Democracy was restored in February, 1991 with the election of the Begum Khaleda Zia as prime minister. Ershad was thrown in prison. A caretaker government presided over the national elections. The Bangladesh National Party (BNP), headed by Khaleda Zia, widow of former President Zia, formed a government in an alliance with the Jamaat-i-Islami. Political factionalism intensified over the next five years. In June 1996, the Awami League, headed by Sheikh Hasina (also known by her married name Sheikh Hasina Wazed), the daughter of former President Sheikh Mujib, took control of Parliament.

The February 1991 elections were described as the fairest ever held in Bangladesh. The BNP quickly lost popular support, however. In 1994, opposition parties walked out of the parliament and boycotted the government, claiming the BNP had rigged a regional election. The main opposition groups — the Awami League, Jatiya Party, and the Jamaat-e-Islami — kept up their protests for two years, boycotting February 1996 elections swept by the BNP. Amid further charges of vote-rigging, Khaleda Zia resigned, the BNP dissolved Parliament, and a caretaker government conducted new elections in June 1996.

In the June 1996 elections, contested by all parties and monitored by international observers, the Awami League won and gained control of Parliament. Although initially dependent on the support of the Jatiya Party to form a government, by late September the Awami League held an absolute majority of seats in the legislature.

Democracy Restored After Ershad Is Ousted

In July 1987, mounting opposition to his often dictatorial rule among the united opposition parties led President Hussain Muhammad Ershad again to declare a state of emergency, dissolve the assembly, and schedule new elections for March 1988. His Jatiya Party triumphed in those elections, due mainly to the refusal of the opposition parties to participate. By 1989, the domestic political situation in the country seemed to have quieted. The local council elections were generally considered by international observers to have been less violent and more free and fair than previous elections. However, opposition to Ershad's rule began to regain momentum, escalating by the end of 1990 in frequent general strikes, increased campus protests, public rallies, and a general disintegration of law and order. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook” 2009]

At the end of 1990, in the face of widespread demonstrations and some Hindu-Muslim violence, his opposition had grown so strong that Ershad was forced to resign the presidency. On December 6, 1990, Ershad offered his resignation, turning the government over to Supreme Court Chief Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed, the unanimous choice of the opposition parties. On February 27, 1991, after two months of widespread civil unrest, the interim government headed by Shahabuddin Ahmed oversaw what most observers believed to be the nation's most free and fair elections to that date.

According to “Governments of the World”: “Despite becoming civilians, the Ershad regime continued to face popular movements against its rule; this resistance gained additional momentum in 1987. To seek a new mandate, Ershad called another parliamentary election in 1988. This time both the BNP and AL boycotted the election. The new JP-led parliament passed the eighth constitutional amendment on June 7, 1988; it declared Islam as the state religion. [Source: Governments of the World: A Global Guide to Citizens' Rights and Responsibilities , Thomson Gale, 2006]

“This growing tilt toward Islam could not stem the tide of a popular movement against Ershad. Civil society, particularly professional associations, cultural societies, and women's organizations, actively participated in the movement. The student wings of the BNP and AL united, thus bringing together the nation's two largest parties in cooperation against the government. Senior leaders of the military withdrew their support of Ershad, and he resigned on December 4, 1990, handing over administration to Chief Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed, who was chosen by the political opposition to act as president of a caretaker government that would oversee a free and fair election. For the first time in Bangladesh, a regime was forced from power not through a bullet but through a citizens' movement.

After his ouster, Ershad was arrested in 1991 on more than two dozen charges. He was acquitted of many of them but convicted of corruption and imprisoned for six years. He was also accused of backing a 1991 military coup in which one of his close military associates was killed. That case is still pending. He was elected to Parliament in 2008, 2014 and 2018. He died in 2019 at the age of 89. [Source: Associated Press, July 15, 2019]

After he left office he was sentenced to 13 years in jail. He was jailed from 1990 to 1996 and 2000 to 2001; he was convicted on additional charges in 2006 but sentenced to time already served. He was greeted by supporters after being released from prison in 1997. At his death, he was the opposition leader.

