What Does An Opposition want in Bangladesh? A Paradox Revisited

“What made them defy the odds? What does the BNP want to achieve through such mass mobilisation? What message do they want to give to the Awami League? Answers to these questions are crucial to understanding the future course of Bangladesh politics.” so asks Mohammad Al-Masum Molla in The Daily Star, Dhaka’s leading English language newspaper, “Is BNP emerging as a worthy opposition?”

Reporter Molla’s questions are good ones. Here follow reflections to date gathered from many observers.

The “Bangladesh Paradox” describes A culture of confrontation that pervades politics among the major parties in Bangladesh coexisting with dramatic socio-economic improvement.

What is the Bangladesh Paradox? U.S. Ambassador and scholar, William Milam, wrote wisely:

“The paradox is that, in traditional development theory, Bangladesh should have become, over the past 25 years, a modernized democracy, knocking on the door of entry into the middle-income category of developing countries. Its economy has grown for most of the last two decades by around 5-6 % per year, and its social development indices have improved rapidly and now are better than most other South Asian countries except Sri Lanka. Instead, over those same two decades, Bangladesh has regressed along the democracy/authoritarian axis no matter which of the two major parties was in power.”

At the end of the Millennium Development Goals era, Bangladesh outranks several developing countries, including India and Pakistan. Gender and health indicators improved significantly by the early 2000s and the trend continues. “Contextual factors such as high population density facilitated the easy adoption of low-cost solutions and the quick spread of good practices.” (“Growth Governance and Corruption and Corruption in …”) Political commitments to social development ensured policy continuity across political regimes. The government of Sheikh Hasina in the last decade has made important reforms in power, indusrial growth, and in food production.

Political parties have a history of animosity and mistrust; parties often focus more on attacking their opponents than on addressing the needs of constituents. Bangladesh’s parties also tend to be hierarchical, internally undemocratic, and personality or family-based, creating minimal opportunity for party members and members of parliament to develop the innovative tools and skills needed to accurately represent their constituencies.

As individuals, political leaders in Bangladesh are exemplary, but it is a difficult environment.

Bangladesh keeps highly adaptable political economy arrangements driven by elite accommodation and informal rules of the game. The head of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, Debapriya Bhattacharya, described the current situation elliptically. 

“The history of elite commitment to development reminds me of an anecdote. There was a time when governments changed, the policy changed, and projects were cancelled. Then a time came when governments changed, policy remained unchained, but projects got cancelled. Then governments changed, the policy did not change, and projects did not get cancelled. Then governments changed, neither policy changed, nor projects got cancelled but contractors changed. Then we saw governments change but policy, projects and contractors do not change, contractors change parties.” 

The dynamic of the Bangladesh Paradox lies in the demarcation of formal and informal “rules of conduct,” the difference between formal law and informal practices. What is not always appreciated is that weak enforcement of the Rule of Law, and its accountability, means informal rules take precedence, no matter the level of “black letter” reform.

Bangladesh has problems though it is a long way from a “failed state.” In the judgment of the Economist Intelligence Unit, Bangladesh scores rank Bangladesh as a “hybrid regime” between a “flawed democracy” and an “authoritarian state.” My view. Bangladesh is a vibrant democratic state, whether all its elected officials appreciate it or not.

The list of major stakeholders in policy formation would include the following:

  • The political parties,
  • The civil service,
  • The military
  • Non-Governmental Organizations (civil society),
  • Private sector,
  • The media as aggregators of public opinion, and
  • The donor community.

Stakeholders can be identified on several criteria. Policy influence derives from the potential attraction of ideas and analysis. Such persuasiveness does not necessarily equate with political importance. The two most influential poles of policy entrepreneurship in Bangladesh are Civil Society and the now banned Jamaat-I-Islami, yet neither possesses hugely significant political strength. Overall, the policy and political values of the two will come into conflict but be moderated, interpreted and to a degree implemented through the more dominant political rivalry between the Awami League and the BNP.

Table 3: Stakeholders

StakeholdersPolicy InfluencePolitical ImportanceUnique factsAgenda
The Awami LeagueHighHighCurrently, form a government and have a broad, secular, agendaFocused on social improvement and maintenance of its network
Bangladesh Nationalist PartyModerateHighForm the Opposition but have a potential veto through the ability to organize public opinionPolicy agenda perceived as more pro-business than others
Jatiya PartyLowLowA legacy party of General M. ErshadOn occasion produces interesting positions in foreign affairs
Jamaat-I-Islami (Banned but sub rosa)HighModerateHas an extensive network of supporters within the civil serviceA long-term strategy of “Islamic values”
The GOB civil serviceHighHighCan control the pace of implementationDoes not have an agenda of its own per se beyond the maintenance of its standing
The militaryModerateHighAs demonstrated in the recent CTG, it has the ultimate veto over the governmentNo specific agenda beyond maintaining order and its privileges
Non-Governmental Organizations (civil society),ModerateModerateExceptionally large, comprises a substantial section of the educated middle class, at least the secular componentHas varied and specific agendas in all policy areas
Private sectorOccasionalModerateConcentrated in a few key export sectorsSeeks tax and subsidy advantages and increasing government intervention to control worker unrest
The mediaModerateHighProvides a highly independent voice in an authoritarian societyGenerally aligned to the social expectations of Civil Society
The donor community.OccasionalModerately HighWhile its economic role has decreased, it remains the voice of the “outside” worldA sometimes too-varied agenda of social and economic improvement
IntelligentsiaLowLowAligned and subsumed by Civil SocietyA social welfare agenda

Political Parties

Political parties control the political discourse and subsequent policy decisions in Bangladesh to a degree far beyond the practice in the U.K. and most Commonwealth countries. They are capable of about any form of coalition, except in extreme circumstances between the two major parties. At one time or another, they have all been in coalition with each other. Core values often appear malleable.

