More Opposition Pressure

More Opposition Pressure

Opposition alliances began public protests against the District Council Amendment Bill in June 1987. The five-party alliance implemented a half-day general strike in Dhaka on June 23. A week later, another half-day general strike supported by the parliamentary opposition paralyzed most cities and towns. Nevertheless, on July 12, 1987, the Jatiyo Party majority in Parliament passed the bill. Two days of strikes and public demonstrations followed. Ershad, responding to opposition pressure, sent the bill back to Parliament for "reconsideration." The opposition, realizing that its disunity would allow Ershad to strengthen his hold over the country, intensified its street demonstrations, and its leaders made moves toward greater cooperation against the government. The opposition parties called for Ershad's immediate resignation and new elections under a caretaker government. On July 24, the longest general strike in Bangladesh's history, a 54-hour campaign led by the Workers-Employees United Council (Sramik Karmachari Oikkiya Parishad), ended after 11 people were killed and 700 injured in street violence between demonstrators and security forces. In October the Workers-Employees United Council led another lengthy strike. The strike lasted for forty-eight hours and ended on October 21.

By the fall of 1987, political events had come to a head. Extensive flooding from heavy monsoon season rains led to widespread misery in the countryside and intense criticism of the government's relief efforts. Hasina and Khaleda Zia met on October 28, signaling a new phase of cooperation between the two leading opposition coalitions. A liaison committee of the eight-, seven-, and five-party alliances was formed to coordinate the moves of the opposition. The "final showdown," known as the Siege of Dhaka, occurred between November 10 and 12, when the opposition parties brought thousands of supporters into the streets. The government was well prepared for the confrontation, arresting Hasina, Khaleda Zia, and other leaders and sending thousands of security personnel into urban areas to control demonstrations.

Extensive security measures prevented a complete breakdown of public order, and after a week Dhaka was again under control. However, continuing agitation prevented a return to normal life throughout the country, leading Ershad to declare a state of emergency, with familiar restrictions on civil rights, on November 27. The opposition's tactics had shaken the government, but street violence and civil disobedience proved unable to dislodge Ershad's regime.

On December 6, 1987, Ershad dissolved Parliament, which had not met since July. According to the Constitution, he was required to arrange for new elections within ninety days. Also scheduled for early 1988 were elections for union councils and for municipal officials in Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna, and Rajshahi. These elections were occasions for further public agitation by the political opposition. In early January, five smaller parties joined the opposition coalition, which then implemented a two-day general strike on January 20 and 21. Another general strike occurred on February 6, coinciding with the last date for filing nominations for the municipal elections. On February 13 and 14, following the union council elections, the opposition held another general strike. None of these actions prevented the government from implementing its election plans, but they kept the nation in a state of constant protest; the opposition may have hoped that Ershad's supporters in the military would eventually view him as a political liability and force him to resign.

The elections for union councils on February 10, 1988, were particularly hard fought, and they became a major security problem for the government. There were 115,000 candidates vying for 44,000 positions at 20,000 polling stations throughout the country. Widespread violence marred the elections. The official count listed 85 dead and about 500 injured, although opposition figures claimed 150 had been killed and up to 8,000 had been wounded in street battles between demonstrators and security forces. Election violence forced re-voting at 5,500 polling centers in early April, bringing another round of violence that left 4 dead and 100 more injured.

After the union council elections, the government deployed numerous police and paramilitary personnel and army troops for the parliamentary elections held on March 3, 1988. Schools were closed March 1-5, and a public holiday was declared during the two days before the elections. The Awami League's eight-party coalition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party's seven-party coalition, the leftist five-party coalition, and Jamaat e Islami led a general opposition boycott. There were 1,168 candidates competing for the 300 seats. The Jatiyo Party won 251 seats, and the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal, a close ally of the Jatiyo Party in the preceding Parliament, won 21 seats. Other small parties and independents took only 27 seats. The opposition again claimed a very small voter turnout in these elections--about 1 percent--while the government claimed a 50 percent turnout.

Ershad's style of democracy--which did not include the participation of the opposition--had weathered a long political storm. On April 12, 1988, he lifted the state of emergency, and Parliament duly convened on April 25 amid another general strike. Ershad took the occasion of his opening speech to Parliament to advocate Islam as the state religion. This call grew from Ershad's long-term commitment to Islam as an integral part of state ideology, but it also brought his party's position closer to that of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Jamaat e Islami, and smaller fundamentalist parties. Again Ershad appeared to be making overtures for a reconciliation with part of the opposition. On June 7, 1988, Parliament, dominated by the Jatiyo Party, passed the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, making Islam the state religion and setting up six permanent high court benches outside Dhaka. The parliamentary opposition voted against the measure, and a general strike paralyzed Dhaka.

After six years in power, Ershad could look back on a series of major personal achievements. He had reconciled differences in the armed forces and prevented further military coups, efficiently managed international diplomacy and aid programs, and guided the country through a period of modest economic growth. He served as chief executive of Bangladesh for a longer period than any leader since independence and, in doing so, brought a sense of stability to the nation. However, Ershad had also kept opposition politicians from sharing power, and although he engineered the change from direct military rule to a civilian government, he made no progress in reconciling the political opposition to his regime. Despite the trappings of a democratic system, the government remained a structure for one-man rule, with a packed Parliament, a handpicked judicial system, and questionable election practices. The opposition conducted its politics in the streets and refused to grant any legitimacy to Ershad. Stability depended on Ershad's personal survival and his ability to keep street politics under control.


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