Bangladesh’s Two Women Prime Ministers: Sheik Hasina and Khaleda Zia

Bangladeshi politics since democracy was restored in 1991 has been dominated by two women: Begum Khaleda Zia, widow of former President Zia, and Sheik Hasina Wazed, the daughter of former president Sheikh Mujib. The two women are around same age (born in 1945 and 1947). Both came from power political families and both were close relatives of previous Bangladeshi leaders who were assassinated.

In late 1980s and early 1990s, Zia and Wazed worked together to organize street demonstration which brought an end to military rule and install democracy in 1990. The two fell out with each other after Zia surprised everyone by defeating the favored Wazed in national elections in 1991.

According to the World Press Encyclopedia: “In February 1991, following elections, Begum Khaleda Zia became the Prime Minister. In September, the constitution was revised. The country returned to a parliamentary system of government. In early 1996, the press played a key role in persuading the BNP government, whose term of office had just ended, to hand over authority to a caretaker government in April and thereby set the stage for national elections in June. The media succeeded; the general election of June 1996 held by the caretaker government put a coalition government under the AL's Sheikh Hasina. The "Caretaker Government Amendment" made it obligatory that, in future, all general elections in Bangladesh would be held by a neutral, non-partisan caretaker administration headed by the President. Accordingly, on July 13, 2001, Hasina stepped down as Prime Minister handing over the charge to a caretaker administration. The general elections of October 2001 held by the caretaker administration brought in a new government, this time under the BNP's Khaleda Zia as Prime Minister. [Source: World Press Encyclopedia, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]

Women Leaders in Bangladesh and South Asia

It is ironic that women have ruled the countries of Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh, where the status of women is among the lowest in the world. The women that have taken power in these countries have been the widows or daughters of prominent politicians.

Some scholars also attribute the success of women in South Asian politics to a belief in the subcontinent in “skakti” (feminine power). Many soldiers, for example, in India, Nepal and parts of Sri Lanka, still consecrate their swords and rifles with blood-colored powders before images of the demon-slaying goddess Durga. Stanley Wolpert, a professor of Indian history, told TIME, women leaders may be an "accident of gender" but "over and above everything else, there's a strong worship of the Mother Goddess in South Asia. Subliminally, it's still there in Pakistan, to."

Delhi psychiatrist Ashis Nandy told TIME, "There is a strong sense of the matriarchy at play in politics. Some politicians also see women as a bet for containing factions — a good neutral choice." One diplomat told the Washington Post: "In the next round of assassinations, when the mothers are killed, probably the sons" will inherit the political legacies.

In Bangladesh Women participated extensively in anti-British agitations during the 1930s and 1940s and were an active force during the independence struggle. Since 1972 the Constitution and the legal system have guaranteed equal rights for women to participate in all aspects of public life. The prominence of the well-known opposition party leaders Hasina and Khaleda Zia at first sight indicated a national openness to women's political power. Both, however, were exceptional in Bangladeshi politics. They originally owed their positions to family connections and only later skillfully built their own followings and platforms. Women candidates for political office were a rarity in the 1970s and 1980s, and female participation was labeled anti-Islamic by conservative men throughout the country. Secular provisions in Bangladeshi laws safeguarded the equality of women while "protecting" them and assuming their dependence. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Women running for office in the 1970s and 80s had little success. In the 1979 parliamentary elections, for example, only 17 women were among 2,125 candidates for 300 seats; none of the women won, and only 3 polled over 15 percent of the vote. At the union council level, the 1973 elections returned only one woman chairman, and the 1977 and 1984 elections each returned only four female chairmen. The leaders running the country, recognizing that women suffer disabilities when competing for office against men, reserved thirty seats for women in Parliament. The profiles of the women occupying these seats exemplied the subordinate positions of women in Bangladesh, even those occupying public offices. In the 1979 Parliament, fifteen women members were formerly housewives, and twenty-seven had no prior legislative experience. A study of women nominated to union councils revealed that 60 percent were less than 30 years of age, only 8 percent were over 40 years of age, and only 4 percent had college degrees.

