Bangladesh is a republic with a non-executive President. Under the Twelfth Constitutional Amendment (1991) there is a parliamentary system. The unicameral parliament (Jatiya Sangsad) comprises 300 directly elected members from geographical constituencies for five-year terms, plus 50 seats reserved for women nominated by political parties – based on their share of the elected seats – and then voted on by sitting lawmakers. The allocation of seats reserved for women was provided by the Fourteenth Constitutional Amendment (2004). One parliamentary candidate can stand in up to three constituencies. If a candidate wins in more than one constituency a by-election or by-elections are called. Parliament may sit no longer than five years. Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority of parliament.
Executive power is with the Prime Minister, who heads a council of ministers (the cabinet), and whose advice is necessary for all presidential acts. The head of state is the President who is elected by the national parliament for a five-year term. The presidency is a largely ceremonial role, although the President appoints members of the cabinet and the judiciary and has the power to dissolve parliament.
The Thirteenth Constitutional Amendment (1996) required a nonpartisan caretaker administration to oversee the election process. However, following a Supreme Court judgment in May 2011 which had found it to be illegal, on 30 June 2011 the Jatiya Sangsad repealed the Thirteenth Amendment.
In November 2007 the caretaker government declared the independence of the judiciary from the executive, following a directive issued by the Supreme Court in December 1999 – in accordance with Article 22 of the Constitution of Bangladesh. Previous elected governments of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Awami League had effectively filibustered implementing the directive.
Following a very violent campaign, in October 2001, the four-party alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) won a surprise landslide victory, taking a total of 214 of the directly elective seats; the Awami League took 62 and the Islamic National Unity Front, which included a faction of the Jatiya Party led by Hossain Ershad, 14.
Although international observers declared the general election to be largely free and fair and both the head of the caretaker government and the chief election commissioner rejected the Awami League’s allegation of massive vote-rigging, Sheikh Hasina called for the elections to be run again, threatening mass protests and a parliamentary boycott, which had characterised opposition politics during previous administrations. The Awami League subsequently returned to parliament and assumed its role as opposition.
The political temperature remained very high in 2003. In June 2003 the Awami League began a boycott of parliament, which continued until June 2004. During 2004 the opposition called 21 general strikes as part of a campaign to oust the government.
In October 2006, a general election was called for January 2007 and President Iajuddin Ahmed formed a caretaker government. In early January 2007, it was confirmed that the Awami League and other smaller opposition parties were to boycott the election on the belief that the interim government and election commission were biased. Following national transport blockades raised by Awami League supporters who wanted the election postponed and ensuing riots, a state of emergency was imposed and President Ahmed postponed the election, stood down as chief adviser of the interim government and was succeeded by Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed, former central bank governor. The Election Commission then established a road map for electoral reform, including preparation of a new voters’ list with photographs.
The election – held in December 2008 with Commonwealth observers present – was won by the alliance led by the Awami League, which itself took 230 seats; its ally the Jatiya Party 27. The BNP won 30 seats and its allies three. The turnout of the electorate was a record 87 per cent. Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina was sworn in as Prime Minister in January 2009. On 11 February, Zillur Rahman was elected unopposed to replace Iajuddin Ahmed as non-executive President.
In late February 2009, the new government faced its first crisis when a section of the paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) mutinied, ostensibly over pay and conditions. Officials reported 74 deaths – mostly BDR officers – and more than 1,000 soldiers were arrested and interrogated. Six special military courts were established in November 2009 to try BDR personnel accused of mutiny, while others charged with murder, looting and other serious offences were put to trial in civilian courts. On 23 January 2011 the BDR was officially renamed Border Guard of Bangladesh in accordance with the ‘Border Guard Bangladesh Bill 2010’ passed by the parliament on 8 December 2010.
In late 2010 the government established a tribunal to prosecute those accused of committing war crimes during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971. From January 2013 the first verdicts were given; the first group to appear before the tribunal comprised nine leading members of Jamaat-e-Islami and two members of the opposition BNP and violent protests erupted in early March.
President Zillur Rahman died on 20 March 2013. Speaker Abdul Hamid, who had been acting President since 14 March, was elected President unopposed by parliament on 22 April and was sworn in on 24 April.
The election on 5 January 2014 was boycotted by the BNP, which had called for the polls to be held under a caretaker government. As a result, voting took place in only 147 of the country’s 300 constituencies, with 153 seats uncontested. The Awami League obtained 231 seats overall, achieving a two-thirds majority in parliament. The Jatiya Party took 34 seats and formed the parliamentary opposition. However, the Jatiya Party also accepted several cabinet positions.
Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma said on 6 January 2014 that: ‘The limited levels of participation and the low voter turnout are disappointing. The acts of violence are deeply troubling …Therefore, it is critical that Bangladesh moves quickly to find a path forward through dialogue to a more inclusive and peaceful political process in which the will of the people can be fully expressed.’ The new government was sworn in on 12 January.