Bangladesh’s Political Unrest

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By Evie Erickson

Photo of Bangladesh flag flying over a crowd.
Supporters of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) wave the party flag at a mass protest in Dhaka, Bangladesh on October 28, 2023.[1]

Bangladesh’s Nationalist Party (BNP) has boycotted its January 7th election. The party is led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. This boycott has led Bangladesh to reelect its current leader, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s and her Awami League (AL), for a fourth consecutive five-year term.[2] The current leaders of both parties today, Zia of the Awami League and Hasina of the BNP, both come from the same ruling families as those instilled during the establishment of the nation.[3] The country has struggled to maintain a democracy over the past decades due to military leadership in the 80s and concerns over undemocratic policies like a caretaker government, restricted liberties and corrupt elections. Bangladesh has experienced successful economic growth over the past decade; its leader has been praised for her accomplishments in this sense. However, that wealth is not distributed evenly among the people and consequently neither is power. The economy now is challenged due to inflation, rising energy costs, and people’s protests over labor rights and affordable housing.[4] This could possibly be a cause of the nation’s ongoing instability and political violence.

Bangladesh uses a first-past-the-post voting system, where a voter casts her vote towards a single candidate and the candidate with the most votes win, which may lead to conflict and domination of a single party in comparison to a parliamentary proportional system where more views can be represented.[5] In the past few decades, each party has made controversial political decisions that have also fueled violence. It seems that Bangladesh is in a position that many democracies face today, with resources that are unevenly distributed, power that is centralized, and citizens that are underrepresented. The barrier to overcoming these issues is the temptation of total control and power by the ruling party, as well as the ownership of large amounts of profits derived from the nation’s resources. The inability to confront these structural issues has left Bangladesh, like many other countries, in an unstable state.

Protesters are concerned that there can be no free or fair elections under the current government. This fear of fleeing democracy is backed by the supposition of an ongoing crackdown, with hundreds of opposition politicians being jailed and critics silenced. In Dhaka, the capital, a very large rally took place on October 28th with tens of thousands of activists showing up, which led to the imprisonment of many opposition protesters.[6] These allegations of intentional imprisonment and violation of rights have been denied by authorities.[7] However, witnesses have accused the Bangladesh police of unnecessary use of force during political protests on October 28. Witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that the police excessively shot rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowd. An estimated 10,000 activists were arrested after the opposition rally turned violent, resulting in the deaths of at least 16 people and injuring more than 5,500, according to HRW.[8]

The goal of this boycott is to draw attention to the country’s political crisis and force the government to address the current endemic problems. Additionally, its goals include getting the Awami League to step down and appoint a temporary non-partisan government to oversee the voting process.[9] The election occurred on January 7th as scheduled, but with only one major party on the ballot, effectively establishing the nation as a one-party state.[10] This has led many to voice their concern for the legitimacy of an election where violence is utilized by the state for what appears to be suspiciously convenient timing regarding the upcoming elections, leading to fear and intimidation of those against the AL. It is also suspiciously convenient timing to imprison some thousands of members of the opposing party; whether intentional or unintentional, it is blocking them from access to the ballot. Although, as I said, AL was the only major political party option to vote for.

An elderly Bangladeshi woman.
Sheikh Hasina remains prime minister of Bangladesh, since 2009.[11]

How did Bangladesh become so unstable? There are likely many reasons for the struggle of democratic institutions in the country, but I will present some information that hopefully begins to shed some light on the socio-political conditions of Bangladesh, as a recently post-colonial nation. Bangladesh (then Pakistan and then East Pakistan, then finally Bangladesh) was conquered by the British-East India Company in the 18th century and was under colonial rule by the British until 1947. Bangladesh was liberated in 1971.[12] The founder of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujib, was met with many challenges upon reforming the newly independent country. He represented the Awami League which had goals of secularism, democracy, reconstruction and socialism. Not everyone was happy with these goals, particularly since liberation had conjured up a whole variety of expectations and desires for the future. There were leftists who didn’t think he was going far enough, Islamists who disliked the ideas of secularism, indigenous, non-Bengalis who disliked the ideas of Bengali nationalism, pro-Soviets, pro-Chinese, pro-US stances, and more. Some of these groups held insurgencies that grew out of the government’s control, as the military and bureaucracy of the nation was weak. All of these factors made reconstruction increasingly difficult, leading to Mujib’s ultimate decision to centralize and consolidate power. He created the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League, a one-party system that he thought would ease tension and solve conflict. It, in fact, did the opposite. This led to Mujib’s assassination in 1975 by military forces and then to 15 years of military rule.[13]

