From Rahman vs Rahman to Hasina vs Zia: A look back at Bangladesh’s tumultuous election history

From Rahman vs Rahman to Hasina vs Zia: A look back at Bangladesh’s tumultuous election history

Opposition parties in Bangladesh, especially Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh National Party (BNP) has sought Hasina‘s resignation, and demanded a caretaker government. On Hasina’s refusal to follow through, the BNP has chosen to boycott the elections.

An unfortunate alleged arson, where a bus caught on fire killing four Bangladeshis did not help the situation either. 

However, since the formation of Bangladesh in 1971 when it broke away from Pakistan, Dhaka has rarely seen a peaceful election. Only four of Bangladesh’s 11 elections have been considered to be “free and fair”, a condition the opposition in Bangladesh is seeking and claims Hasina’s government cannot guarantee.

Most of national elections in Bangladesh has been mired in violence, protests, and allegations of vote rigging.

Let’s take a look at all troubled Bangladesh elections

1973 – Awami League wins post Bangladesh’s separation from Pakistan

After overseeing the breakaway of Bangladesh from Pakistan, the ruling Awami League, chaired by independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, conducted the country’s first-ever elections on March 7, 1973.

Awami League reportedly kidnapped opposition leaders. The party then won 293 of the 300 seats in parliament. Those polls marked the beginning of autocratic rule in Bangladesh. 

In 1974, Mujibur Rahman banned all opposition parties, turning Bangladesh into a one-party state.

1979 -1980s – One-party, military rule

Mujibur Rahman was assassinated in 1975 and the Bangladeshi military took power for the next decade and a half. Presidential and parliamentary elections between 1978 and 1979 were held under the leadership of former army chief Ziaur Rahman, credited with instituting a multi-party system and rescuing the distressed state institutions from Mujibur Rahman’s rule. 

His newly founded Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) won an overwhelming majority. 

In 1981, following Ziaur Rahman’s assassination, his deputy, Abdus Sattar, held general elections on November 15. The BNP again won with 65 percent of the vote.

Hussain Muhammad Ershad, who was army chief, took power in a 1982 coup. 

The May 7, 1986 parliamentary elections and the October 15, 1986 presidential vote that followed saw his Jatiya Party win the overwhelming majority amid opposition boycotts. The elections had low attendance and Ershad’s government was reported to have padded the numbers. It was widely seen as a sham.

In 1988, another widely discredited vote was held amid intense protests calling for Ershad’s removal. The Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina (Mujibur Rahman’s daughter), and the BNP, under Khaleda Zia (Ziaur Rahman’s widow) banded together to lead the protests, resulting in the popular uprising of 1990 that forced Ershad to resign.

1996 – BNP administration lasts 12 days before Sheikh Hasina wins

On February 15, 1996, opposition parties boycotted scheduled general elections and only 21 percent of registered voters turned out. 

The opposition claimed the votes were rigged and sought Zia’s resignation and for her handover to a caretaker government – as happened in 1991. That did not happen, so in February 1996, the BNP won elections unchallenged.

The administration only lasted 12 days, following strikes by opposition parliament members. On June 12, 1996, new elections took place, this time under a caretaker government. It saw a large turnout of voters – at just under 75 percent. Sheikh Hasina won her first term with the Awami League.

2006 – 2008 political crisis

Elections that should have taken place in 2006 never happened because the outgoing BNP and the main opposition, Awami League, failed to agree on a candidate to head the necessary caretaker government.

At the end of October, the country’s president, Iajuddin Ahmed declared himself leader of the caretaker government and announced that elections would take place in January 2007.

A bitter row over fake names being included on the list of candidates led to riots and violence in the country. The military stepped in when Ahmed declared a national emergency.

2008 elections – highest-ever turnout

Elections were finally held on 29 December 2008, with an 80 per cent turnout – the highest the country had ever seen. 

This time the Awami League formed a coalition – the Grand Alliance – with other opposition parties and was led by Sheikh Hasina. Khaleda Zia once again led the BNP.

The Awami alliance won in a landslide, taking 230 seats with 48 percent of the popular vote. 

2014- Elections and a crackdown on opposition

Following the political crisis of 2006 – 2008, the Awami League decided to abolish the requirement for a caretaker government to oversee elections in 2011. 

A parliamentary vote on the amendment to remove the caretaker provision was passed by 291 to one after it was boycotted by the main opposition BNP in Bangladesh.

A crackdown on the opposition followed. Prior to the elections that were held on 5 January 2014, Zia was put under house arrest and there were widespread reports of violence. Opposition parties, including the BNP, boycotted the vote and Hasina’s Awami League won clinching 234 seats in parliament.

2018 – Ruling Awami League gains massive majority

In 2018, electronic voting was introduced in Bangladesh. But BNP along with other opposition parties accused the ruling Awami League of rigging the general elections on December 30, 2018. 

Reports of violence against opposition BNP members and supporters, as well as voter suppression, marred the polls again. The government also shut down mobile internet in the lead-up to election day, claiming it wanted to stop the spread of fake news around the vote.

Hasina’s Awami League, after merging with the Jatiya Party to form the Grand Alliance, won in another landslide taking more than 90 percent of parliament seats.

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Published: 06 Jan 2024, 09:11 PM IST

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