Prior to the 1988 parliamentary elections, the provision for reserved seats for women had been allowed to lapse. The result was that women were left practically without representation at the national level, although there were other forums for political involvement at the local level. In mid-1988 three women sat on union and subdistrict councils. Municipal councils also included women, but the law precluded women from exceeding 10 percent of council membership. Some women's groups, such as the Jatiyo Mohila Sangstha (National Organization for Women), have held major conferences to discuss women's problems and mobilization strategies. Although these women's organizations were the province of middle-class women, they served as training grounds, as did local councils, for a new generation of politically active women.

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."

Elections in the Early 1990s

In 1991, the caretaker government of Shahabuddin Ahmed organized a nationwide election, which was perceived as free and fair. According to “Countries of the World and Their Leaders”: “The center-right BNP won a plurality of seats and formed a government with support from the Islamic fundamentalist party Jamaat-I-Islami, with Khaleda Zia, widow of Ziaur Rahman, obtaining the post of prime minister. Only four parties had more than 10 members elected to the 1991 Parliament: The BNP, led by Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia; the AL, led by Sheikh Hasina; the Jamaat-I-Islami (JI), led by Ghulam Azam; and the Jatiya Party (JP), led by acting chairman Mizanur Rahman Choudhury while its founder, former President Ershad, served out a prison sentence on corruption charges. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook” 2009 ]

“The electorate approved still more changes to the constitution, formally re-creating a parliamentary system and returning governing power to the office of the prime minister, as in Bangladesh’ original 1972 constitution. In October 1991, members of Parliament elected a new head of state, President Abdur Rahman Biswas.

According to “Governments of the World”: After the election, in a rare show of bipartisan spirit, both the BNP and AL worked together to pass the twelfth amendment to the constitution on August 6, 1991, which reintroduced a parliamentary form of government. The president became the ceremonial head of state, to be elected by parliament, and the prime minister became the true executive responsible to parliament. [Source: Governments of the World: A Global Guide to Citizens' Rights and Responsibilities , Thomson Gale, 2006]

“In March 1994, controversy over a parliamentary by-election, which the opposition claimed the government had rigged, led to an indefinite boycott of Parliament by the entire opposition. The opposition also began a program of repeated general strikes to press its demand that Khaleda Zia’ government resign and a caretaker government supervise a general election. Efforts to mediate the dispute, under the auspices of the Commonwealth Secretariat, failed. After another attempt at a negotiated settlement failed narrowly in late December 1994, the opposition resigned en masse from Parliament. The opposition then continued a campaign of marches, demonstrations, and strikes in an effort to force the government to resign. The opposition, including the Awami League's Sheikh Hasina, pledged to boycott national elections scheduled for February 15, 1996.

“In February, Khaleda Zia was reelected by a landslide in voting boycotted and denounced as unfair by the three main opposition parties. In March 1996, following escalating political turmoil, the sitting Parliament enacted a constitutional amendment to allow a neutral caretaker government to assume power and conduct new parliamentary elections; former Chief Justice Mohammed Habibur Rahman was named Chief Adviser (a position equivalent to prime minister) in the interim government. New parliamentary elections were held in June 1996 and the Awami League won plurality and formed the government with support from the Jatiya Party led by deposed president Ershad; party leader Sheikh Hasina became Prime Minister.

According to “Governments of the World”: “Civil society and the international donor community stepped in as referees to break the political deadlock between the two major political parties, but they failed. Khaleda dissolved the parliament in December 1995 and held an election in February 1996, boycotted by the opposition. The government's well-documented attempt to manipulate the February election results gave legitimacy to the AL's claim that the BNP could not be trusted to oversee a fair election. Finally, civil society and even members of the government bureaucracy came forward in support of an election under a neutral caretaker government. Khaleda had no other alternative but to give in to these demands. The parliament was dissolved again; Khaleda resigned, handing over power to a caretaker government headed by Muhammad Habibur Rahman (b. 1930), a former chief justice. This interim government was able to hold a parliamentary election that was later hailed as free and fair by national and international observers. In the June 1996 election, the AL was the clear winner.

