 — were killed and 20 others injured during a clash between two groups of local Awami League members over the possession of a water body at Jarulia village in Dirai upazila.

In 2016 alone, 177 people, including 83 Awami League activists and 84 bystanders, died in 907 political clashes, which also injured 11,462, according to the ASK data. On May 8, 2016, 16 people were shot during a factional clash of two ruling party groups — one led by lawmaker Aslamul Haque Aslam and other by reserved woman lawmaker Sabina Akter Tuhin — over organising a demo under Mirpur Awami League unit, against the Jamaat-e-Islami.

In 2015, the country’s political parties had locked horns 865 times, leading to the deaths of at least 153 people while injuring 6,318. There were 66 days of blockades and shutdowns where 78 people died and 1,861 injured in 390 conflicts. There were 226 instances of Awami League infighting which resulted in 33 deaths and 2,378 injuries.

In 2014, political activists and law enforcement agencies clashed a total of 664 times, killing 147 and injuring 8,373. Awami League and BNP clashed 82 times. Their clashes killed 21 and injured 784. There were 171 instances of Awami League and affiliates infighting, killing 34 and injuring 2,206. The January 5 election saw 22 clashes — killing another 34 and injuring 497. The upazila elections saw innumerable clashes which saw 24 killed and 2,850 injured. In 2013, there were 848 clashes between law enforcement agencies and political activists. At least 507 were killed and 22,407 injured.

Political Opposition Disappears — Literally — in Bangladesh

More than 320 people were unlawfully detained or have disappeared in Bangladesh between 2009, when Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League took office, and 2017, Odhikar, a Dhaka-based human rights group, reported. According to the Editorial Board of the New York Times: “Plucked from their homes or off the streets by plainclothes members of Bangladesh’s rapid action battalion or the detective bureau of the Dhaka police, the victims increasingly include members of the political opposition, as well as suspected criminals and Islamist militants. [Source: Editorial Board, New York Times, July 28, 2017]

“Among the 90 people who disappeared last year, according to Odhikar, of which 21 were killed and nine remain missing, was Mir Ahmad Bin Quasem, a lawyer for the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami political party. The men who took Mr. Quasem from his home in August, as his wife, sister and two young daughters watched, refused to identify themselves. Mr. Quasem has not been seen since.

“Alarmed by these practices, the United Nations called in February for “Bangladesh to act now to halt an increasing number of enforced disappearances in the country.” But the pace of disappearances only appears to be quickening. Ms. Hasina’s government has responded by denouncing its accusers, making a mockery of international and Bangladeshi law when faith in democratic institutions is crucial for the nation’s struggle to counter terrorism.

“When Human Rights Watch published a meticulously documented report this month on the disappearances, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan responded with sneering contempt, “This organization had launched a smear campaign against us.” “Whom will you say disappeared?” Mr. Khan said. Insulting the anguished loved ones of victims, who can get no answers about their fates from Bangladeshi authorities or action from its courts, he continued: “Many businessmen went into hiding failing to repay their loans in this country. Some people went missing after developing extramarital relationship.” Mr. Khan further disparaged the report, and legitimate alarm about government thuggery, by falsely claiming the United Nations had expressed no similar concerns. If Mr. Khan respects the United Nations, his government should invite the organization’s human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, to conduct an investigation. Only then can the government face honestly its people, world opinion and the truth.

Hartals and Strikes in Bangladesh

Hartal is a mass protest or general strike, often involving a total shutdown of workplaces, offices, shops, and courts of law. A form of civil disobedience similar to a labour strike, it goes beyond a general strike in that it involves the voluntary closing of schools and places of business. A hartal is typically used to appeal to the government to reverse an unpopular or unacceptable decision or used by an opposition political party to protest a governmental policy or action taken by the ruling political party. The term hartal was used first during the Indian Independence Movement in the 1920s. General strikes were a tactic often employed by Mahatma Gandhi.

List of hartal in Bangladesh
Date Day-Month-Year — Time
Between 1972 and 1975 — Total 5 days
Between 1981 and 1987 — Total 59 days .
Between 1991 and 1996 — Total 266 days — hartal mostly called by Awami League
Between 1996 and 2001 — Total 215 days— 59 days of hartal called by BNP

Between 2001 and 2006 — Total 170 days called by the Awami League when it was in opposition.

