BANGLADESH IS one of the few democracies among the Muslim countries despite chronic problems with dysfunctional political system, weak governance and fettered by pervasive corruptions. This nation regards democracy as an important denouement, legacy of its bloods for independence and people participate in all election process in large numbers. But the concept, understanding and practice of democracy in Bangladesh are most often shallow. Bangladesh is a force for moderation in international forums and a long-time leader in international peacekeeping operations. Its participations and activities with other Governments, global organizations and regional partners to promote human rights, democracy and free markets are also well coordinated and of high profile. Bangladesh became a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council in May 2005.
Tajuddin Ahmed, April 1971- January 1972
The "Independent, sovereign republic of Bangladesh" was first proclaimed in a radio message broadcast from a captured station in Kalurghat, Chittagong on March 26, 1971. Two days later, the "Voice of Independent Bangladesh" announced that Major Zia would form a new government with himself occupying the Presidency. Zia's self appointment was considered brash and quickly realizing that his action was unpopular, he yielded the office to then incarcerated Sk. Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of the nation. On 17 April 1971, a provisional government was established by a number of leading Awami League members. This "Mujibnagar" government then formally proclaimed the independence of Bangladesh and named Sk. Mujib as its president. The oath taking ceremony of the first Government of Bangladesh took place on the soil of Bangladesh in Meherpur, Kushtia, also on 17April 1971. As the first Prime Minister, Tajuddin led efforts to organize a guerrilla war of civilians, armed forces and to win international support. On 6 December 1971, India became the first nation to recognize the new Bangladesh Government. 10 days later, the West Pakistani surrendered but it was not until December 22 those members of the new government arrived in Dhaka. Representatives of the Bangladeshi Government and the "Mukti Bahini" were absent from the "ceremony of surrender" of the Pakistani Army to the Indian Army on 16 December 1971. Bangladeshis considered this ceremony insulting to them and imputed acerbic relations between Bangladesh and India.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: 1972-75
On 10 January1972, Sk. Mujib arrived in Dhaka to a tumultuous welcome. He first assumed the title of President but vacated it in two days to become the Prime minister. Intrepid Sk. Mujib came to the office with an immense personal popularity but had difficulty in transforming his popular support into the political strength needed to function as the head of government. The new Constitution that came into effect in December 1972 created a strong executive prime minister, a largely ceremonial presidency, an independent judiciary and a unicameral legislature on a modified Westminster model. The 1972 constitution adopted the Awami League's four basic principles of nationalism, secularism, socialism, and democracy as the state policy.
Awami League won massive majority victory in the first Parliamentary elections held in March 1973 under the 1972 Constitution. In December 1974, impecunious Sk. Mujib government realized that continuing economic deterioration and mounting civil disorder required strong measures. After proclaiming a "State of Emergency", he used his parliamentary majority to win a "Constitutional Amendment" limiting the powers of the legislative and judicial branches, establishing an executive presidency, instituted a one-party system (BAKSAL) that required all civilian government personnel to join the party. The fundamental rights enumerated in the Constitution ceased to be observed and Bangladesh, in its infancy was transformed into a personal dictatorship. Mujib had an unfailing attachment to those who participated in the struggle for independence. He showed favoritism toward those comrades by giving them appointments to the civil government and also in the military. Despite substantial foreign aid, mostly from India and the Soviet Union, food supplies were scarce and there was rampant corruptions and black marketeering. Sk. Mujib then launched a mass drive against hoarders and smugglers backed by the "Rakkhi Bahini. These actions temporarily ameliorated the legitimate economy of the country but corruptions in high Government offices continued and became the hallmarks of Sk. Mujib administration. His economic policies also directly contributed to the country's economic chaos. Mujib's large-scale nationalization of Bangladeshi manufacturing, trading enterprises and international trading in commodities strangled Bangladesh entrepreneurship into its infancy.
On the early morning of August 15, 1975, Sk. Mujib and several members of his family were brutally murdered in a coup orchestrated by a group of young and disgruntle army officers. Some of the officers in the plot had a personal vendetta against Sk. Mujib. His popularity had fallen precipitously by the time of his assassination and his death was lamented surprisingly by few. His daughters, Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana were out of the country. A new government headed by Mujib's close associate Khandakar Moshtaque Ahmed was formed.
