BANGLADESH: Wrestling, Freestyle

Published: December 18, 2012 - 17:28 Updated: December 25, 2012 - 14:14

The politics of relentless confrontation between the two main political parties has ravaged the political discourse in what could be a vibrant democracy

Smruti S Pattanaik Delhi

Ever since 1991, when Bangladesh transited from a military dictatorship to parliamentary democracy, the polity is characterised by the politics of street fighting, lack of consensus, boycott of Parliament and street agitations, often violent. The bonhomie that existed between the Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) during their joint agitation against Gen Mohammad Ershad’s military regime gave way to the politics of confrontation which was marked by a zero sum game. It is important to understand why the political transition in 1990 did not bring about a paradigm shift in the relations between the two political parties, giving rise to a conflicting scenario of sharply polarised politics.

The Awami League has always looked at itself as a party that was instrumental in the fight for liberation. Its Centre-Left ideology and ‘commitment to secularism’ has attracted the minorities to its fold. It has a long political history. It was at the forefront of the movement for democracy in erstwhile East Pakistan and played a prominent role during the language movement of 1952 which subsequently made Bengali one of the national languages of Pakistan.

After the liberation war, the Awami League formed the government and the party drafted the 1972 Constitution which enshrined the ideals of secularism, democracy, socialism and the Bengali language as the four foundational principles of the State. In contrast, the BNP was established in 1978 and was born in the cantonment to provide political legitimacy to Gen Ziaur Rahman who was largely seen as being close to the army. He was himself a liberation war hero who had declared independence in the name of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh. However, given the circumstances under which Zia took over, he placed his party as the ideological opposite to the Awami League, banking on Rightist elements who were marginalised after the liberation war due to their role during the war.

To provide an ideological mooring which could be identified with the party, the BNP courted the Right-wingers, lifted the ban on religious politics, and removed secularism and declared ‘nationalism’ as one of the founding principles after Gen Zia assumed power as the Chief Martial Law Administrator. It inserted ‘Bismillahur Rahmanur Rahim’ in the opening line of the Constitution. It followed the policy of distancing itself from India to signal a change from Sheikh Mujib’s foreign policy and strengthened fraternal ties with Muslim countries for politico-ideological and economic reasons.

The Awami League believes that Gen Zia was in some ways responsible for the killing of Sheikh Mujib and his family as he indirectly supported the coup by army majors and rehabilitated those who were directly involved in the assassination. The BNP prides itself as the party which reestablished multi-party democracy that was derailed after the announcement of one-party rule by the Awami League. Thus, the two parties have ritualistically contested their roles in the liberation war and have tried to project their founding fathers as leaders who played the most important role in the liberation of Bangladesh.

The leaders of the two principal parties do not even meet or exchange greetings in public

Given theis history of ideological division, the relationship between the two during the anti-Ershad agitation ended with the resurfacing of old antagonistic politics. The student unions of the BNP (leading a seven-party alliance) and the Awami League (leading an eight party alliance), the Jatiyo Chatra Dal and Chatra League respectively, played a crucial role in forming a joint front against Ershad. the BNP assumed power in 1991.

The Awami League, shocked by its electoral defeat, refused to accept the election results. Predictably, the consensus that had emerged while participating in the anti-Ershad movement broke down. The problems started while filing the nomination for the post of president soon after the elections. The BNP and Jamaat entered into an alliance to form the first democratically elected government in the country.

Post-1991, polarised politics peaked with the BNP and Awami League acting as two disparate poles—Centre Left and Centre-Right alliances led by the Awami League and BNP, respectively. Other parties like the Jatiyo Party and the Jamaat emerged as major players in forming governments. At present, the Jamaat is part of the BNP alliance and the Jatiyo Party is part of the ruling Awami League government.

The two political parties also engaged in rewriting history textbooks, glorifying their founding father’s role each time they assumed power. The politics of contestation has not left any room for debate; as a result, democracy in Bangladesh has remained dysfunctional and the attitude of the ruling party symbolises the ‘winner takes all’ syndrome.

There have been attempts to indirectly involve the military in this politics of contestation. The politicisation of the bureaucracy and judiciary has only worsened the state of democracy. The election commission has been politicised; the system of caretaker government was introduced in 1996. This too was abolished by the League via the 15th Amendment.