Between February and 2004, the Awami League organized eight strikes to try and get the government ro resign and force new election. The strikes shut businesses, shops and offices. Traffic was light on the highways. In October 2004, a nationwide general strike called by the Awami League crippled Dhaka. The strike was organized by Sheik Hasina to protest attacks at the party rally and demand the government resign and call early elections,

Patrick Barta and Syed Zain Al-Mahmood wrote in the Wall Street Journal: Hartals “are bringing the country to its knees with disturbing, and rising, frequency.” They are “called by any of the country's raucous political parties to score political points or embarrass whoever controls the government... In one such strike” in July 2013 “protesters attacked buses, blockaded roads and detonated homemade bombs, while at least five people died in clashes with police. Dhaka businesses saw revenue nosedive as shoppers stayed home. Even mango vendors suffered, as supplies from the countryside dwindled with roadways under threat of violence. [Source: Patrick Barta and Syed Zain Al-Mahmood, Wall Street Journal, August 4, 2013]

Bangladesh endured 36 nationwide shutdowns in the first seven month of 2013, “according to the Commerce Ministry, compared with 29 in 2012 and 17 in 2009 to 2011. Typically, university classes are canceled, businesses operate at reduced staff, and many people stay home lest they get caught in stray violence. More than 80 people have died in hartal-related bloodshed between January and July 2103, “while protesters have torched hundreds of buses and cars. The strikes have cost the country more than $7 billion, or more than $200 million for each day of strikes, the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry estimates. Many analysts believe hartals will become even more common as the election approaches. “The hartal culture is destroying us," says Kazi Akram Uddin Ahmed, president of the FBCCI.

“Some desperate businessmen go to extremes to get work done during hartals — including hiring private ambulances for about $150 a day to move safely through the streets. At the end of one recent weekday a half-dozen such vehicles were seen dropping off businesspeople at the Pan Pacific hotel. One Spanish investor proudly displayed iPhone photos of the ambulance provided for him by local clients.”

Bangladesh: the Country of Hartals?

In the mid 2010s when hartals were more common than they are now, M. Shamsur Rabb Khan, wrote in the Daily Star: Hartal politics has become pervasive in Bangladesh. It has become part of our life. The frequent hartals and work stoppages have been viewed from different angles," says A Survey on the Impact of Hartal on the Poor of Dhaka City published in 2000 by ActionAid Bangladesh and Democracywatch. The survey was conducted on five categories of poor city dwellers such as rickshaw-pullers, footpath vendors, daily wage earners, slum dwellers/floating people and small shopkeepers/traders and shows how these people have been used by political parties and how their lives were badly affected by frequent hartals. [Source: M. Shamsur Rabb Khan, Daily Star, April 11, 2013]

“Both the major political parties — whether the ruling party Awami league (AL) or the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) — have used hartal as a major political weapon to create mass unrest in the country since 1991. If BNP is in power, the AL goes on to call hartal after hartal, and if AL is in power, the BNP gets busy calling hartals. The party in power does not consider the demands of the opposition as logically right to accept, while the same party in opposition does not consider the policies of the ruling party as genuine. Hence, a hartal is always the result.

“Who pays the price? The people, and the nation of course, but it is the people, whether they are killed or injured or face economic lose, who bear the brunt of hartal. Those who are angry or fed up with BNP-led hartals in recent times must know that during BNP's rule from 2001 to 2006, the then-opposition AL called 173 days of hartals, while the BNP has called 17 hartals in the last three years.

“The big question is: how can a country... with more than 40 percent of the population still below the national poverty line, afford to undergo so many days without economic activities? How can a poor economy like Bangladesh go without production in factories, and closure of schools and colleges, disruption of exams and missing of classes due to hartals? And how long will people suffer in their daily life when hartal cripples all walks of life? Do the AL and BNP ever think about the violence and killing of innocent people because of hartals?

“What do the ordinary citizens and the poor people do during hartals? Of course, they stay indoors, fearing violence, and those who venture out certainly risk their lives. And what about the daily wage earners? These poor people face the music the most, but both BNP and AL have been totally indifferent to their plight though, in their speeches, they take oath in the name of the poor. Think about readymade garment (RMG) industry of Bangladesh. It contributes $23 billion, which is nearly 79 percent of the country's total export earnings in the fiscal year 2010-2011. Don't the economic advisors of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia tell them that hartal badly affects both domestic and foreign investments?