Throughout the 1980s and into the ‘90s, an anti-Ershad movement formed, as a combined-effort between multiple parties to end martial law and achieve democracy. Eshrad was a military ruler from 1982-1990. Sit-ins, strikes, and boycotts all composed the resistance movement together fought for by major political parties. Protesters successfully assembled hartals. These hartals, or strikes, are held by opposition parties to put pressure on the government to meet various demands. During hartals, opposition party cadres clash, sometimes fatally, with ruling party cadres and the police.[14] The Dhaka Siege is a significant, well-known anti-Ershad protest that occurred in 1987 and occurred the week leading up to November 10th. Protesters clashed with police and other members of authority to demand the leader’s resignation. This is just another case that demonstrates Bengalis’ strong, powerful democratic tradition of civil unrest. All these efforts led to Eshrad’s resignation in 1990 and transfer of power to a non-partisan caretaker government which would organize elections.

Black and white image of a man with Bangladeshi writing on his back.
Noor Hossain, a martyr and symbol of democracy in Bangladesh, protesting at the Dhaka Siege against the military leadership. He would die from bullet wounds by the police later that day. His back reads: “Let Democracy Be Freed.”[15]

In 1996, the people demanded the government to adopt this principle of non-partisan caretaker elections into the constitution. There was conflict in this decision and the AL boycotted the 1996 election in protest of the ability for an unelected body like a caretaker party to oversee democratic processes, which they thought was undemocratic.[16] The policy nonetheless was adopted. In 2008, many issues ensued over the composition of this caretaker government and led to two years of confusion and chaos. As a result of this, in 2011, the Awami League reversed this rule, claiming that the country could not allow unelected officials to oversee an election. The BNP viewed this as unfair and as an opportunity for future incumbents to rig elections.[17] The BNP boycotted both the 2014 and 2018 elections over this. The BNP’s concern is legitimate, as during Bangladesh’s last election in 2018, Human Rights Watch reported “serious allegations of abuses” for charges like intimidation and rigging of elections.[18] Freedom of expression is also being denied, with journalists, protesters, and even people simply sharing information on social media, being fined or imprisoned.[19] Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index ranks Bangladesh 147 out of 180 countries worldwide—level with Iran and one place above Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.[20] Much of what the Bengali opposition is demanding today is a continuation of past unmet battles for democracy, that being fair, multi-partisan, free elections in the nation as well as lower restrictions on civil society and freedom of expression.

[1] REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain.

[2] Heather Chen, Vedika Sud and Manveena Suri, “Sheikh Hasina: Bangladesh Prime Minister Secures Fourth Term in Election Boycotted by Opposition,” CNN, January 7, 2024.

[3] Al Jazeera, “Bangladesh Holding ‘Sham’ Election: Exiled Opposition Leader Tarique Rahman.”

[4] Paul Ruma, “IMF Board Clears First Review of Bangladesh’s $4.7 Billion Bailout,” Reuters, December 13, 2023, sec. Asia Pacific.

[5] Himal Southasian, “Bangladesh Elections Explained,” Himal, December 3, 2018.

[6] Reuters, “Tens of Thousands Attend Bangladesh Opposition Rally Calling for Government to Resign,” Reuters, December 16, 2023, sec. Asia Pacific.

[7]Bangladesh Opposition Party Holds Protest as It Boycotts Jan. 7 Election,” Voice of America, December 10, 2023.

[8]Bangladesh: Violence Erupts Amid Demands for Fair Election,”Human Rights Watch, November 1, 2023.

[9] Allison Meakem, “Opposition Protests Are a Mainstay in Booming Bangladesh,” Foreign Policy (blog), January 22, 2024.

[10] Krutika Pathi and Julhas Alam,. “Bangladeshi Prime Minister Wins 4th Consecutive Term after Campaign Marred by Violence,” PBS News Hour, January 7, 2024.

[11] Dhaka Tribune.

[12] Department Of State: The Office of Electronic Information, Bureau of Public Affairs, “Bangladesh (08/08),” Accessed January 20, 2024.

[13] Sarah Tasnim Shehabuddin, “Bangladeshi Politics Since Independence,” in Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Bangladesh, 1st ed. (Routledge, 2016), 18-20.

[14] Ibid., 18-19.

[15]Noor Hossain and the Image That Helped Bring down a Dictator,” December 6, 2020.

[16] Shehabuddin, “Bangladeshi Politics Since Independence,” 24.

[17] ​​”How Bangladesh Became South Asia’s Latest Political Crisis,” TLDR News Global, December 7, 2023.

[18]Bangladesh: Crackdown as Elections Loom,” Human Rights Watch, December 13, 2018.

[19]Bangladesh: Crackdown as Elections Loom,” Human Rights Watch.

[20] Bangladesh,” Transparency, January 31, 2023.