Political culture in Bangladesh 

Md Ruknuzzaman
Md Ruknuzzaman
19 Min Read
Image source: The Financial Express

Presently, most of the developing countries are trying to establish democratic political culture in their domestic politics. Bangladesh is also an emerging country which has been passing a very crucial situation for a long time in its political arena to do this. The essential prerequisites of developed political culture were almost absent in our politics since its beginning. The reasons are many. As other developing and new independent states, Bangladesh also needs to overcome many challenges of its political system.

Among all those challenges, the establishment of democracy, eradication of corruption, establishment of rule of law, ensuring an independent judicial system, proper institutionalization of politics, arrangement of impartial, free, fair and periodical elections, practicing tolerance and moral values among the political parties and leaders etc. are more important.

After the independence of Bangladesh, most of the political parties have taken serious attempts to develop political culture. But, because of violating the principles of democratic values by both the ruling and the opposition parties, Bangladesh has not yet achieved its expected goal of political culture. My present study is an attempt to summarize the nature of Bangladeshi political culture by analyzing the political activities. 

Political culture of Bangladesh
Political culture of Bangladesh. Image: Nuraldeen

The political culture of a nation consists of the characteristic attitudes of its population towards basic features of the political system – the nature of the regime toward specific political institutions, toward particular incumbency of such institutions or offices, toward the policy outputs of the system of the government. Actually, the relation between political culture and political system is reciprocal.

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So, the nature of political culture depends on beliefs, values and attitudes of political personnel towards politics and political institutions. In a stable political system, homogeneous and integrated types of political culture are found. Because, a general agreement among the entire population exists there.

On the contrary, where the people are not homogeneous, generally, they do not share common attitudes, beliefs and orientations toward the political system. The population of Bangladesh is overwhelmingly homogeneous in comparison with other developing countries. There is no major ethnic linguistic cleavage in Bangladesh society. Over 98 percent of the population is ethnically Bengali.

The miniscule non-Bengali population is limited to the tribal areas. Ethnicity, language, caste and tribe, which are the major sources of cleavage in other states of South Asia, are not significant factors in Bangladesh society and politics. In such a socio-cultural background and with thousands of dreams Bangladesh started its journey with since 1971 under the leadership of Awami League after being liberated from Pakistan, the Bengali nation expected that the Awami League government would establish a fair environment of political culture for the nation.

But within a few years of its starting, the parliamentary democratic ideals degenerated into an authoritarian governmental system, which was abrupt and unexpected. Since then, Bangladesh has completed more than three decades of its independence and nearly two decades of re-journey of parliamentary democracy. But it has failed to establish a meaningful political culture among the political parties and citizens.

Meaning of Political Culture 

At present, among the most discussable issues and concepts in political science, the term political culture is one of them. Political culture consists of attitudes, beliefs, emotions and values of society that relate to the political system and to political issues (MacIver). It has since been employed in the comparative analysis, not simply of the developing countries, but of the developed nations as well (Almond and Verba). According to Almond, “Every political system is embedded in a particular pattern of orientations to political actions.” 

On the basis of the theoretical aspect of political culture, it is clearly understood that the nature of political culture depends on the nature of an individual’s orientation towards politics. Similarly, the pattern of individual’s participation in politics also affects the political culture of the state. In the context of developing and developed countries, the participation and responsive pattern of individuals towards politics are not the same.

In developing and transitional societies like Bangladesh, political culture tends to be fragmented rather than homogeneous. The integrated political culture is generally found in developed societies because the individuals share common orientations towards politics there. For identifying the natures of Bangladeshi political culture, it is necessary to analyze the overall political situation during the various regimes of governments. 

Politics of Bangladesh before 1990 

The emergence of Bangladesh in 1971 was a unique turning point in its political history. Immediately after liberation, the regime of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, at first introduced a Westminster type of parliamentary government system under the first constitution of Bangladesh in 1972 containing the high ideals of nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism.

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But after some days of the newly introduced constitution, some political parties started violent actions at various places and launched their struggle to unseat the government. The law and order situations were broken. In order to deal with the worsening condition in the country, resulting from the armed threat of the radical opposition, deteriorating law and order situation, factionalism in politics and other crises of the country, the government was compelled to declare an emergency on December 28, 1974.

