Hopes for Democracy in Bangladesh Rise

Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League party took over the beleaguered nation from Nationalist Party leadership. Despite instability following Hasina’s tenure that continued long after her rule, her victorious 1996 election is regarded as one of the most important in the nation’s history.

Summary of Event

Democracy in Bangladesh was not on firm footing following the country’s liberation from Pakistan in 1971. However, movements led by the Bangladeshi people reshaped the nation’s history and resisted political instability. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (popularly known as Mujib), Bangladesh’s founding leader, was at the helm in the years immediately following independence, but his assassination in 1975 threw the nation into uncertainty. It was not until two decades after his death that Bangladesh elected a stable government, this time led by Mujib’s eldest daughter, Sheikh Hasina. Bangladesh;government
[kw]Hopes for Democracy in Bangladesh Rise (1996)
[kw]Democracy in Bangladesh Rise, Hopes for (1996)
[kw]Bangladesh Rise, Hopes for Democracy in (1996)
[g]South Asia;1996: Hopes for Democracy in Bangladesh Rise[09400]
[g]Bangladesh;1996: Hopes for Democracy in Bangladesh Rise[09400]
[c]Government and politics;1996: Hopes for Democracy in Bangladesh Rise[09400]
Hasina, Sheikh
Mujibur Rahman
Rahman, Ziaur
Sattar, Abdus
Ershad, Hossain Mohammad
Khaleda Zia, Begum

The 1971 Liberation War saw the rise of Mujib as the nation’s new doyen of freedom and liberty. He was installed as the nation’s first president and promised to guide the nation from the tumultuous years as a territory of Pakistan. Mujib’s biggest contribution was the establishment of the Awami League party, which won an overwhelming majority in the Pakistan elections of 1970. The party’s concentration in then East Pakistan and its securing of 167 of 169 seats in the National Assembly led to Mujib’s elevation as the liberator of Bengali people in the region. The following year, East Pakistan became independent and was renamed Bangladesh; thus a new Muslim nation with a unique Bengali ethnic group emerged. The demands of the six-point movement, which sought independence from West Pakistan, was seen as a guiding document by Mujib and served as a framework for Bangladesh to formalize the nation’s constitution.

The years immediately following independence were anything but hope-filled or progressive. Severe financial losses following the war left Bangladesh as one of the most impoverished nations in the world. In one 1972 United Nations estimate, the national per-capita income was pegged at eighty-seven U.S. dollars, one of the lowest in the world. In 1974, as a result of drought and refusal of international food aid by Western nations, Bangladesh suffered a famine that wiped out more than twenty-six thousand people by official Bangladesh government estimates. In 1975, with the assassination of Mujib, the nation succumbed to instability and depression.

In 1977, General Ziaur Rahman emerged as the nation’s president. Ziaur Rahman was intimately associated with Bangladesh’s independence. As an army leader, he was Mujib’s chief of army staff during the nation’s formative years. His tenure as president, which lasted until 1981, witnessed improvements in the nation’s economic and regional cooperation. His efforts to improve the police force and restore security to this once-troubled nation were some of his greatest contributions. In 1981, an army coup assassinated Ziaur Rahman, throwing Bangladesh into yet another period of instability. Revolutions and coups;Bangladesh Abdus Sattar stepped in as acting president and was later elected, but another coup, conducted by Army Chief of Staff Hossain Mohammad Ershad, removed him from power. For the next nine years, the nation was put under martial law. With amendments made to the constitution, unprecedented power was given to the martial law rulers, making those years some of the most anxious in the nation’s history.

With Ershad’s resignation in 1990, fresh elections were called in 1991 that witnessed the emergence of Begum Khaleda Zia, widow of slain Bangladeshi president Ziaur Rahman, as the nation’s first female prime minister. Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was also the arch-opponent of the Awami League party, now led by Mujibur Rahman’s eldest daughter, Sheikh Hasina.

Zia’s leadership lasted one complete term, during which her administration changed the national constitution to convert Bangladesh into a parliamentary democracy. This gave the prime minister the absolute power in national decision making. Instability emerged toward the end of her term. In the first of the two 1996 elections, there was discordance among the BNP, and accusations of election rigging were made by the Awami League. Zia claimed a landslide victory. However, within a few months, another election was called, and Sheikh Hasina was elected. To prevent any civil unrest, more than forty thousand armed soldiers and more than a quarter million police personnel manned the streets of the nation, with maximum security in Dhaka and Chittagong, the largest cities. The 1996 elections were some of the most successful in terms of voter turnout—at 74 percent. Thus, 1996 witnessed the change of power between two administrations, and for the first time since Mujib’s death in 1975 the Awami League assumed leadership.

Bangladeshi women march in Dhaka during a general strike called in October, 1995, to bring down the government of Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

With Sheikh Hasina as prime minister, Bangladesh witnessed unprecedented growth. For the first time, a national political coalition emerged. Because Hasina’s Awami League barely secured a majority with 37 percent of the votes, Ershad’s Jatiya Party, winning 32 seats from the northern regions, supported Hasina’s plans to form a government. Ershad’s encouragement, together with Mujib’s legacy, enabled Hasina to promote peace and security in the region. Her resolution of water disputes with India and her negotiating agreements with minority tribal groups are some of the key highlights of her administration. Her tenure lasted until the close of the century, and the rivalry between the BNP and the Awami League only continued with more vigor and determination.


The dawn of the twenty-first century witnessed the continuation of changes in the power structure of Bangladesh. The 2001 elections resulted in Begum Khaleda Zia’s assuming a second term as prime minister, but this time with a four-party coalition government. The 1996 caretaker clause in the constitution allowing for the formation of an interim government during civil unrest was used several times in the years following. Since 1972, the constitution has been amended more than fourteen times, creating a volatile government structure. In 2007, the nation plunged into its worst-ever civil unrest with BNP and Awami League party workers clashing in the streets of Dhaka and other cities, bringing the nation into a state of emergency. The army calmed the crisis, but the nation was still under a caretaker government. Bangladesh;government

Further Reading

  • Ahameda, Sirajuddina, and Sirajuddin Ahmed. Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh. New Delhi: UBS, 1998. Documents Bangladesh’s formative years between 1975 and 1998 and Sheikh Hasina’s emergence in 1996.
  • Chowdhury, Ghulam A. Politics of Bangladesh and the Role of Awami League. Calcutta, India: Ratna Prakashan, 1999. Examines Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League and its role in the nation’s political history.
  • Umar, Badruddin. The Emergence of Bangladesh: Class Struggles in East Pakistan, 1947-1958. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Documents early movements following India’s independence up to the emergence of East Pakistan.

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