There are four major political parties in Bangladesh.

  • The Awami League headed by Sheikh Hasina,
  • The Bangladesh Nationalist Party headed by Khaleda Zia,
  • The Jatiya Party formerly headed by Mohammad Ershad, and
  • Jamaat-E-Islami headed by Emir Nizami. (Banned but sub rosa).    

 In short, the Awami League is the inheritor of the pre-independence Muslim League affiliated with the Congress Party of India. While originally a broad-based coalition party supporting an agenda, it has gradually evolved into a family-based party focused on the family of Sheikh Mujib Rahman represented by Sheikh Hasina.

The BNP is a “cantonment” party started by General Zia Rahman after he had come to power in a military coup. It has enjoyed broad support from nationalist elements within the military, businesspeople who disliked the socialism of the original Awaji League government and intellectuals alienated by the Baksal one-party movement of Sheik Mujib.

The Jatiya Party is the original “cantonment” party started by General Ershad after he seized power in a military coup in 1991. The party retains a following but has not undergone any major renewal since it left office in 2000.

(Banned but sub rosa) Jamaat-E-Islami is a cadre party rather than a coalition. It does not seek a mass membership but a dedicated group of followers. It is a fundamentalist Islamic party but also one that practices internal democracy. It does not seek an overall majority but to influence policy through strategic coalitions.

Legitimacy unresolved

The central political issue seems policy, but the continuing fierce battle over the history of who has the legitimate right to rule the country. Sheikh Hasina claims residual legitimacy (as well as her election victories) in her father’s name. Khaleda Zia claims the same in the name of her husband whom it is asserted truly declared Bangladesh independent. The two major parties have yet to reach an accommodation.

If the political contest follows along the axis of legitimacy, neither the performance of the government nor the policy alternatives of the Opposition have great relevance. Mythmaking and symbols assume greater political significance than policy action or inaction and its consequences. This may explain why successive governments have paid greater attention to the content of textbooks than to the dropout rate. If parties cannot agree on a single version of the founding of the nation, it bodes ill.

Bangladesh’s political leaders strive to move beyond the question of legitimacy to questions of performance and policy. It is a paradox that there appears only a small political price for not dealing with policy and its implementation. To borrow a metaphor from Game Theory economics, the political leadership in Bangladesh has found a stable institutional equilibrium in non-cooperation.   If one party cooperated with the other then it risks appearing to concede the opponent’s legitimacy and, therefore, calling into question its own.   Institutional survival demands the denial of any political space to the other side.

Political Debate is Largely Extra-parliamentary

The most visible symptom of the failure to move beyond the existential struggle for legitimacy has been the minor role of the Parliament as a forum either to debate policy choices or to enforce the accountability of the government to the public. While many countries have witnessed the growing power of the executive over the legislative branch, the symptom is most pronounced in Bangladesh.

However, just because the Parliament does not function well does not mean the institution is unimportant. On the contrary, election to the Parliament continues to bestow the primary sign of political authority. Party officials and advisors may have an important influence on the leaders, but they cannot act upon the fundamental political equation of power – a majority in the parliament. Though, to be sure, the Bangladeshi Constitution unwisely curtails the scope of independent parliamentary voices through Article 70 which prohibits MPs from voting against their party even on minor non-confidence issues.


An observation is that Bangladesh has an extraordinarily centralized policy process focused entirely on the party leader and her shifting coterie of top advisors. In short, only one coalition partner is needed for success thus vitiating the role and influence of other potential more socially constructive partnerships. The party leader decides everything from major budget issues to minor disputes among youth activists in district towns.

The high degree of centralization both slows down and speeds up the policy process. Every policy initiative remains in limbo until the party leader can get around to examining it. Yet, once she has decided the issue is settled irrevocably. Eceptions occur on technical matters. 

Far too many policy decisions are taken within the Prime Minister’s Office based on delegated authority from obsolete legislation. There is a fundamental problem of accountability when colonial-era legislation still provides the basis for the regulation of large swaths of Bangladesh’s economy and society. 

The Westminster ideal of collective decision-making and collective responsibility of the cabinet has limited traction in Bangladesh.  The former Prime Minister, Khaleda Zia, rarely met with her cabinet ministers and never, according to a press search, with her entire cabinet outside of party functions where she would give a speech and then leave. More important than the cabinet is, of course, the Prime Minister’s Office, but beyond that, the only substantive collective policy discussion takes place within the senior councils of the party. In this regard, the Awami League and the BNP are similar.

Role of Parliament

The role of the Parliament in the policy process is peripheral, yet still inherently important. Issues are rarely discussed in Parliament. The Committees if they meet at all are routinely ignored by the ministers who curiously hold the position of chair. The delinking of the ministers from the parliamentary committees has been an oft-raised potential reform. Opposition members, whether Awami League or BNP, boycott the chamber on a variety of pretexts. Question periods either is either a form of bitter invective if the Opposition is present or of near sycophancy if they are not.

Weakness in the Accountability

A weakness in Bangladesh’s political structures is that few oversight and accountability instruments exist. Compounding this is that the civil service by being removed from the policy process has little knowledge sometimes about the policies they are to implement and consequently has minimal commitment. A further weakness is that public opinion is only weakly heard through the media. Public consultations are rarely used, and public opinion surveys are rarely conducted or kept completely secret.

The Key is political accountability to constituents. Government safeguards fail because political safeguards fail. No more important safeguard exists than a credible and engaged Opposition. To answer the original questions by reporter Molla.