Khaleda Zia First Term as Prime Minster (1991-1996)

After the after the restoration of democracy and a landslide BNP victory in the February, 1991 election, Begum Khaleda Zia became the prime minister of Bangladesh. Zia surprised everyone when she won. Like her husband she refused to move to the official prime minister residence and moved into a house in the main military barracks in Dhaka.

Zia got off to a good start by initiating economic reforms that suppressed growth and reduced the foreign dept by changing the tax system. She is credited with cracking down on corruption, making the government more accountable and initiating the Daal-Bhaat (lentil and rice) poverty program.

But her feud with Hasina in the later years of her term hampered her ability to accomplish much of anything. Strikes led by Hasina endured for two years with the main demand being that Zia resign. Finally in April, 1996, she gave in and called elections. Thousands of people took the streets, chanting "Democracy is reborn." Zia failed to finish her term by just a few months because of a strike.

According to the Columbia Encyclopedia: “An extremely strong cyclone in April, 1991, killed more than 138,000 and devastated coastal areas, especially in the southeast. In 1994, nearly all opposition members of parliament denounced Zia's government as corrupt and resigned their seats. After a series of general strikes called by the opposition, parliament was dissolved in November, 1995; major opposition parties also boycotted the ensuing February, 1996, elections. Zia was returned to power, but the opposition mounted protests; she resigned and an interim government headed by Habibur Rahman was installed. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”: “The new government brought radical changes to the economic policy, promoting private entrepreneurship, especially among representatives of poor communities, and supporting small- and medium-size businesses and privatization. This program was successful, and Bangladesh experienced economic growth throughout the 1990s. According to the World Bank, between 1989 and 1999 the average annual GDP growth was around 4.8 percent, with industrial production growing at an annual average of 7.3 percent and exports of goods and services at an annual average of 14.2 percent, albeit from a very low base. For the first time in decades the Bangladeshi government had brought a sense of stability to the country. ource: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

Sheikh Hasina First Term as Prime Minster (1996-2001)

In national elections in June, 1996, Sheikh Hasina's Awami League won 133 of 300 seats, 18 seats short of a majority. Zia’s BNP won 104 seats. Sheikh Hasina was forced to form a coalition government with the Jatiya Party (JP), the party jailed former president Hussain Muhammad Ershad.

Sheikh Hasina wooed foreign investors. More than $10 billion poured in 1997. Growth in 1996-97 was 5.7 percent. She forged a peace agreement with tribals in 1997 and a water agreement with India in 1996. Sheikh Hasina has been criticized by Islamic groups for being pro-India. After she took office Khaleda Zia was accused of corruption

In 2000, Sheikh Hasina attempted to crack down on criminals and Communist insurgents by ramming a draconian Public Safety Bill through Parliament while the opposition was out of the building. The bill raised the punishment for many crimes, including public disorder. It also allowed authorities to imprison "enemies of the state" for 90 days — without bail. Critics saw the bill as a means of cracking down on political opponents. After some bombings terrorism became an issue. She was unable to do much to stop it. Some say this was the main reason she was voted of office in October 2001.

