Relaxation of Martial Law, 1986-87
In March 1986, Ershad removed military commanders from key civil posts and abolished martial law offices and more than 150 military courts in an attempt to ease martial law restrictions. Because these moves satisfied some of the demands of the opposition, an eight-party alliance comprising the Awami League and some smaller parties agreed to participate in parliamentary elections. However, the seven-party alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party boycotted the May 1986 elections, and according to the opposition parties the elections were marred by extensive fraud, including overt support for Jatiyo Party candidates by Ershad and other government officials, theft of ballot boxes, and beatings of opposition party workers. Official figures claimed the turnout at the polls was between 45 and 50 percent of the electorate, but other observers estimated that only 10 to 30 percent participated. The elections gave the Jatiyo Party an absolute majority of 153 seats in Parliament; its close ally, the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (National Socialist Party), took 7 seats. The Awami League gained seventy-six seats, the Jamaat e Islami took ten seats, and a number of smaller parties and independents won a total of fifty-four seats. All thirty seats reserved for women went to supporters of the Jatiyo Party, giving Ershad's supporters a comfortable majority.
With Parliament under his control, Ershad proceeded with plans for a presidential election. He resigned as army chief of staff in August 1986 but remained chief martial law administrator and commander in chief of the armed forces. He officially joined the Jatiyo Party in September, was elected its chairman, and became the party's candidate for president. The opposition parties did everything in their power to block these moves, claiming that the trappings of a democratic process were a sham while martial law was in effect. Awami League members of Parliament refused to attend its opening session, and in July Parliament adjourned for an indefinite period. Leftist parties and the alliances led by the Awami League, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and Jamaat e Islami boycotted the elections and organized widespread demonstrations, leading to the jailing of many opposition leaders and the house arrest of Hasina and Khaleda Zia. Yet the opposition's tactics did not prevent the successful completion of the presidential election in October. Ershad easily defeated 11 other candidates, officially obtaining 22 million votes (84 percent) of the electorate. Opposition parties again claimed that the election results were fraudulent, and they asserted that only 3 percent of the electorate had cast ballots.
Firmly in control of a civilian government as well as the military establishment, Ershad took steps to legitimize his rule of the previous four years. He summoned Parliament into session on November 10, 1986, to consider a seventh amendment to the Constitution, which would ratify his assumption of power in 1982 and all subsequent actions of his martial law administration. The opposition again took to the streets in protest. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Jamaat e Islami, and a leftist five-party alliance led a general strike on November 10. The Awami League, demanding the lifting of martial law, boycotted Parliament and instead held a "parallel parliament" on the stairs of Parliament House. Inside, the 223 representatives present for the session voted unanimously in favor of the Seventh Amendment, and hours later Ershad announced in a national address the withdrawal of martial law and the full restoration of the Constitution. Prime Minister Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury proclaimed these events a "glorious chapter," but Hasina described them as a "black chapter" in Bangladesh's history.
In early 1987, it appeared that Ershad had outmaneuvered his opponents and made the transition to a civilian leadership. The opposition was in disarray. By the time Awami League had decided to participate in Parliament in 1986, its coalition had shrunk from fifteen to eight parties. As a result, it had lost any opportunities it might have had for immediate cooperation with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and other parties, and it forfeited its claims to moral leadership in the fight against Ershad's regime. The rift between the Awami League and other opposition parties widened during the first half of 1987. For example, the newspapers were full of reports of the insults exchanged between Hasina and other opposition leaders. Ershad took advantage of the situation by convening Parliament in June to consider measures to consolidate his regime further. The most controversial measure was the District Council (Zila Parishad) Bill. This act expanded representative government by allowing elected representatives (members of Parliament and chairmen of subdistrict and municipality councils) to sit on district councils, but it also made provision for members of the military to participate as nonvoting members. The opposition viewed this move as an attempt to install the armed forces in the administration of the country on a permanent basis, thus favoring Ershad and his military supporters. The furor raised by the District Council (Zila Parishad) Bill grew into a storm that reunited the opposition and seriously destabilized Ershad's government from mid-1987 to mid-1988.
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