Patrick Barta and Syed Zain Al-Mahmood wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Government officials have condemned the hartals but have focused mainly on asking opposition leaders not to call them rather than banning them. “The constitution guarantees freedom of expression and protest, so I'm not in favor of banning hartals," said Home Minister Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir earlier this year after a spate of strikes. "But hartals should never be called without strong logical and moral reasons." Opposition leaders say a ban on hartals would be abused by the government. "Business leaders should think about the reasons behind the hartals and suggest ways to remove them instead of proposing a law banning hartals," said Nazrul Islam Khan, a leader of the main opposition BNP. [Source: Patrick Barta and Syed Zain Al-Mahmood, Wall Street Journal, August 4, 2013]

Dhaka University: Bangladesh’s Protest Central

Emily Wax wrote in the Washington Post: “Nearly every political milestone in Bangladesh has its roots in the stately, tree-lined campus of the University of Dhaka, where student-led protests have repeatedly given rise to sweeping changes in government. So it came as little surprise to many students when the anti-government rallies they started mushroomed into violent street demonstrations in other cities. According to the common axiom here: So goes the campus, so goes the nation. “The DU campus is a barometer for the country's political mood. Because of our long history of poverty and bad government, it's been in the students' interest to be politically active," said Aninda Rahman, a 24-year-old English student at the university. "It's the students' duty within the framework of Bangladesh to give a voice to the people." [Source: Emily Wax, Washington Post, September 23, 2007]

The universities have been a major proving ground for political parties since the student protests that led to the war of independence. Beginning with major riots in 1983, universities during the Ershad regime were the site of repeated antigovernment demonstrations and government repression. The Central Students Action Committee, a coalition of student political groups, coordinated a number of political actions in support of the opposition's demands, which culminated in a series of general strikes in 1987. During the Siege of Dhaka, from November 10 to 12, the government closed the University of Dhaka, and it shut down all education institutions in the country later in the month during continuing unrest. Because the major parties — including the Jatiyo Party and its Jatiyo Chhatro Samaj — had student wings, there were often violent confrontations on college and university campuses between rival party members. Gun battles broke out in June 1987 between the supporters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party's Chhatro Dal (Students Party) and the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (Inu)'s Students League over control of dormitories. Periodic closings of universities after demonstrations or political riots often kept institutions shut down for a good part of the year during the late 1980s. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

On the protests in 2007, Wax wrote: “Some students and teachers thought to be behind the protests have been jailed. The government has shut down the campus, putting padlocks on the lecture halls and emptying out the dorms. Officials said the campus may open after the Islamic holy month of Ramadan ends in mid-October. Some students say it takes up to six years to complete a degree because the university is often shut down during political tumult. “Sometimes the students think, there just has to be a better way," said Mahinur Rahamar, 23, a business student. "It's frustrating when school keeps getting shut down. Our families are working class, and they suffer when we can't finish our degrees. But that has always been our tradition. I'm not sure it can change."

“The current political controversy centers on opposition to an interim government that came to power in January, 2007. Bangladesh's interim government insists that much of the recent student activism stems less from political conviction than from aggressive recruiting tactics by political parties. The parties have agents as old as 40 living on campus as "student leaders," working to influence student votes, critics and diplomats say. “Our Socratic tradition has always been one of our greatest strengths," said Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, a government adviser and a former ambassador to the United Nations. "But now, I think the students and even some of the professors are taken over by professional politicians."

“According to local reports, the August protests began innocently enough. In what has become known as the "Umbrella Incident," a university student haplessly opened his wet umbrella, splashing a soldier. That set off a tiny scuffle. But the scuffle was enough to provoke students to vent outrage over the presence of troops on their campus. The day after the Umbrella Incident, M. Anwar Hossain, a respected biochemistry professor, helped organize a demonstration to address a growing list of grievances with the government, not the least of which was the banning of protests — part of a martial law imposed seven months ago to squelch public outcry against the military-backed interim government's delay in holding elections. Soon after, Hossain was arrested at his home for inciting an uprising. He is still in jail, awaiting trial.

“Amnesty International, along with foreign diplomats, has asked for Hossain's release. Hossain's son, Sanjeeb, a 22-year-old law student, has said his father is not politically involved with the jailed protest leaders and was only trying be a guardian for the students, helping them demonstrate against a repressive regime. “It's scary when professors and students are in jail, since it's like the soul of the country is behind bars," Sanjeeb Hossain said in an interview. "This is terrible for our family and terrible for Bangladesh. It's not as simple as just to blame all of this on politics. He was trying to protect student rights, that was it."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Bangladesh Tourism Board, Bangladesh National Portal (www.bangladesh.gov.bd), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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