427Published on February 20, 2023
Let's examine the historical context of how BNP leader Khaleda Zia became one of the world's shortest-serving prime ministers, yet again through coercion.
On this day, February 15th in 1996, the dictator BNP plunged Bangladesh's electoral system and democracy into the darkness like its founded dictator Ziaur Rahman did during his tenure. The ruling BNP, led by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, organized the 6th national parliament election as part of a conspiracy to hold onto power. Despite mass resistance and a boycott from all opposition parties, the BNP resorted to force to seize power. In 48 constituencies, the ruling party's candidates were elected without opposition as there were no contesting candidates. The election environment was so chaotic that the results of 10 constituencies did not reach the Election Commission. Ultimately, the BNP captured 97 per cent of the seats in the election, with the opposition leader's chair being taken by Khandaker Abdur Rashid, a self-confessed murderer of the father of the nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. This election was widely rejected by the opposition political parties and the ordinary people of Bangladesh.
The 1996 parliamentary election revealed the BNP's autocratic attitudes, which were established by dictator Zia. Throughout the BNP regime, the election culture has been consistently terrible. The 1996 parliamentary election gained international media attention, with the New York Times reporting that voter turnout was less than 10%. This was also the case in the Magura and Mirpur by-elections, where the ruling BNP resorted to extensive rigging to secure their party candidate's victory. The Bangladesh Awami League, along with other major political parties, boycotted the February 15 election and launched a mass movement led by Bangabandhu's daughter, Sheikh Hasina.
The 1996 elections mirrored the 1988 elections under the autocratic regime of Ershad. BNP candidates did not face any rivals in any of the constituencies. Like the 1988 elections, the Freedom Party, led by Rashid and Farooq, also participated in the election. Farooq, who admitted to killing Bangabandhu, contested in Dhaka's Ramna constituency.
The BNP had become increasingly unpopular due to the government's failures, irregularities, and political misconduct in previous years, which led to growing public discontent and mistrust across the country. Recognizing that they would not be able to come to power through fair elections, the BNP leaders, with the backing of the Election Commission headed by Justice AKM Sadeq, conspired to hold the sixth parliamentary elections in a single and authoritarian manner to regain power.
Not only did other political parties boycott the election, but they also took to the streets with the people to resist it. Even the candidates who were running in the election did not engage in any public campaigning. On the day of the election, there was widespread chaos, vandalism, and arson in the polling stations. Large numbers of people across the country spontaneously boycotted the election. The violence and clashes that ensued resulted in the deaths of 150 innocent people. The New York Times reported that 12 people were killed on the day of the election alone, and many polling stations had very few voters. The next day, various media outlets, both domestic and foreign, published images of empty polling centers.
Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain, a member of the BNP standing committee, later admitted that the election held on February 15, 1996, was unfair. The people of the country rejected the one-sided election with disgust, as it lacked acceptance and credibility both at home and abroad. Starting from February 16, violent reactions, anger, and demonstrations erupted throughout the country against the BNP government. Despite this, the BNP formed the government and appointed Khandaker Abdur Rashid, the self-confessed murderer of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, as the leader of the opposition in the national parliament, which tarnished the parliament's image. The Freedom Party candidate Rashid won from Comilla.
Although voting took place in 252 constituencies, the results for only 242 constituencies were published in the form of a gazette by the election commission. The movement against the BNP government spread quickly as people's anger and frustration boiled over, sparking protests throughout Bangladesh. BNP found itself isolated on all sides, with ordinary citizens spontaneously forming the "Janatar Manch" to bring down the illegitimate government. The people's fury turned into a mass uprising, forcing the autocratic Khaleda Zia government to resign in the face of a popular movement led by the Awami League. The Khaleda Zia government fell on March 30th, parliament was dissolved, and power was handed over to Justice Habibur Rahman, chief adviser to the caretaker government. The uncompromising leadership of Bangabandhu's daughter Sheikh Hasina played a pivotal role in securing the people's victory.
BNP's decision to go against public opinion and hold the farcical election on February 15th set a scandalous precedent in Bangladeshi history. The subsequent formation of parliament and government was the shortest in the country's history, and Khaleda Zia's record was nothing short of disgraceful.