After a few weeks of that, the constitution was amended to replace a presidential system of government (BAKSAL) instead of a parliamentary system. The regime came to an end with the overthrow of Awami League through a violent bloody coup by some alienated junior officers of the Bangladesh Army on August 15, 1975. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was killed by them. 

The Killing of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had resulted in a great political vacuum and followed by a series of military coups and counter-coups staged mainly by groups of young army officers. After the killing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the army-led civilian rule was started by Khondaker Mostaq Ahmad who ultimately failed to control the administration. At that stage, a soldiers uprising was organized under the leadership of a retired Colonel of the armed forces, Abu Taher, to bring a fundamental change in the administrative system.

But it created further instability in the political environment of Bangladesh. Then Ziaur Rahman got the advantage of soldiers’ uprising which brought him to power on 7 November 1975. After taking power, at first he tried to democratize all the political institutions of the country. He commenced a new dimension in Bangladesh politics. His political party BNP along with other political parties got the opportunities to practice political activities in full swing. The 2nd parliament election was held on 27 January 1979. But the sudden assassination of President Zia pushed Bangladesh into a leadership crisis again.

Then Abdus Sattar, the Vice President of Zia’s civilian government took the power. But, within a very short time Lt. General Ershad took over the state power by a bloodless coup on 24 March 1982 and governed the country for about nine years in an illegal and autocratic way. Like Ziaur Rahman, Ershad also organized a political party which was composed of retired army and civil service officers. Under the autocratic rule of Ershad, many national and local elections were held from 1983 to 1988 but none of them could get mental recognition from the mass people of Bangladesh.

Political and administrative corruption was vigorously increased during this regime. In this inconsistent political environment, the law and order situation was broken down. Ershad had to face a strong opposition simultaneously from the combined movements led by the two major political parties, Awami League and BNP since the start of his regime. Third and fourth parliament elections were held respectively in 1986 and 1988 under the Ershad government.

BNP boycotted all the elections held under the Ershad regime. The Awami League participated in the 1986 parliament elections but boycotted the other polls. At the beginning of 1990, all the major opposition parties including Awami League and BNP jointly started a drastic movement against the Ershad government. Ershad tried to stay in power but being faced with such a mass movement, at last, he decided to resign. On December 6, 1990, after dissolving the parliament, Ershad handed over power to the chief justice Sahabuddin Ahmed, the nominee of the combined opposition parties. 

After about one and half decade, the re-journey of parliamentary democracy started in 1991 under the twelfth amendment of Bangladesh constitution. It was a milestone of Bangladesh’s democratic history. The 5th parliamentary election was held on 27 February 1991 under the caretaker government of Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed and the winning party BNP took Jamat-e-Islami as the partner of the coalition and formed the government.

Before holding the 7th parliamentary election in 1996 Bangladesh observed many drastic political showdown of the political parties mainly between the two major parties Awami League and BNP. 

The years 1991-1996 witnessed a new phase of agonizing political movements by the opposition parties. At the end of 1993, the opposition parties raised the demand for establishment of a nonparty caretaker government and continued boycott of the parliamentary sessions for the next two years. The chain of command of the government was broken down, and law and order situations deteriorated quickly. The country was repeatedly shut down by strikes called by the Awami League. Finally, the opposition Parties led by Awami League resigned from the parliament in December 1994. 

International organizations advised both Awami league and BNP to settle existing conflicts through democratic means. But the two major political parties could not reach a peaceful decision. Facing continuous agitation by the combined opposition, the BNP chairperson, prime minister, Begum Khaleda Zia, on 24 November 1995, declared to dissolve the parliament and arrange the next general election. In that situation, the opposition parties continued their agitation demanding the 6th parliament elections under a neutral caretaker government.

But the BNP government decided to go ahead with its election plan, and ultimately the polling date for the 6th parliamentary elections was fixed on February 15, 1996. The voterless election of the 6th parliament was held on the fixed date. The new parliament met only once to pass a constitutional amendment providing for future parliament elections under a neutral caretaker government. Khaleda Zia resigned and handed over power to the caretaker government headed by former chief justice Habibur Rahman. Under this caretaker government, the 7th parliament election was held on 12 June 1996. Awami League won the election and formed the government of 7th parliament. 

