Emerging Opposition, 1983-86
Ershad had a clear political stage for about a year after the coup because of his severe repression of opposition parties and because of intense factional fighting within all major political groupings. By early 1983, however, a pattern of confrontation politics had emerged. This pattern dominated the public life of Bangladesh until the late 1980s. Paradoxically, the government's Islamic policies provided a common cause for the first large anti-Ershad demonstrations. A proposed education program was designed to introduce English and Arabic as compulsory subjects in primary and secondary schools. This touched sensitive nationalist nerves, especially among university students, who saw it as a threat to the Bangla language. Several of Ershad's speeches favoring a stronger Islamic movement provoked riots on university campuses, which escalated into battles between students and police on February 14 and 15, 1983. Although the government imposed a curfew and closed the universities, the student movement stirred the opposition into more unified coalitions.
Dozens of political parties existed in Bangladesh during the 1980s, but the two major opposition parties to Ershad's rule were the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The Awami League, which originated in 1949 and emerged preeminent at the beginning of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's era, gradually united around the leadership of Sheikh Hasina Wajed, Mujib's eldest daughter. A fifteen-party alliance led by the Awami League began to act in unison during 1983. The leadership of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party fell to Begum Khaleda Zia, the widow of President Zia, and the party became the center of a seven-party alliance distinct from the one led by the Awami League. The two major alliances distrusted each other intensely, but they formed the heart of a larger thirty-two-party front, comprising socialist, communist, and Islamic groups, called the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy. This movement adopted a five-point program demanding an end to martial law, restoration of fundamental rights, parliamentary elections, release of political prisoners, and the trial of persons responsible for police brutality in the February student protests. The opposition alliances successfully engineered two general strikes in November 1983, the second resulting in widespread violence and hundreds of casualties among demonstrators and security personnel.
Political events for the next several years revolved around attempts by the Ershad government to move from a military dictatorship to a civilian government with the cooperation of the political opposition. Ershad's program called for local elections at the union and subdistrict levels, followed by presidential and parliamentary elections, while a national party supporting the government would integrate all political groups in the same way the Bangladesh Nationalist Party had functioned during Zia's regime. Ershad relaxed the ban on political activities in January 1984 and repeatedly called for dialogue with opposition parties, but the major opposition alliances adamantly refused to cooperate while martial law remained in effect. The government held elections for union and municipal councils between December 1983 and February 1984, but repeated public demonstrations by opposition parties forced the cancellation of subdistrict and parliamentary elections. A rising crescendo of violence and civil disobedience led Ershad to reimpose harsh martial law restrictions in March 1985 and to put under house arrest Hasina, Khaleda Zia, and other opposition leaders. The government-sponsored party, Jana Dal (People's Party), had been formed in November 1983, but it had little chance to become organized before the new ban on political activity went into effect.
In 1985 the government went ahead with a "civilianization" program without the participation of the opposition parties. With martial law being fully enforced, a referendum was held on March 21, asking voters: "Do you support the policies of President Ershad, and do you want him to continue to run this administration until a civilian government is formed through elections?" The official count of "yes" votes amounted to 32,539,264, while "no" votes totaled 1,290,217. The opposition had organized a general strike on referendum day and subsequently claimed that the results were fraudulent. In May the government conducted subdistrict council elections. Run on a nonparty, nationwide basis, the elections featured 2,300 candidates competing for 458 seats as council chairmen. Keen local contests occurred amid widespread violence and claims of fraud by the opposition. After these elections, the government released Hasina, Khaleda Zia, and the other opposition leaders from house arrest, and on October 1 it canceled the ban on indoor meetings and rallies of political parties. Meanwhile, the pro-government Jana Dal became the leading component of the new Jatiyo Party (National Party), which featured members who had played prominent roles in Ershad's cabinet. By late 1985, the stage had been set for parliamentary elections. Despite constant opposition party pressure, Ershad's regime had used its control over the government and the military to maneuver the country toward civilian rule.
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