How democracy in Bangladesh went ahead braving hurdles from fundamentalists and autocrats

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Published on April 9, 2023
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The Awami League played a crucial role in leading the liberation struggle and War of Independence of Bangladesh and has since been dedicated to establishing a humane social order. The party strives to uphold democracy and ensure the basic rights, safety, and progress of all Bengali citizens.

Throughout Bangladesh's history, the Awami League has been a key player in the democracy and development of the country. From its organizational activities during the birth of Bangladesh to protecting citizens from dictatorships and extremists, the party has been a driving force in shaping the nation. As such, the Awami League is recognized as the torch-bearer of democracy in Bangladesh.

Even before independence, the Awami League, under the leadership of party general secretary Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was dedicated to restoring democracy in East Pakistan, despite the fear of Pakistani dictators. The party has been the synonym of democracy as it took risks in the lives of its leaders and activists for over half a century to ensure democratic governance. As a result, they have often been targeted by dictators and extremists.

Bloodbath movement against dictatorship and restoration of democracy in 1991

In 1975, during the rebuilding of independent Bangladesh, the country was thrown into dictatorship after the brutal killing of its founding father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and his family. The new regime destroyed democracy, human rights, and constitutional institutions. However, in 1981, Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina returned to the country at great personal risk and promised people to bring back the right to vote and rice.

The people of Bangladesh joined the anti-dictatorship movement, and with confidence in Sheikh Hasina's leadership, the dictatorship finally ended in December 1990, and democracy was restored through elections in 1991. Despite the fall of the dictatorship, the Khaleda Zia-led BNP government was not interested in changing the authoritarian regime. Due to internal conspiracy and rigging, the Awami League lost by a small margin in about 50 seats, and BNP formed the government with an alliance with Jamaat, a group of war criminals. Sheikh Hasina became the leader of the opposition party and continued to pressure the government for a democratic system of governance.

Under her relentless pressure, Khaleda Zia was forced to change the presidential government system and introduce a democratic cabinet-council system. Despite losing the election, the Awami League was able to establish Bangladesh as a fully democratic state, upholding the democratic governance system to this day.

However, Sheikh Hasina faced many challenges, including detention by the military government, house arrest, and attempts on her life for repeated times. Freedom Party cadres, murderers of Bangabandhu, worked as a puppet army of dictators to suppress the anti-dictatorship movement of the Awami League. They even led a bomb attack at the house at Road 32 Dhanmondi to publicly raise slogans to kill Sheikh Hasina. But it failed in the face of resistance from party leaders.

Even to remove Sheikh Hasina from the anti-dictatorship movement, several attempts have been made to kill her with the support of the state. Especially on November 10, 1987, the Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina was targeted by the police during the siege program. During this time, some activists were killed. Even in front of the National Press Club, an attempt was made to lift Sheikh Hasina's car with a crane.

On January 24, 1988, police forces, instructed by the government, charged batons and fired aiming Sheikh Hasina in front of the Chittagong Court Building. During this time, 30 Awami League activists were martyred. She was shot twice while giving a speech at Laldighi Maidan in Chittagong. On her way back after the public meeting, her car was again shot at. Against all odds, Sheikh Hasina persevered, and after nearly a decade of relentless struggle and the loss of countless Awami League leaders and activists, the dictatorship finally fell.

But on September 11, 1991, during the by-election of the Jatiya Sangsad, to prevent the victory of the Awami League, shots were fired at Sheikh Hasina with the support of the BNP government. Khaleda Zia's government carried out this sabotage to silence the democratic voice of the opposition for the rights of the people. As a result, immediately after the restoration of democracy, the entire country was stunned by this attempt to kill democracy.

However, the BNP government attempted to prevent the Awami League from winning the Jatiya Sangsad by-election by firing shots at Sheikh Hasina. This sabotage stunned the country and threatened to silence the democratic voice of the opposition.

Attack after the Awami League's victory in the 1994 Dhaka mayoral election

Dhaka's first mayoral election was held on January 30, 1994, under the BNP government, which included the war criminals Jamaat. In the name of the Awami League, people were fed up with the misrule of the BNP-Jamaat coalition for three consecutive years. Party chief Sheikh Hasina announced Mohammad Hanif as Awami League's candidate in a huge public meeting at Bangabandhu Avenue on January 28 and sought votes for him. It was then that civil society revolutionized the ballot of the democratic process. But BNP could not accept the people's mandate. To avenge the defeat, they started violent attacks on people's democracy by beating up ordinary voters.

