The National Party

The National Party

One of the most salient characteristics of Bangladeshi politics has been the drive toward the concentration of power in a single party headed by a strong executive. This process began in 1975 when the Awami League, even with a huge mandate from the people, proved incapable of governing the country, prompting Mujib to form a monolithic national party, the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (Bangladesh Peasants, Workers, and People's League). After Zia consolidated his military dictatorship, he formed his own Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which took control of Parliament and attracted opportunistic politicians from the opposition to a strong, centrist platform. Ershad's regime followed Zia's model, with martial law succeeded by the formation of a centrist party-- the Jatiyo Party--and the orchestration of a civilian government supporting a strong executive. Each time a new national party came to power, it banished the opposition into illegal status or manipulated the administrative machinery for its own advantage, driving the opposition into the streets. Parliamentary elections mirrored this process. The Awami League, which was dominant in the early 1970s, progressively moved to the periphery of the electoral process in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, despite continuing support for its programs from large segments of the population. The same fate was in store for the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which thrived while Zia lived but was reduced to boycotting the electoral process after 1981. The Jatiyo Party, created by Ershad and his colleagues, became stronger over time as it attracted increasing numbers of politicians. This process continued into the late 1980s because the strong executive, who controlled the country's administration, media, and security forces, was able to keep opposition parties off balance with a "carrot and stick" strategy.

The party in power periodically offered attractive government posts to opposition leaders in return for political loyalty or neutrality. During the presidencies of Zia and Ershad, the number of cabinet positions steadily expanded, as potentially influential politicians received rewards for cooperating with the party in power. Before elections, or at about the time of major parliamentary votes, newspapers have carried stories about entire labor unions or blocs of opposition workers who joined the president's party. Reverse currents were observed in the mid-1980s, as individual leaders fell from favor and lost their cabinet posts or else left the national party to form their own political factions, but the overall trend was toward a steady increase in the membership and influence of the dominant party.

Ershad, following the example of Zia's Self-Sufficient Village Government Plan, used administrative decentralization to allocate resources to the grass-roots level, bypassing the local opposition party apparatus and providing a strong incentive for leaders at the village level to support his party. This strategy isolated the opposition parties in urban areas, while the national party disbursed patronage in rural areas. The local elites were opportunistic, changing their affiliations in order to obtain the largest amount of aid for their constituencies. A study of union council chairmen after the 1984 elections revealed that 38 percent had changed party affiliations within the previous 10 years; 53 percent supported the Jana Dal, which had been in existence for 12 months, while only 19 percent supported the Awami League and 8 percent backed the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. In the 1985 subdistrict elections, after the Jana Dal had existed for 2 years, 207 of 460 chairmen supported Ershad's party, and the Jana Dal exercised political control over 44 percent of the nation's districts. This was notable progress for a party with a program essentially the same as that of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (the party in total control only five years earlier), which controlled only 34 (7.4 percent) of the subdistrict chairmanships. The Awami League, which had dominated the nation 10 years earlier, controlled only 53 (11.5 percent) of the chairmanships.

Military support has been a crucial component of the success of the national party. In the 1970s, observers were unwilling to predict the actions of the military because it was torn by internal divisions between freedom fighters and returnees from West Pakistan, political groups of the far left and the right, and factional infighting among leftist factions. Zia moved to stabilize the military through a purge of unreliable personnel, more than 1,100 of whom were executed, and through steady progress in professionalizing the services, incorporating elements from both freedom fighters and returnees. The strong trend under Zia and Ershad away from the Awami League and the Soviet Union decreased communist and Maoist influences, which had been very strong during the 1970s. By the 1980s, it appeared that military officers were the most interested in adequate financial support for the armed forces and limitation of civilian political turmoil. The slow expansion of the military and the opportunity for military leaders to gain administrative positions under Ershad convinced potential military rivals that he represented their interests. Ershad at first followed up on his promises to include the military in civil administration through legislative means, but when he later backed away from the District Council Bill, there were no major stirrings within the military. A more difficult challenge was the Siege of Dhaka in late 1987, with massive street violence, but again the military did not act. Apparently, Ershad and his Jatiyo Party were able to keep political disorder within bounds acceptable to the military leadership.


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