Under the Awami league led Parliamentary government in 1996, 30 years Ganges Water Treaty was signed with India and in 1997 a peace accord was signed with the rebels in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The opposition party BNP and other smaller parties immediately criticized these accords and tried to protest. The opposition parties also organized violent agitation against the Awami League government. 

However, on 1st October 2001, the 8th parliamentary election was held under the caretaker Government. In this election, the BNP led four party coalition won 215 seats and Awami League won only 62 seats. In this parliament, the BNP-led 4 party alliance formed the government. During the regime of 4 party alliance, the opposition party Awami League continued the destructive agitation on various political issues. After completing a 5-year term in question of appointing the chief advisor of the caretaker government, Awami League started agitation.

On 28 October 2006, in a bloody clash between 4 party and 14 party alliances, many people died and were injured. Then, Justice Hassan expressed his inability to be the chief advisor of the caretaker government. In that context, president Iajuddin Ahmed himself took over the charge of caretaker government. But this composition of caretaker government was refused by the Awami League-led 14 party alliance. As their demand, later on a new caretaker government was installed with Dr. Fakruddin Ahmed, a former governor of the central bank. Under him, the 9th parliament election was held on 29 December 2008.

The 14 party alliance won a landslide victory with 262 seats and formed a government. After 5 years, the 10th parliamentary election was held, but the BNP did not take part in the contest. Awami League won again. 

Political agitation in Bangladesh
Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) activists shout slogans during a rally in Dhaka January 20, 2014. [Andrew Biraj/Reuters]

The 10th parliamentary elections in Bangladesh have not obtained the faith of the mass people. The New York Times considers the 10th parliamentary election “a bizarre election” due to lack of competitions and that less than 25 percent people voted. 

Nature of Bangladesh’s Political Culture 

Confrontation among the political parties has continued in Bangladesh since its liberation. Patronizing corruption and abusing power by the political leaders has created a bad situation among the political parties and the general people. Practicing dictatorship under the parliamentary democratic system has become a regular culture of contemporary Bangladesh politics. Though, after independence, the first regime of the Bangladesh government started with a parliamentary democracy, it failed to achieve the ideals, values and all other needs of democracy. Later on, no government could establish a real democratic atmosphere for the country. 

Walkouts from the parliament sessions hampered democracy. Since the independence of Bangladesh, ten parliamentary elections have been held. Among these, only three parliaments worked under the presidential system of government and the rest seven parliaments including the 10th functioned under the parliamentary system of government. The incident of walkout occurred 224 times by the combined opposition parties in the first, fifth, seventh and eight parliaments. Similarly, parliament boycott has been turned into habitual practice of the opposition parties in Bangladesh which makes the parliament ineffective. 

Political intolerance among the political parties in Bangladesh has created an unstable political situation over the past twenty three years of parliamentary democratic rule. Lack of practicing tolerance and lack of respect to others is now vigorously observed in Bangladesh politics. Though trust is another important factor of political culture, political leaders most often do not trust anybody. That’s why, at the time of holding elections, opposition parties are involved in agitation. 

Since the independence of Bangladesh, all the government regimes have nurtured corruption which expedited confrontational politics. The arrangement of one party election is a great cause of confrontation and factional politics in Bangladesh. It has accelerated mistrust among the political parties and general people. The most significant factor of our current political crisis is the absence of democracy within the political parties. Both the incumbent and the opposition parties do not practice intra and inter party democracy even in parliamentary function. 

“The time is Now‟ for Bangladesh to urgently mitigate the present uncomfortable situation. Though establishing parliamentary democratic culture was a great vision of Bangladesh’s people, the political leaders of Bangladesh gave their commitments to establish democracy, in practice, they do not follow democratic ideals and values. Besides these, it has been alleged that the politicians are the most liable for chronic corruption in Bangladesh. Massive corruption is also a great cause of disintegration among the political parties and citizens in Bangladesh. So, in this context, not only political parties but also all types of the citizens have to rethink and do all the necessaries for reforming our political culture. 

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Deputy Chief Content Writer of Contemporary Politics at The Royal Scientific Publications, Bangladesh
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