After winning the election on January 30, seven people were killed and hundreds were injured in an attack by the defeated BNP candidate on the Awami League's victory procession in Lalbagh's Nawabganj on January 31. Among them, 23 people were paralyzed after being treated at Dhaka Medical College Hospital in a coma. The attack was carried out by the cadres of BNP's defeated mayoral candidate Mirza Abbas and BNP leader Abdul Aziz at the victory rally of Awami League candidate Humayun Kabir, the elected commissioner of Ward No. 5 of the then integral Dhaka City Corporation. At the time of the attack, senior BNP leaders and food minister Lt Gen. (Retd) Mir Shawkat Ali and BNP leader Shaheen were present at the scene. After carrying out this massacre in Old Dhaka's Shaheed Park, the identified terrorists of BNP also attacked Chawkbazar. They vandalized shops and threw acid through the windows of common people's houses to create horrific situations.

Magura's by-elections kill democracy again

The by-elections held in Magura on March 20, 1994, marked another blow to democracy in Bangladesh. BNP suffered defeat in the Dhaka mayoral election earlier and was hoping for a win in Magura. However, the public voted in favour of the Awami League candidate despite the BNP rigging the polls from the beginning. Realizing that they were going to lose, the BNP-Jamaat alliance stole ballot papers with the help of the state during the vote count. Khaleda Zia herself ensured that BNP candidate Quazi Salimul Haq, owner of Econo Ballpen company, won by changing the result, openly killing democracy.

Salimul Haq was later found to be extorting money from businessmen in alliance with Tarique Rahman, Khaleda Zia's son and one of the top leaders of BNP. During the BNP-Jamaat regime from 2001 to 2006, Salimul Haq was involved in a Tk 100 crore bribery scandal to save the son of the Bashundhara Group owner from a legal case. Awami League leaders and activists were repeatedly attacked during public meetings to protest against the terror of the BNP-Jamaat government. Even in 1994, shots were fired at Sheikh Hasina's room at Ishwardi railway station under the patronage of the BNP government. But it was Sheikh Hasina and Awami League who have never backed down from people's democratic rights amid life threats.

BNP grabbed power and formed parliament with murderers on February 15, 1996

On February 15, 1996, Khaleda Zia seized power undemocratically through a one-sided election organized by party cadres, as she had lost the courage to hold elections democratically after five years of tyranny and exploitation of the people. No political party participated in the rigged election, but Khaleda Zia made Rashid, the murderer of Bangladesh's founder Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib, MP from Comilla and installed him as the leader of the opposition in Parliament. However, the one-sided election was cancelled in the face of intense public anger, and Khaleda Zia and the illegitimate BNP government were ousted due to mass protests.

In contrast, the Bangladesh Awami League formed the government on June 12, 1996, by winning a large margin of votes through a free and transparent election. After completing five successful years, Sheikh Hasina's government handed over power peacefully as the sole government of independent Bangladesh for a free election, setting an example for upholding democracy.

BNP-Jamaat once again tried to seize power undemocratically by preparing a fake voter list in 2006

In 2006, the BNP-Jamaat alliance once again tried to seize power undemocratically by creating 1 crore 23 lakh fake voters and appointing party cadres as election officers in each upazila. The BNP-Jamaat regime had made the lives of people in the country miserable by looting and murdering opposition party leaders and workers, killing journalists and cultural workers, raping women and children, extortion, corruption, and money laundering during their stay in the government until 2006. They brought shame to Bangladesh by making it a champion in corruption five times in a row.

They also destroyed constitutional institutions and tarnished the image of the Public Service Commission by making appointments through direct lists without examination. The BNP-Jamaat regime faced widespread criticism across the country for appointing 300 Chhatra Dal cadres as election officials.


In 2007, BNP’s undemocratic trait resulted in the army-backed caretaker government

In 2006, BNP completed their five-year term in government. However, they attempted to take back state power through undemocratic means, which resulted in a military-backed caretaker government taking over the country. Had BNP conceded defeat and allowed for free and fair elections to take place, the country would not have had to suffer under an undemocratic regime for the next two years. Unfortunately, the BNP-Jamaat alliance's dictatorship and extremism robbed Bangladesh of democracy in 2007 and 2008.

Despite the autocratic behaviour of Khaleda Zia and the BNP, the caretaker government initially promised to hold elections within three months. However, they clung to power for two years and arrested both Khaleda Zia and Awami League President Sheikh Hasina. Most BNP leaders faced trials for corruption and terrorism, while Awami League members were arrested for their peaceful protests calling for democracy. The mainstream media, including Prothom Alo Editor Matiur Rahman and The Daily Star Editor Mahfuz Anam, joined forces with the undemocratic caretaker government to push for the "minus two" formula to remove Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia from politics. The situation was further complicated by the fact that Yunus, a United States-backed economist, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and subsequently attempted to control the politics of Bangladesh.