Ziaur Rahman, 1975-81
Successive military coups resulted in the emergence of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ziaur Rahman as strongman. He pledged the army's support to the civilian government headed by President Chief Justice Sayem. Acting at Zia's behest, President Sayem instituted martial law, dissolved the Parliament and promised fresh elections in 1977. Working behind the scenes of the Martial Law Administration, tenacious Zia sought to invigorate government policy and administration. While continuing the ban on political parties, he sought to expiate the situation by revitalizing the demoralized bureaucracy, began new economic development programs and emphasized family planning. In November 1976, Zia became Chief Martial Law Administrator and assumed the presidency upon Sayem's retirement 5 months later, promising national elections in 1978.
Keeping his promise to hold elections, Zia won a 5-year term in June 1978 election with 76% of the vote. In November 1978, his government removed the remaining restrictions on political party activities in time for parliamentary elections in February 1979. The AL and BNP, founded by Zia emerged as the two major parties.
In May 1981, Zia was assassinated in Chittagong circuit house by dissident elements of the military. The attempted coup did not spread beyond Chittagong and the major conspirators were either taken into custody or killed. In accordance with the Constitution, Vice President Justice Abdus Sattar was sworn in as acting president. He declared a new national emergency and called for an election of a new president within 6 months. Sattar won the election as the BNP candidate, was a complaisance of his predecessor and retained essentially the same cabinet but the army stepped in once again.
Hussain Mohammed Ershad, 1982-90
Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. H.M. Ershad assumed power in a bloodless coup in March 1982. Like his predecessors, Ershad suspended the Constitution and declared martial law, citing endemic corruptions, ineffective government and economic mismanagement. The following year, Ershad assumed the presidency, retained his positions as army chief and CMLA. Ershad sought public support for his regime in a national referendum on his leadership in March 1985. He won overwhelmingly but the turnout was small. 2 months later, Ershad held elections for local council chairmen; pro-government candidates won a majority of the posts. Political life was further liberalized in early 1986; at the same time the Jatiya Party (JP), his political vehicle for the transition from martial law was established.
Despite a boycott by the BNP, Parliamentary elections were held on schedule in May 1986. The Jatiya Party won a modest majority of the 300 elected seats in the National Assembly. Participation of the Awami League lent this election some credibility, despite widespread charges of voting irregularities.
Ershad resigned as Army Chief of Staff and retired from military service in preparation for the presidential elections, scheduled for October 1986. Both the BNP and the AL refused to put up opposing candidates. Ershad easily outdistanced the remaining candidates with 84% of the vote. Despite government's claim of turnout of more than 50%, opposition leaders and much of the foreign press estimated a far lower percentage and alleged voting irregularities. In November 1986, his government amended the constitution and confirmed the previous actions of the martial law regime. The President then lifted martial law and the opposition parties took their elected seats in the National Assembly.
In July 1987, the government pushed through a controversial legislative bill to include military representation on local administrative councils, the opposition walked out of Parliament. Passage of the bill sparked an opposition movement that quickly gathered momentum, uniting opposition parties for the first time. The government began to arrest many opposition activists under the country's Special Powers Act of 1974. Despite these arrests, opposition parties continued to organize protest and nationwide Hartals. After declaring a State of Emergency, Ershad dissolved the Parliament and scheduled fresh election for March 1988.
All major opposition parties refused government overtures to participate in these polls, maintaining that the government was incapable of holding free and fair elections. Despite the opposition boycott, the government proceeded. The ruling Jatiya Party won 251 of the 300 seats. The Parliament, while still regarded by the opposition as illegitimate, passed a large number of bills. The opposition to Ershad's rule then began to regain momentum, escalating by the end of 1990 in frequent hartals, increased University campus protests, public rallies and a general disintegration of law and order.
Ershad resigned on 6 December 1990 and on 27 February1991, the "interim government" headed by Acting President Chief Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed oversaw what most observers believed to be the nation's most free and fair elections to that date.
