7. The Military and Democracy in Bangladesh

Emajuddin Ahamed


While the institutional framework for parliamentary democracy has been set up in Bangladesh, the author questions whether it can sustain democratic order. In answer, he examines the nature of the political system at independence and the emergence of the military as the ruling elite.

A high level of politicisation of the armed forces is evident, exacerbated by the training within the British Indian army of the Bangladesh Army to be ‘the custodian of law and order’ essentially setting it in opposition to the national interests and demands. The Bangladesh Army inherited both the institutional framework of its British Indian and Pakistan Army predecessors as well as their orientation against civilian rule and their sensitivity to political power.

The author concludes that the prospects for democracy are likely only if the political parties can maintain the emerging consensus and politics of compromise.

Bangladesh is at a crossroads in its march towards democratic order. Though it started its political journey with a parliamentary system after independence, it failed to sustain it; slowly but steadily the parliamentary government degenerated into an authoritarian system. As Bangladesh completes its twenty years of independence it also completes thirteen years of military rule or governments dominated by the military.

In late 1990, however, the political situation altered dramatically. Autocratic rule was ultimately defeated by a popular uprising, and General Ershad had to resign. Under the close supervision of a caretaker government headed by Chief Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed, installed after the resignation of General Ershad, a free, fair and neutral general election was held on 27 February 1991. A truly representative Jatiya Sangsad (House of the Nation) thus came into being. In a bid to democratise the polity in Bangladesh the Sangsad substantially amended the constitution. A parliamentary system of government was proposed in the Twelfth Amendment Act in August and this was ratified by a constitutional referendum on 15 September 1991.

In sum, the institutional framework for parliamentary democracy has been set up in Bangladesh. The Jatiya Sangsad, comprising directly-elected representatives of the people, has been the centrepiece of national politics; a cabinet, consisting of the leaders of the majority party, has been made accountable to the Sangsad. The prime minister, the primus inter pares, is head of the government. The constitutional head of state is the president, who is elected by the Sangsad. Steps have also been taken to institutionalise an independent judicial system.

Is the institutional framework good enough for sustaining democratic order in Bangladesh? How will the military react? In the face of the highly politicised armed forces, what is the future of democracy in Bangladesh?