Yunus attempted to form a political party with the help of the creators of the "minus two" formula after receiving the Nobel Prize, but the people of Bangladesh rejected their opportunistic and undemocratic tactics. Meanwhile, Sheikh Hasina fell ill while in prison and sought treatment abroad. The undemocratic forces attempted to prevent her from returning to the country, but she risked her life to do so and demanded transparent elections. Khaleda Zia, on the other hand, spent her time negotiating the safe departure of her son, Tarique Rahman, who was arrested for supporting corruption and militancy that damaged the country's democracy.

Sheikh Hasina united people across the country to demand the resignation of the undemocratic government and the announcement of an election date. She even had to spend 331 days in jail for the cause of restoring democracy. Thousands of Awami League leaders and activists from across the country also faced jail time and fines for their peaceful demonstrations. Finally, in response to the public demand for democracy and Sheikh Hasina's release, the caretaker government supported by the military was forced to announce the election date.

Because of Awami League, elections were held in 2008 with photo voter lists and transparent ballot boxes

In 2007, the BNP-Jamaat alliance once again attempted to seize power in Bangladesh through a rigged election using a fraudulent voter list. However, this effort was thwarted by Sheikh Hasina's unwavering commitment to the people. Sheikh Hasina demanded that the caretaker government cancel the fake voter list and create a new one with photographs to ensure transparency in the electoral process.

In response to Awami League's demand, the caretaker government created a new voter list with photographs under the supervision of the army. Thanks to the strict monitoring by the international community, a fair election was held using transparent ballot boxes. It was not the caretaker government, but rather the international pressure on the army that led to the conduct of a free and fair election. As a result of this democratic process, Bangladesh Awami League won a historic victory with a two-thirds majority and formed the government again in January 2009. Today, the people of Bangladesh have National Identity Cards with photographs, which is a result of the picture identification card and voter list introduced by the Awami League government.

While Awami League was working hard to bring back democratic governance through a fair election, the BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia was more focused on securing the safe departure of her son Tarique Rahman, who was accused of corruption, terrorism, and militancy. Khaleda Zia even refused to participate in the election unless Tarique Rahman's trial, which was ongoing under the caretaker government, was postponed and he was allowed to leave the country. The BNP leaders prioritize covering up the corruption and terrorism of their own families over restoring democracy and democratic governance in the country. Despite this, the strong stance of the Awami League forced the army-backed caretaker government to announce the election date.

In 2013-14, BNP-Jamaat undermined democracy through horrific acts of sabotage across the country

In 2013, a tribunal was established in Bangladesh to try the accused of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity committed during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. The BNP-Jamaat extremist group responded by carrying out terrorist activities and killing 15 policemen to prevent the prosecution of those accused of crimes against humanity. The year 2013 saw a surge in political violence, with 492 people losing their lives and 2,200 others injured in 419 major incidents of Jamaat-Shibir political violence.

Despite the political violence, international surveys predicted that the Awami League government would be re-elected for five consecutive years due to its development-oriented policies. However, the BNP-Jamaat alliance resorted to sabotaging the 2014 10th general elections by instilling fear in the public through acts of terrorism. Hefazat-e Islam, a group of extremist religious businessmen, also joined the alliance in carrying out arson attacks across the country. Although more than 5,000 local elections were conducted without any significant complaints, BNP-Jamaat boycotted the 2014 general elections after realizing their defeat.

Throughout 2014, more than 200 people, including 20 members of law and order forces, were killed in BNP-Jamaat violence, which was ordered by Khaleda Zia and Tarique Rahman. The violence included cutting down thousands of trees along the roads, setting small shops, public and private institutions, and power plants on fire, vandalizing places of worship, and burning copies of the Holy Quran. On election day, January 5, 2014, BNP-Jamaat supporters killed 26 people, including a presiding officer, and set fire to polling stations in 582 schools across the country.

After failing to prevent the elections, the BNP-Jamaat alliance resorted to mass killings by throwing petrol bombs at public transport for the movement of people. They even set fire to the houses of sleeping people. On January 4, 2015, the first anniversary of the 10th parliamentary elections, the alliance resumed its arson attacks, killing 231 civilians by throwing petrol bombs at moving buses and people's houses. Another 1,180 working people were injured in the attacks, and 2,903 cars, 18 railway cars, and 8 passenger ships were set on fire. The vandalism and burning of government offices and infrastructure destroyed the essential documents of 70 government offices, including 6 land offices.