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: “Prime Minister Sheik Hasina had no easier time ruling Bangladesh than her predecessor. Her government faced continuing protests, strikes, and often violent demonstrations organized by the BNP and other opposition parties. Targets for such actions included the government's historic agreement with India in December 1996 over sharing the waters of the River Ganges, higher taxes imposed by the government in July 1997, and problems of law and order in the country. During September 1997, Islamic militants took to the streets demanding the arrest and execution of controversial Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen. November 1998 saw a general strike organized by the BNP over alleged government repression and clashes between police and protesters over alleged electoral fraud. Tensions were heightened by the conviction and death sentences passed on several people involved in the assassination of Sheikh Hasina's father, Sheikh Mujib. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

“In August 1998, Bangladesh also saw some of the worst flooding in the country's history. Over 1,000 people died and flood waters covered some 60 percent of the country. Loss of crops raised the specter of widespread famine, and the total damage to the country's economy and infrastructure was estimated at over us$2 billion. Among the AL government's achievements, however, were the Ganges water-sharing treaty, the December 1997 accord that ended the tribal insurgency in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in southeastern Bangladesh, and a restructuring of local government to increase grassroots involvement in politics. On the international stage, Bangladesh was elected to serve a two-year term on the Security Council of the United Nations, effective 1 January 2000.

Elections and Politics During Sheikh Hasina First Term as Minster (1996-2001)

According to “Countries of the World”: “Sheikh Hasina formed what she called a “Government of National Consensus” in June 1996, which included one minister from the Jatiya Party and another from the Jatiyo Samajtantric Dal, a very small leftist party. The Jatiya Party never entered into a formal coalition arrangement, and party president H.M. Ershad withdrew his support from the government in September 1997. Only three parties had more than 10 members elected to the 1996 Parliament: The Awami League, BNP, and Jatiya Party. Jatiya Party president, Ershad, was released from prison on bail in January 1997. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook” 2009]

“Although international and domestic election observers found the June 1996 election free and fair, the BNP protested alleged vote rigging by the Awami League. Ultimately, however, the BNP party decided to join the new Parliament. The BNP soon charged that police and Awami League activists were engaged in large-scale harassment and jailing of opposition activists. At the end of 1996, the BNP staged a parliamentary walkout over this and other grievances but returned in January 1997 under a four-point agreement with the ruling party. The BNP asserted that this agreement was never implemented and later staged another walkout in August 1997. The BNP returned to Parliament under another agreement in March 1998.

“In June 1999, the BNP and other opposition parties again began to abstain from attending Parliament. Opposition parties staged an increasing number of nationwide general strikes, rising from 6 days of general strikes in 1997 to 27 days in 1999. A four-party opposition alliance formed at the beginning of 1999 announced that it would boycott parliamentary by-elections and local government elections unless the government took steps demanded by the opposition to ensure electoral fairness. The government did not take these steps, and the opposition subsequently boycotted all elections, including municipal council elections in February 1999, several parliamentary by-elections, and the Chittagong city corporation elections in January 2000.

In July, Prime Minister Hasina stepped down, handing power over to a caretaker authority that supervised the upcoming elections; she became the first prime minister in the country's history to complete a full five-year term....In August, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina agreed during a visit of former President Jimmy Carter to respect the results of the election, join Parliament win or lose, foreswear the use of hartals (violently enforced strikes) as political tools, and if successful in forming a government allow for a more meaningful role for the opposition in Parliament. The caretaker government was successful in containing the violence, which allowed a parliamentary general election to be successfully held on October 1, 2001.”

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”: This time the Awami Party significantly moderated its position, supporting a gradual liberalization of the national economy, encouraging private entrepreneurship, and advocating the secular state; it had largely abandoned socialist ideas. One of the most important achievements of the 1990s was the diminishing role of the army in the political life of the state, although the army threatened to take matters into its own hands during the period of political conflict in 1996. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

Sheikh Hasina Charged with Corruption, Murder and Extortion

After Sheik Hasina left office in 2001 she was charged on two corruption charges and accused of plundering $126 million in state funds. Charges were also filed against six members of her cabinet. She allegedly pocketed $123 million from a deal to eight MiG-29 aircraft from Russia. She was also charged of pocketing $3 million in an export promotion scheme.