Khaleda Zia, 1991-96
The BNP won a plurality of seats and formed a government with the support from Jamaat-I-Islami; Khaleda Zia became the Prime minister. The electorate approved 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's original 1972 constitution. In October 1991, members of Parliament elected a new head of state, President Abdur Rahman Biswas.
In February 1996, Khaleda Zia was re-elected by a landslide in an impetuous national election that boycotted and denounced as unfair by the 3 other 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 in the interim government. New parliamentary elections were held in June 1996, 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.
Sheikh Hasina, 1996-2001
Sheikh Hasina formed what she called a "Government of National Consensus" in June 1996 that included one minister from the JP and another from the JSD. JP President Ershad was released from prison on bail in January 1997 and JP never entered into a formal coalition arrangement with AL. Ershad withdrew his support from the government in September 1997. Although international and domestic election observers found this June 1996 election free and fair, the BNP protested alleging vote rigging by the Awami League. However, BNP decided to join the Parliament but immediately 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.
In July 2001, the Awami League government stepped down to allow a Caretaker Government to preside over Parliamentary elections. Political violences that had increased during the Awami League government's tenure continued to increase through up to the election. In August 2001, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina agreed during a visit of former President Jimmy Carter to respect the results of the election, join the Parliament regardless of winning or losing, foreswear the use Hartals as political tools and successful government would allow more meaningful role for the opposition in Parliament. The caretaker government was successful in containing the violence that allowed a Parliamentary general election held on 1 October 2001.
Khaleda Zia, 2001-2006
The four-party alliance led by the BNP won over a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Begum Khaleda Zia was sworn in as Prime Minister on October 10, 2001. Despite Sk. Hasina's August 2001 pledge and all election monitoring groups declaring the election free and fair, Hasina became heretical, condemned the election, rejected the results and boycotted Parliament. However, in 2002 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 allegedly partisan role of the Parliamentary Speaker. In June 2004, the AL returned to Parliament again without having any of their demands met for an apology to Sheikh Hasina and guarantees of a neutral Speaker.
In February 2006, the AL 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 blames the ruling party for several high-profile attacks on opposition leaders and asserts that the ruling party is bent on eliminating Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League as a viable force. The BNP and its allies accuse the AL of maligning Bangladesh at home and abroad out of jealousy over the government's performance on development and economic issues. Dialogue between the Secretaries General of these main ruling and opposition parties, Jalil and Bhuiyan was adumbrated initially but failed in sorting out the electoral reform issues. Awami League then called "lagathar Hartal" and "Aborodh" those attributed to miserable sufferings to ordinary citizens and lawlessness with hostility and violences throughout the country.
Caretaker Government, October 2006-Present
The 13th Amendment to the Constitution required the president to offer the position of the Chief Adviser to the immediate past Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice K.M. Hasan. The AL opposed Justice Hasan, alleging that he belonged to ruling BNP in his past life and that the BNP government in 2004 amended the constitution to extend retirement age for the Supreme Court judges to make sure that Justice Hasan became the Chief Adviser during the next elections to help BNP win the election. Justice Hasan declined the position and after two days of extremely violent protests, President Iajuddin Ahmed assumed the role of Chief Adviser to the Caretaker Government besides his President position.
On 3 January 2007, the Awami League announced that they would boycott the January 22 parliamentary elections. The Awami League planned and declared their renewed country-wide Aborodh and Lagahtar Hartal.
On 11 January 2007, President Iajuddin Ahmed declared a State of Emergency under the Constitution, resigned as Chief Adviser and indefinitely postponed Parliamentary elections. On January 12, former Bangladesh Bank governor Fakhruddin Ahmed was sworn in as the new Chief Adviser and his cabinet advisers were also appointed. Under emergency provisions, the government suspended certain fundamental rights of the citizens as guaranteed by the constitution and detained a large number political leaders and top bureaucrats for alleged involvement in corruption and other crimes. The current government has banned all political activities and has yet to set a date for elections. But the government has announced that the elections will occur in late 2008. #
Mohammad Gani is writer and contributes articles on Bangladesh current affairs. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA