October 12, 2010 § Leave a comment

BangladeshWho lives there?: At least 160 million people, possibly more. 160 million would make Bangladesh the world’s seventh most populous country. High birth rates and poor census keeping mean it is not entirely clear which of numbers five to seven (Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh) is more populous, but Bangladesh is probably the lowest of the three.

The land which now is Bangladesh was once home to a reasonably mixed community of Hindus and Muslims but, following independence and the subsequent wars, most of the non-Muslim population has left. Even so the Hindu population represent about 10% of the total.  The vast majority are of Bengali ethnic origin. Two minorities of note are the Biharis and the Chittagong hill tribes:

The Biharis are Urdu speaking Muslims from Bihar in central India who moved to Bangladesh at partition. The phrase is often used as a catch-all term for all people who moved from India into Bangladesh at partition. Estimates vary but there could be up to a million of them and there are definitely over 500,000.  During the Bangladeshi war of independence (more on that later) many Biharis sided with Pakistan. As a result of this the Bangladeshi government considered them to be Pakistani and was determined to deport them to Pakistan. The Pakistani government refuses to have them, for logistical, and their own internal political, reasons. As the limbo persists most Biharis have been living in refugee or internment camps ever since. A 2003 supreme court ruling forced the Government of Bangladesh to give Biharis citizenship if they want it. This has divided the Bihari community, with many of the younger generation enthusiastically embracing citizenship – to the consternation of older members who are still holding out for transfer to Pakistan.

The Chittagong Hill Tribes are a collection of different tribes of Sino-Burmese origin who live in the hills in the extreme south-east of the country. They are primarily Buddhist or Animist in their beliefs and number around 500,000. They have never been easily incorporated into any greater nation and have been at war with the overarching authority pretty much continuously for the last 250 years. A peace treaty in 1997 conceded some limited autonomy to the area whilst not satisfying all. Since then there have been some violent incidents but the intensity has markedly dropped off.

This language map of Bangladesh gives more detail:

Bangladesh languages

How does the system work? (the theory): The President is head of state, but the role is largely ceremonial. However the President does have fairly considerable caretaker powers for a couple of months whilst a new Parliament is being elected. It is also the President’s caretaker government who are responsible for the, supposedly non partisan, organisation of elections. The president is elected every five years by first past the post by the parliament.

The parliament is unicameral and the leader of the largest party becomes Prime Minister and exercises most of the executive power. Election is by first past the post with 300 constituencies every five years (or sooner if the PM wishes). A further 45 seats are then allocated to women of the parties elected in proportion to the number of seats that party had already won.

There has been a reasonably strong system of local government in Bangladesh – on paper – for many years and there have been further attempts to strengthen it recently. However, many commentators claim that the reforms are only skin deep and that much of the real power is vested centrally. Moreover the central government employs a set of local administrators in parallel to locally elected structures – and this is often used to bypass local bodies.

The building block of the local body system is the union council – which consists of councillors elected by first past the post for five year terms and an elected executive chair. Each union council falls within a sub-district which also have elected councillors and an elected chair. Municipal areas meanwhile have a similar, but single tier, structure. The next level up, that of the districts, has a wholly centrally appointed administration.

As a result of the Chittagong peace accord, the three local government councils covering the areas at the heart of the Chittagong conflict also elect delegates to the Chittagong regional council. This council has a degree of autonomy over issues such as law, development, extraction of natural resources and establishing order.

There are two very good UN commissioned papers on the Bangladeshi system: this one on elections and this one on local government.

How does the system work? (the practice): Democracy in Bangladesh is fragile, the Army are a major political force who intervene in political life regularly and often extra-constitutionally. There have been frequent military coups and interregnums, the most recent between 2006 and 2008. However the last set of elections were the freest yet and the government has allowed an opening of the political space. That said, a number of primarily Islamist political parties are still banned and there are concerns about human rights abuses and extra-judicial killings. The government passed the first major test of its authority, putting down a mutiny by the Bangladesh Rifles in 2009.

Feudal power is still a fairly major force in much of Bangladesh. As with much of south Asia elections are largely controlled by a system of brokers which, in Bangladesh, is referred to as “the net”. Under this system the brokers gain control over large banks of voters through, in the crudest example, bribes, murders and intimidation; or more sophisticatedly as a quid-pro-quo for providing services of access-to, and mediation-with, the state. They trade these votebanks with the political parties in exchange for, in some instances, money and more generally local public goods (development spending) which further enhance their reputation and access.

Finally, as mentioned above, there are little or no rights or representation for the Bihari community.

How did we get here?: I’m afraid we have to get through quite a lot of history because it is all very relevant to the modern political situation.

Bengal has had an independent identity for many centuries. Separately, the majority of Bengalis have been Muslims. However demands for an independent Muslim state in India (which started amongst Muslims in central India and may, in any case, have been a bargaining tactic) were never strong in Bengal. Around the time this campaign (which became the Pakistan campaign) was gathering steam, there was an attempt by some Hindu and Muslim Bengali activists to campaign for a third state within India – an independent Bengali state. However, this idea never got far from the drawing board.

Nevertheless, when the British withdrew, the Pakistan campaign had been successful and India was partitioned into two states. The Muslim state was in two parts: a western part dominated by Punjab and an eastern part – the eastern half of Bengal – which became known as Bangladesh. This area was, at that time, far more populous than the western half.

However they quickly found themselves discriminated against. Firstly, despite Bengali being by far the most spoken language in the new state, Urdu was chosen as the official language – in part as a compromise between east and west and in part as it was the language of the political elite: the ideological leaders of the Pakistan movement from central India. Secondly, not being part of the political elite, Bengalis found themselves excluded from executive decision making. This was particularly true after the military took power in 1958 (the military having always been dominated by Punjabis  – a hangover from the British view that Bengalis were not a martial race) and was also entrenched by the “one unit” policy enacted in 1954, which saw east and west treated as units of equal power, despite the former’s greater population.

The result was the formation of the Awami League, a campaign for Bangladeshi autonomy under its leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Demands for autonomy increased following the rejection of the league’s six point plan for greater autonomy, Rehman’s imprisonment, and the government’s lacklustre response to the cyclone of 1969. Later in 1969, riots (primarily in Bangladesh) forced out the military dictatorship and paved the way for fresh elections in 1970.

The Awami league swept the elections in east Pakistan – winning all but two seats, comfortably enough to form a government for all Pakistan. The caretaker military regime (led by Yahya Khan) and the west Pakistani elected officials (led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto) were firmly opposed to this, and set about trying to form a government without them. In response the Awami League called for civil disobedience, this led to the Pakistani government bringing in the army, which led in turn to the Awamis declaring independence.

The resulting war of independence was brutal. War crimes doubtless took place and somewhere between 300,000 and 3 million civilians were killed. Some of these crimes involved the Pakistani army; others involved massacres by Bengalis of Biharis and Biharis of Bengalis. The Indian Army invaded in support of the Awami League and together with the Mukti Bahni, or Bangladeshi guerrillas, they inflicted a crushing defeat on the forces of Pakistan.

Bangladesh war

And so Bangladesh became independent. Rehman became the first Prime Minister, pursuing a policy of secularism, leftism, and Bangladeshi nationalism with a friendship with India. Tensions soon emerged with the army; much of whom spent the war incarcerated in Pakistan and as such were regarded by the Mukti Bahni as shirkers without combat experience, and of dubious loyalty due to their links with Pakistan. In turn the army resented being integrated with the Mukti Bahni, who they regarded as amateurish and of questionable loyalty due to their alliance with India.

In 1975 the army took matters into their own hands, assassinating Rehman and most of his family and installing Zia Rahman as a dictator. Rahman pursued a more religious, more pro-Pakistan and anti-India, ideology and established the Bangladesh National Party – or BNP. Rahman was himself assassinated in 1979 and so democracy was restored – only for it to be taken away in another coup in 1982.

The new dictator, Ershad, also established a political party – the Jatiya party. He allowed elections from 1986 and, whilst their fairness was initially disputed, by 1991 elections were free and fair enough for the Jayata Party to lose and Ershad to be replaced.

Bar the occasional brief military interregnum, Bangladesh has been a democracy since then. The two main parties since then have been the Awami League and the BNP. Ostensibly the Awami League is centre-left, more secular, and more pro-India whilst the BNP are centre-right, more religious, andmore pro-Pakistan. Of these characterisations, the religious is the one which has the greatest kernel of truth to it,. However, in reality issues of ideology are not particularly important – the two parties are largely the vehicles for two different political elites and affiliated families: that established under Rehman and that established under Rahman. Other political forces of note are the Jatiya party (ostensibly centrist but in reality the party of the elite established under Ershad) and various Islamist parties – some of whom are banned.

Elections have been characterised by massive landslides with one party sweeping the other to the verge of annihilation, only for the other to return the favour five years later.

Who’s in charge?: Following the most recent military interregnum the Awami League entered into a political alliance with the Jatiya Party and a number of smaller parties whereby they decided beforehand who would contest which seats. The BNP entered into a similar arrangement with a number of Islamist parties.

The result was a landslide for the Awami League. Once female MPs had been added they’d won 266 seats whilst their allies had won a further 38 (Jatiya 31, Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (Socialist) 3, Workers Party of Bangladesh (Communist) 2, Liberal Democratic Party (liberal vehicle for a former BNP President) 1).

Meanwhile the BNP alliance picked up almost all the remaining seats. The BNP got 35, the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh (Islamist) 2, and the BJP (JP splinter group) 1. 4 independents picked up the last four seats.

bangladesh parties

Only 18 women were elected, which compares unfavourably with the 18 MPs elected whilst on trial murder and the 2 MPs elected under investigation for war crimes. However, the leaders of both the largest parties were female, one of whom (Awami’s Sheikh Hasina Wazed) became Prime Minister.

Senior Awami politician Zillur Rahman was elected president in 2009.

What does it look like?: Bangladesh is dominated by the Ganges delta, and the Ganges flood plain – low lying fertile agricultural land which is susceptible to flooding. The only hills are in the east, in Chittagong. There are also areas of dense mangrove forest.


What are the issues?: Bangladesh has only recently risen from its position as the most corrupt country in the world, and it is still far closer to the bottom of the list than the top. Bangladesh has acute problems with poverty and day to day concerns of food and shelter – as well as preparing for the constant stream of natural disasters – dominate the agenda of most Bangladeshis.

The government tend to be more concerned with more theoretical and less practical discussions. There is a lively debate about what sort of nation Bangladesh wishes to be; whether they wish to identify themselves ethnically, religiously, ideologically or geographically. This is not just navel gazing: there is a need to strengthen the legitimacy of the state so it cannot be knocked over by the army whenever they feel like it. Tied in with this are various discussions about changing the constitution (the newest plan is to up the number of additional seats for women to 100) and issues such as the fate of the Biharis. The new government has also decided to attempt to prosecute people accused of war crimes in the war of independence – previous governments had feared to investigate to closely as they were wary of what they would find.

The finger pointing from the last military interregnum in 2006-2008 hasn’t entirely subsided either. In brief, the previous BNP government came to the end of its term in 2006 and tried to hold elections under interim arrangements as they were supposed to. These elections fell apart amidst a complete lack of confidence in the system. The government’s term having expired, the army claimed they had no legitimacy and took charge. The army can scarcely claim to have any more legitimacy but in their defence they did organise elections quite quickly and competently, which were felt to be free and fair, and then they did go without making a fuss. That said, it is clearly problematic that the army can step in whenever they feel like it.

A good source of impartial information is: Whilst the television news does have a pro-government bias the press are strongly independent. The English language press tend to have a bit of an urban and middle class bias. The English language dailies are the Daily Star, the New Nation and the New Age. There are a number of political blogs. Bangladesh Politics is comprehensive and links to many of the others.

A good book is: One of the best papers on Bangladeshi politics is freely available online: The Net: power structures in ten villages is sadly as relevant today as it was when it was written in 1980.

There are several very very good books which cover Bangladesh in detail in the course of broader studies. The Military and Democracy in Asia and the Pacific is very good on the role of the military in Bangladesh, Islam, Muslims and the Modern State: Case-Studies of Muslims in Thirteen Countries is very good on the role of Islam in Bangladesh, and Local Democracy in South Asia: Microprocesses of Democratization in Nepal and its Neighbours: v. 1 (Governance, Conflict and Civic Action) is very good on the role of local government in Bangladesh.

On the other hand there isn’t really an authoritative book on Bangladesh. Religion, Identity & Politics: Essays on Bangladesh is a very good collection of essays by leading Bangladeshi scholars. Politics and Security of Bangladesh is a little dated, but I’m not sure anything as comprehensive has been written since.

When are the next elections?: Elections have to be held by 2013. The president will next be elected in 2014.


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