As Awami League leads in opinion polls, BNP starts plotting sabotage

The Research and Development Center (RDC) conducted an opinion survey before the 11th parliamentary election on December 30, 2018. The survey, conducted by US consultant Forrest E. Cookson on behalf of the RDC, indicated that the Awami League-led alliance was poised to win 248 seats, while the Jatiya Oikya Front, which includes BNP, was predicted to win 49 seats.

Sajeeb Wazed Joy, the information technology advisor to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, also cited an RDC survey, writing on his Facebook page on December 13 that 66% of the respondents had confidence in the Awami League.

Upon seeing the pre-election public opinion, the leaders and activists of BNP-Jamaat became nervous about their defeat in the elections and resorted to sabotage, ordering their followers to carry out terrorist activities centred around the polls.

According to Somoy TV report on December 25, BNP candidate Sarfuddin Ahmed Santu ordered to fire on Awami League leaders and activists in Barisal's Uzirpur. Santu said, “I will come to Banaripara, whatever falls in front of me - I will shoot, clear the field.”

Nadeem Mustafa, a BNP leader and candidate for the Rajshahi-5 constituency, ordered his followers to kill Awami League leaders and activists. In the phone conversation, Nadeem Mustafa is heard saying, “If you get a chance, eliminate them, kill them.”

BNP joint general secretary Barrister Mahbub Uddin Khokon, a candidate for the Noakhali-1 constituency, instructed his supporters to capture the polling centre with mercenary forces and ordered the evacuation of Awami League and Chhatra League leaders and activists. He asked his followers, “Are you coming tomorrow? Ask them to bring bamboo sticks, and take full-fledged preparations.”

According to ATN News on December 27, BNP Vice Chairman retired Major Hafiz Uddin Ahmed directed the appointment of Shibir men as election agents. Hafiz said to the Jamaat leaders, “I will make the Shibir boys my agents as my supporters are a bit scared. We will take as many agents as the Shibir gives. They will come in help on polling day.”

In a leaked phone call, BNP Standing Committee member and candidate Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain discussed a conspiratorial plan with Comilla Titus Jamaat's Amir Shamim Sarkar, and in another leaked conversation with ISI agent Mehmood, he mentioned having problems with the elections.

BNP candidate Abul Khair Bhuiyan ordered terrorists to be ready with weapons and ammunition in the Lakshmipur-3 constituency and instructed them to terrorize the Awami League before the polls. He said, “Take preparations, we will start killing tomorrow.”

Reasons behind BNP’s Defeat in the Election

The defeat of the BNP in the 11th general elections in Bangladesh has been attributed to various factors by political analysts, including:

• Organizational weakness
• Lack of strong leadership
• Failure to provide qualified candidates
• Internal conflict within the party
• Failure to provide agents
• Inaction by senior leaders
• Insufficient public communication
• Nomination of war criminals in the month of victory
• Multiple nominations in certain constituencies
• Neglect publicity campaigns and
• Failure to place their manifesto to the public.

The senior leaders of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) were preoccupied with their elections, causing their party candidates to receive inadequate guidance. Just before the election, many candidates withdrew due to the absence of central instructions.

BNP leaders and candidates repeatedly urged activists and voters to attend their campaigns, however, few showed up. The lack of attendance from leaders and candidates resulted in dissatisfaction among ordinary voters, causing many to skip the polling stations, ultimately affecting the election outcome.

The absence of leaders and activists in the election field was cited as one of the reasons for the BNP's defeat, as their counterparts in the ruling party were actively present. Candidates in many constituencies were not present in election campaigns, particularly in the capital, where only a few made any public appearances. This caused a disconnect between voters and BNP candidates, further impacting their election performance.

The party's inability to provide polling agents was another factor in their poor showing. In the 2018 election, they were unable to provide agents in most centres, and those assigned failed to attend.

BNP's nomination of war criminals in the month of victory was not well received by conscious citizens, including the civil society, which harmed the election results. Despite mass campaigns, BNP failed to attract voters, as they had no connection with Jatiya Oikya Front leaders and workers. In contrast, Sheikh Hasina, President of Awami League, held public meetings with senior leaders, while BNP and its alliance did not.

Internal conflict within the party also contributed to their defeat. Activists argue that the party nominated inexperienced and inactive individuals, negatively impacting the election field. The nomination of opportunists and businessmen, instead of deserving candidates, sparked negative reactions within the party.

The most surprising thing is -

BNP's decision to nominate multiple candidates in the same constituencies, confused supporters.

"We are giving primary nominations to two candidates in each seat based on the principled decision. If one fails, the other gets a chance."

- This statement from Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir was perceived as a trade in the nomination process, leading to frustration among BNP supporters who felt disengaged from the party leading up to the polling day on December 30th.