In the mid-2000s, Sheik Hasina was charged with murder and extortion. The BBC reported: “Police in Bangladesh have filed murder charges against former Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina. They say she masterminded the killings of four supporters of a rival political party during street violence in Dhaka in October 2006.. Sheikh Hasina left Bangladesh after the interim government declared a state of emergency in January. She told the BBC that she would now return home early. She says the interim government is trying to intimidate her. Correspondents say that it is unlikely that the charges against Sheikh Hasina would have gone ahead without the consent of the military-backed caretaker government. [Source: BBC, April 11, 2007]

“News of charges against Sheikh Hasina came on the same day that the government severely curtailed the freedom of movement of another former Prime Minister, Khaleda Zia, whose son has been arrested on corruption charges. Correspondents says that Ms Zia is effectively under house arrest In an interview with the BBC Bengali service from the US, Sheikh Hasina said that the government was living in a "fool's paradise" if it thought the charges would prevent her from taking part in Bangladeshi politics. "I am looking to come back home early and am already looking for a ticket," she said. "The government thinks it can intimidate me, but it has forgotten that members of my party successfully fought against another military government during the Bangladeshi war of independence from Pakistan in 1971."

“Tarique Rahman, the son of Khaleda Zia is in custody. The government has arrested numerous politicians The caretaker government has postponed elections that were due in January and says no polls can be held until it has dealt with the endemic corruption in the country. Police say that a murder case against Sheikh Hasina will be heard on 22 April. "Detective branch police submitted the charge-sheet of the case to a Dhaka court today after carrying out investigations and taking evidence," Deputy Commissioner Shahidul Haq Bhuiyan told the AFP news agency.

Forty-six other Awami League members have also been accused of murder alongside Sheikh Hasina. The incident happened when the party was in opposition and its supporters were demonstrating about the make-up of the caretaker government. Ten leaders of the Islamist group, Jamaat-i-Islami - including its leader, Matiur Rahman Nizami - have also been charged separately with being involved in the violence. There is widespread media speculation in newspapers that the government is seeking to force both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia into political exile, but this has been denied by the administration.

Election Violence and Bombings in 2001

In the campaign period before the October 2001 parliamentary election more than 300 people were killed and 2,500 were injured in political violence. Six were killed on election day itself. Political violence that had increased during the Awami League government's tenure continued to increase through the summer in the run up to the election. Khaleda Zia won a landslide victory, campaigning against lawlessness and corruption. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

The Awami League boycotted parliament, protesting alleged rigging of elections and the persecution of religious minorities. The boycott ended in June 2002. Also in June 2002, then-president Badruddoza Chowdhury resigned, after being criticized for not visiting the grave of the BNP’s founder, Zia-ur Rahman.

A series of bombings beset Bangladesh April, June, and September, 2001. More than 80 died in 10 bomb blasts in Bangladesh in 1999 and 2000. Twenty-two were killed and at least a hundred were injured when a bomb exploded during a rally in an auditorium at the main office of the Awami League in Narayanganj, 16 kilometers from Dhaka. Ten were killed when a bomb exploded at an outdoor concert. Another 10 were killed at a bombing of a Roman Catholic church.

In December 2002, bombs exploded in four theaters Mymenshingh, 150 kilometers north of Dhaka in northern Bangladesh, killing 17 and wounding about 300 during the celebration that follows Ramadan. It is believed that the bomb had been set on he floor because os many of the victim lost lower limbs. Who set the bombs was often a mystery. Some suspected Al-Qaida-connected Islamic militants. Other said it could be political rivals. Many bomb attacks in Bangladesh are attributed to criminal gangs and political thugs.

Khaleda Zai Second Term as Prime Minister (2001-2006)

Khaleda Zia won the the October 2001 parliamentary elections in which 75 percent of the registered voters went to the polls. Her four- party coalition, including her BNP party and two some Islamist parties, won by a landslide, with over a two-thirds majority, humiliating Hasina and the Awami League. The BNP coalition took 214 seats while the Awami League took only 62 seats. Zia also had the support of the military. Zia was sworn in on October 10, 2001, as Prime Minister for the third time (first in 1991, second after the February 15, 1996 elections).

