Wondering About Bangladesh

Given that Bangladesh contains roughly a hundred times more people than Gaza, it seems odd that there’s so little discussion (at least where I’m looking) of the recent election there.

From what little research I’ve done, the story so far is:

Two parties, the Awami League and the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party, have traded power for decades. Both are led by a womyn (Sheikh Hasina for the AL, Khaleda Zia for the BNP) who is the daughter or wife of a previous prime minister.

Bangladesh was at some point ranked as the most corrupt country in the world. The way things work is that at the end of each governmental term, the governmental hands over power to a ‘caretaker government’ who will then oversee and organise the next election, and who are meant to be neutral.

In 2001, the BNP convincingly won an election. In 2006, when Khaleda Zia’s term ended, she tried to appoint a caretaker who was perceived to be biased towards her BNP.

Everybody went out onto the streets to protest and fight each other. The army suspended the government and took temporary power, then held these new elections which have just finished. In these elections, the AL won very convincingly, and the BNP claims the elections were rigged but international observers seem to say they weren’t.

So I’m sitting here wondering:

1) What is the difference between the two parties? Apparently the BNP has a history of promoting education, esp. female education, which is cool. And the Awami league seems to be historically more connected to the separation from Pakistan, and friendlier towards India. It also seems to ally itself with ‘leftist’ parties and seek more support from the poor. The BNP on the other hand seems more conservative, more keen on Islam (which I think would make it more hostile to India, maybe?) and has formed alliances with an Islamist death-squad party who formed to terrorise Bangladeshis during the separation from Pakistan.

Based on those observations it seems like AL is preferable, but how significantly, I don’t know.

2) Why did people vote so heavily for the AL in 2008 – if they indeed did – and so heavily for the BNP in 2001 – if they indeed did? To put it another way – what are the ‘key issues’ that people are caring about – or do people just want an end to corruption and instability?

Any readers with a better knowledge of South Asian politics than me, contributions are welcome.

EDIT: the Economist has a few more details, informing me that the Islamist rivals of the BNP ended up with only 2 seats, and that an issue on many voters’ minds was food prices, which they want the AL to keep low for them.

4 Responses to “Wondering About Bangladesh”

  1. Prince Metternich Says:

    It appears the the founder of the BNP, the dictator Ziaur, although a hero of the liberation war played a lot more heavily on Islam as point of loyalty in the country than the Awali leader Mujibur (who wanted to continue the constitutions dedication to secularism). Which presumably alienated the Hindus and other minorities in the country and also explains the links to the Jamaat-e-Islami who opposed the partition on the grounds that an independent Bangladesh would be a lot less susceptible to Islamic influence. Zia and the BNP also have a history of more pro-market reforms whereas the Awali ended up setting up a one party socialist state in the 70s before they were overthrown. Zia overturned a lot of the collectivisation pushed through by Mujibur but they, like Khaled Zia now, put a big emphasis on education particularly in the rural areas. Maybe the attempts of both parties to improve education generate conflict because the BNP want Islamic content in the schools and the Awali are less keen, From one of her latest interviews Hasina seemed fairly set on private ownership and market driven reform too. Which would seem consistent with a global trend away from planned economies. So its likely this original split between the Awali and BNP is less significant than it was. I have no idea about why the BNP won in 2001 to lose in 2008 but it could just be standard wearyness with incumbent government. Massive ideological conflict need not be supposed. The beeb seems to think policy disputes between the main parties in Bangladesh are trivial.

  2. freethinker Says:

    I think the Awami League’s landslide win parallels the victory of People’s Party in Pakistan last year. Both the parties kept their politics separate from the influence of the religious right, although they did champion their own brand ‘socialist’ Islam.

    But BNP, founded by military dictator Zia ur Rahman and having kept alliance with the religious right from the start, has adopted harsh politics towards all opposition. Corruption and instability might be the reason people voted for BNP in 2001 but Awami League’s win right now is because of the oppression people saw with BNP’s rule. During its last term of office, the BNP was closely associated with the Islamist parties (Jamaat e Islami and Islami Oikyo Jote) that have openly supported Taliban and Al Qaeda and have connections in the military. Hallmarks of BNP’s oppressive politics include the Rapid Action Battalion est in 2004 and their persecution of the Ahmadiyya community.

  3. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Thanks guys, that’s really helpful. It’s nice to see this as a rejection of political Islam in its stronger forms, though it seems a bit like in Pakistan opposition to Islamism translates into support for the US blowing up Pakistani villages when they feel like it. I hope Bangladesh doesn’t follow a similar pattern?

  4. freethinker Says:

    Can’t say for sure but analysts are talking about how this election will lead to ‘political turmoil’. And with a highly militarized bureaucracy like Pakistan’s that could very well happen.


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