Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. H.M. Ershad assumed power in a bloodless coup in March 1982. Like his predecessors, Ershad suspended the constitution and--citing pervasive corruption, ineffectual government, and economic mismanagement--declared martial law. The following year, Ershad assumed the presidency, retaining his positions as army chief and CMLA. During most of 1984, Ershad sought the opposition parties' participation in local elections under martial law. The opposition's refusal to participate, however, forced Ershad to abandon these plans.
Ershad sought public support for his regime in a national referendum on his leadership in March 1985. He won overwhelmingly, although turnout was small. Two months later, Ershad held elections for local council chairmen. Pro-government candidates won a majority of the posts, setting in motion the President's ambitious decentralization program.
Political life was further liberalized in early 1986, and additional political rights, including the right to hold large public rallies, were restored. At the same time, the Jatiyo (People's) Party, designed as Ershad's political vehicle for the transition from martial law, was established.
Despite a boycott by the BNP, led by President Zia's widow, Begum Khaleda Zia, parliamentary elections were held on schedule in May 1986. The Jatiyo Party won a modest majority of the 300 elected seats in the national assembly. The participation of the Awami League--led by the late Prime Minister Mujib's daughter, Sheikh Hasina Wajed--lent the elections some credibility, despite widespread charges of voting irregularities.
Ershad resigned as Army Chief of Staff and retired from military service in preparation for the presidential elections scheduled for October. Protesting that martial law was still in effect, both the BNP and the AL refused to put up opposing candidates. Ershad easily outdistanced the remaining candidates, taking 84% of the vote. Although Ershad's government claimed a turnout of more than 50%, opposition leaders and much of the foreign press estimated a far lower percentage and alleged voting irregularities.
Ershad, continued his stated commitment to lift martial law. In November 1986, his government mustered the necessary two-thirds majority in the national assembly to amend the constitution and confirm the previous actions of the martial law regime. The President then lifted martial law, and the opposition parties took their elected seats in the national assembly.
In July 1987, however, after the government hastily pushed through a controversial legislative bill to include military representation on local administrative councils, the opposition walked out of parliament. Passage of the bill helped spark an opposition movement that quickly gathered momentum, uniting Bangladesh's opposition parties for the first time. The government began to arrest scores of opposition activists under the country's Special Powers Act of 1974. Despite these arrests, opposition parties continued to organize protest marches and nationwide strikes. After declaring a state of emergency, Ershad dissolved parliament and scheduled fresh elections for March 1988.
All major opposition parties refused government overtures to participate in these polls, maintaining that the government was incapable of holding free and fair elections. Despite the opposition boycott, the government proceeded. The ruling Jatiyo Party won 251 of the 300 seats. The parliament, while still regarded by the opposition as an illegitimate body, held its sessions as scheduled and passed a large number of bills, including, in June 1988, a controversial constitutional amendment making Islam Bangladesh's state religion.
By 1989, the domestic political situation in the country seemed to have quieted. The local council elections were generally considered by international observers to have been less violent and more free and fair than previous elections. However, opposition to Ershad's rule began to regain momentum, escalating by the end of 1990 in frequent general strikes, increased campus protests, public rallies, and a general disintegration of law and order.
On December 6, 1990, Ershad offered his resignation. On February 27, 1991, after two months of widespread civil unrest, an interim government oversaw what most observers believed to be the nation's most free and fair elections to date.
Photo: Thierry Charlier/Camera Press/Globe Photos, Inc.
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