Hasina contested the results even though international observers declared the election “generally free and fair.” Fifteen people were killed and 400 were injures, most of them in the Awami League, in post-election violence. Afterwards Sheik Hasina refused to join parliament and there was a movement to get Hasina thrown out of the leadership position in the party.

Khaleda Zia promised to clamp down on corruption. Early she accused her rival Hasina of corruption and was criticized for appointing two Islamists from the Jamaat-e-Islami party to cabinet positions. In June 2002, President Badruddoza Chowdhury resigned, after being criticized for not visiting the grave of the BNP's founder, Ziaur Rahman. That October, Prime Minister Zia called out the army to contain terrorist attacks throughout the country in the absence of adequate logistic support from the police. The army was also directed to curb crime and corruption.

In the early 2000s, the government became more repressive. There were crackdowns on the press and people were detained without being charged. People resented the repression. The Awami League formed an alliance with left wing parties and pushed hard for her to call early elections as a test of popularity. Political violence continued, however, especially as calls grew for Islamic law to be expanded within public life. As many as 44 people died in custody in the drive lasting from October 2002 to January 2003. Zia granted immunity to the armed forces for their actions during that period, a decision that was highly criticized by the opposition Awami League. In May 2004 the BNP-led government passed the fourteenth amendment to the constitution. It increased the retirement age of Supreme Court judges and reintroduced indirect election for forty-five reserved seats for women in parliament. The amendment generated a great deal of controversy, as the indirect election was rejected by all women's organizations, and the special women's quota was perceived to serve the short-term election interests of the ruling coalition . [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Political Activity During Khaleda Zai Second Term as Prime Minister (2001-2006)

Despite her August 2001 pledge and all election monitoring groups declaring the election free and fair, Sheikh Hasina condemned the election, rejected the results, and boycotted Parliament. In 2002, however, she led her party legislators back to Parliament, but the Awami League again walked out in June 2003 to protest derogatory remarks about Hasina by a State Minister and the allegedly partisan role of the Parliamentary Speaker.

In 2003 the Awami League began a series of rallies and occasional strikes to mobilize opposition to the government. Deadly attacks on rallies in August, 2004, and January, 2005, provoked a series of nationwide and local strikes and protests by the League, which accused the government of trying to assassinate Sheikh Hasina. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

Between February and 2004, the Awami League organized eight strikes to try and get the government ro resign and force new elections. 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 Hasina to protest attacks a the party rally and demand the government resign and call early elections,

In June 2004, the AL returned to Parliament without having any of their demands met for an apology to Sheikh Hasina and guarantees of a neutral Speaker. They then attended Parliament irregularly before announcing a boycott of the entire June 2005 budget session. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook” 2009]

“In February 2006, the AL returned to Parliament, raised demands for early elections, and requested significant changes in the electoral and caretaker government systems to stop alleged moves by the ruling coalition to rig the next election. The AL blamed the ruling party for several high-profile attacks on opposition leaders, and asserted that the ruling party is bent on eliminating Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League as a viable force. The BNP and its allies accused the AL of maligning Bangladesh at home and abroad out of jealousy over the government's performance on development and economic issues.

Awami League efforts to undermine the government in 2006 included a "blockade" of Dhaka in June that resulted in clashes with the police, and led to a 36-hour general strike. Meanwhile, in May and June, there were protests and rioting by garment workers over working conditions; a number of factories were burned, and hundreds were vandalized. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

Political Violence and Bombing in the Mid-2000s

According to “Governments of the World”: “The electoral victory of the BNP-led alliance was followed almost immediately by postelection violence and oppression of AL supporters and Hindus in different parts of Bangladesh. The politics of vendetta and violence spread across the country. Confrontations between the ruling alliance and the AL continued, with both sides accusing each other of undemocratic behavior and the use of excessive force. The depth of the rift became evident in early 2004 when the AL announced its intention to launch a movement to topple the government. That movement failed, however, and the AL decided to return to parliament in June, waiting for an opportune moment to launch a movement to remove the government. [Source: Governments of the World: A Global Guide to Citizens' Rights and Responsibilities , Thomson Gale, 2006]

In 2002, bomb explosions in four movie theaters killed 17 people and injured 300 among families celebrating the end of Ramadan. The government arrested 39 members of the Awami League in connection with the explosions.