The BNP has categorically refused to contest the next parliamentary elections unless the system of caretaker government is restored—a repetition of the 1996 situation when the Awami League did not participate in the sixth parliamentary election. Clearly, Bangladesh is moving towards serious political uncertainty.

The politics of confrontation has paralysed the functioning of Parliament. According to data available, the current Jatiya Sangsad, which began its journey on January 25, 2009, has been witnessing  poor presence by the opposition. Till September 2012, the House has had 319 sittings, of which the opposition boycotted 266 and joined only 53. Leader of the Opposition and BNP chief Khaleda Zia joined only eight sittings. The opposition last joined the House on March 20 this year and then began a fresh boycott, which still continues.

The media has played a significant role, acting as critiques of government policy, and has taken up the role of the opposition in the public space

The record of the Awami League is equally dismal. Between 2001 and 2006, in the opposition, the party boycotted 223 out of 373 days when Parliament was in session. In the past, budgets have been passed with the opposition boycotting the session. According to the Dhaka-based Daily Star, in June 2012, the previous three parliaments between 1991 and 2006 had passed 16 budgets, of which opposition MPs boycotted five. If one includes the current Parliament until this year, the opposition has been absent 20 times during the passage of the budget.

The culture of political contestation has also nurtured violence to settle scores at the local level. According to Odhikar, a Dhaka-based NGO, in 2011, 135 people were reportedly killed and 11,532 injured in political violence. There were 340 incidents of internal violence in the Awami League and 104 in the BNP during this period. In addition, 22 people were killed and 3,770 injured in the Awami League’s internal conflicts, while three were killed and 1,234 injured in the BNP’s internal conflicts. This pattern gets repeated every year, pointing to the larger political malaise. This culture of violence has percolated to educational institutions and has politicised the universities.

Political polarisation has effectively ensured that half of the population does not have any say in the decision-making process, taking into account the votes won by the two alliances (the Awami League got 49 and BNP got 33 per cent of votes). League promised radical changes when it assumed power, but it did not take any step to alter the culture of confrontational politics or to establish inner party democracy and carry out political reforms. In major issues like economic or foreign policy the two parties hold divergent views, often, merely to oppose each other.

Even the trial of war criminals, which the BNP initially supported, has got politicised with the opposition labelling the entire exercise as politically motivated. Polarised politics has consolidated the religious parties as they have emerged more organised; due to the antagonistic relations between the two main political parties, effective measures against Islamic radicalisation are sharply lacking. 

The Awami League believes that Gen Zia was responsible for the killing of Sheikh Mujib and his family as he indirectly supported the army coup

Bangladesh’s democratic future will be shaped by the political culture that the country evolves. So far, the leaders of the two principal parties do not even meet or exchange greetings in public. The party culture is largely shaped by the individualistic style of leadership. There is lack of democratic functioning within the two parties as they inherit two important legacies represented by their founders. The leadership firmly remains in the hands of the two families. The two parties reward those members who express personal loyalty.

The country’s politics has remained an ideological binary, given the 14-party coalition and 18-party coalition headed by the Awami League and BNP, respectively. Smaller parties like the Jatiyo Party and Jamaat have benefited by aligning with these two parties as they are not in a position to take power single-handedly. Yet, both the Jamaat and Jatiyo have emerged as king-makers in this politics of polarised competition.

However, despite the politicisation of the bureaucracy and judiciary, Bangladesh has a vocal civil society, with NGOs representing minorities, women and interests of the marginalised. The media has played a significant role, acting as critiques of government policy, and has taken up the role of the opposition in the public space. There are structural weaknesses in its institutions, but Bangladesh exhibits vibrant societal culture and boasts an extremely politically aware people who, it is hoped, will make democracy sustainable.

In South Asia, Bangladesh has one of the largest cases of female participation in elections. The voter turnout in the last election, held in 2008, was more than 86 per cent which is the highest in the region. This promises an optimistic chapter for democracy in the days to come, despite the myopia and antagonism stalking the political landscape.  


The writer is Research Fellow, Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), Delhi.

The politics of relentless confrontation between the two main political parties has ravaged the political discourse in what could be a vibrant democracy
Smruti S Pattanaik Delhi

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