In August 2004, a grenade attack on the opposition Awami League headquarters killed 19 people and injured more than 150. At least seven grenades were thrown into a crowd gathered for a speech by party leader Sheik Hasina. Hasina narrowly escaped injury. She had just finished giving a speech when the grenades exploded. One senior member of the party lost both legs and died in the attack. A group called Hikmatul Zihad claimed responsibility and threatened further attacks against Hasina. The blast was believed to be an assassination attempt against Hasina.

The Awami League blamed the ruling Bangladesh National Party (BNP) party and responded by organizing a general strike, blocked several railroad lines and attacked railroad stations. At least five people were injured in clashes between police and protester when police tried to stop the protesters from taking to the streets. More than 200 members of the Awami League threw stones at police in one protest. In another a passenger train was set on fire, injuring 19 people. The general strike lasted for two days. Strike-related violence nationwide left more than 300 people injured. Another strike was called a week later,

In January 2005, a grenade attack at an Asami League rally killed five, including a former finance minister, who had just finished giving a speech, and wounded about 100 others. Afterwards there was a nationwide strike. This was followed by a series of general strikes, including six in one two week period.

200 Bombs Explode Simultaneously in Bangladesh

On August 17, 2005, about 200 small bombs exploded at government offices, train stations, and public markets in 60 cities and towns throughout the country. Two people were killed and at least 125 others were wounded in the blasts. The attacks appeared to be the work of militants who favor the establishment of Islamic rule in Bangladesh; two militant groups had been banned in February, 2005.. Leaflets from the Islamic group, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, were found at many of the bomb sites, calling for Islamic rule in Bangladesh. In the months following the attacks the government moved to arrest members of the groups, and Islamic extremist mounted additional attacks, including ones involving suicide bombers [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

The New York Times reported: “More than 100 small bombs exploded almost simultaneously in the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka, the main port city Chittagong and other towns, wounding at least 40 people and triggering widespread panic. A total of 111 explosions occurred near bus and train stations, courts and administrative buildings, police officials said, adding that they appear to have been caused by small, homemade devices. One bomb also exploded outside Dhaka's Sheraton Hotel, security officers said. The state minister for home affairs, M. Lutfuzzaman Babr, said on television that the blasts appeared to be "pre-planned and well organized" but did not blame any individual or group. "We are looking into the matter while taking security precautions," he said. A police officer in Chittagong said he believed that the bombs were locally made and remotely controlled. Authorities said they had tightened security across the country. [Source: New York Times, August 18, 2005]

“No one claimed responsibility for the blasts, but copies of a leaflet found at bomb sites carried a call by a banned Islamic group, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, for Islamic rule in Bangladesh. "It is the third call to establish Islamic rule in the country. If ignored and our people are arrested or persecuted, Jaamat-ul-Mujahideen will take the counter action," the leaflet said. The leaflet also warned the United States and Britain against occupying Muslim lands. "It is also to warn Bush and Blair to vacate Muslim countries, or to face Muslim upsurge," said the leaflet, referring to President George W. Bush and the British prime minister, Tony Blair.

The near-synchronized blasts of improvised explosive devices occurred in 63 out of 64 administrative districts. Jamiatul Mujahideen, Bangladesh (JMB) claimed responsibility for the blasts aimed to press home their demand for replacement of the secular legal system with Islamic sharia courts. Subsequent attacks on the courts in several districts killed 28 people, including judges, lawyers, and police personnel guarding the courts. A government campaign against the Islamic extremists led to the arrest of hundreds of senior and mid-level JMB leaders. Six top JMB leaders were tried and sentenced to death for their role in the murder of two judges; another leader was tried and sentenced to death in absentia in the same case. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook” 2009]

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 (, 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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