The Awami League at 60

Posted in politics by jrahman on June 26, 2009

This week, the Awami League — Bangladesh’s very own Grand Old Party — turned 60.  The story of its first quarter century — from Pakistan’s first opposition party to the party of Bengali Muslim middle class to  the nationalist movement to a fascist dictatorship’s denouement in fratricide — is widely known, and needs no repeating in this blog.   Instead, I’ll write about the last 30 years.  How did AL recover from 1975?  Why did it win in December?  Where do various factions fit today?  And what may tomorrow hold?   

In Feb 1979, in the first post-1975 parliamentary election, AL reveived 24.55% of votes (against BNP’s 41.16%).  AL campaigned on a return to parliamentary democracy.  Barely four years after Bakshal, this must have rung hollow.  It talked about bringing to book the killers of the 15 August massacre.  But that also sounded incredible coming from Abdul Malek Ukil, the then party leader, since  in August 1975 he welcomed the gruesome event as the ‘fall of the Pharaoh’.   It promised secularism, but what that meant was never spelt out. 

Still recovering from the massive anti-incumbency wave for its governance failure, without a coherent leadership team, and facing a tremendously popular president, no one expected AL to win.  In fact, contemporary media reports suggest left parties were expected to do better than AL — their student wings controlled most campuses at that time.  As such, the election’s confirmation that AL was the major opposition party must have been greeted as a good result. 

AL was also the major opposition to Gen Ershad’s rule, winning 26.15% of votes in May 1986 election.  That election was widely considered to have been rigged, and many contest the fairness of the 1979 election too.  But the Feb 1991 election is generally accepted to be a free and fair one. 

Running on the similar issues as in 1979 (and in 1981 presidential election or 1986 parliamentary one) AL won 30.08% of votes (against BNP’s 30.81% and Jatiya Party’s 11.92%). 

That is, after well over a decade of post-1975 politics, AL commanded support of around 30% of the voting population, against Ziaur Rahman’s political followers’ combined total of over 40%. 

Then something happened in the 1990s.  In June 1996, AL won 37.44% (BNP won 33.6% and JP 16.4%).  In October, after five years of being in government, its vote share went up to 40.02% (against BNP’s 41.4% and JP’s 7.22%).   Considering that by 2001, JP became mainly a regional party, and abstracting from the alliance with Jamaat, it is fair to say that by 2001, AL had achieved parity with Zia’s political coalition. 

In the following 8 years, BNP would suffer a massive setback, and AL would receive more votes than any other party in our history (save its own achievements in the early 1970s).

How did this happen?

Let’s think through the ingredients of Zia’s coalition, and how AL adopted to those.

  • Personality cults. 

Early 1990s: Zia’s war hero status and an honest, hard-working leader still fresh in public memory.  Khaleda Zia’s anti-Ershad stance. 

Early 2000s: Zia’s memory faded.  People begun to forgot governance failure of the Mujib era, but remembered Mujib’s glorious leadership before 1971.

Now: Zia brand means the general’s young, arrogant, allegedly corrupt sons.  The 2004 grenade attack and then minus-2 boosted Hasina’s image.

  • Governance performance. 

Early 1990s: Public still remembered the Mujib government’s failures.

Early 2000s: In office, AL showed it was just as competent as, if not more than, BNP. 

Now: BNP lost all claim to competent governance.  Hasina’s 5 years in office compared very well.

  • Foreign affairs. 

Early 1990s: AL still dogged by the perception of being too friendly to India. 

Late 2000s/now: On India, the two major parties really don’t differ much in practice, making BNP’s anti-India rhetoric hollow.

  • Identity issues. 

By the 1990s, Bengali Muslims’ generations-long identity crisis resolved itself.  A new generation emerged for whom Bangladeshi was the only identity that made sense.  As a result, identity politics lost potency.   

So, for symbolic reasons as well as for concrete achievements in office, AL closed the gap with BNP by 2001.  That election was settled by campaigns and alliance arithmetic. 

Before the 2008 election, looking at the massive crowds Khaleda Zia was pulling, pundits like Mahmudur Rahman or Nayeemul Islam Khan saw a BNP resurgence.  Others like Asif Nazrul (and yours truly) figured a much closer contest based on past trends.  Everyone assumed that the new voters would vote like their parents or elder siblings. 

They didn’t.  As far as we can tell, they voted overwhelmingly for AL.

Let’s look at some numbers.  First-timers made up 23% of total voters.  We know that they turned out heavily in the election.   It’s reasonable to assume that they made up about a quarter of all votes cast.  For simplicity, if we asusme that the rest of the 75% voted pretty much same way as they did in 2001, then both parties would have received about 30% votes. 

What was the final tally?  AL 49% against BNP 33.2%.  That is, the young voters broke decisively for AL. 

We can go slightly better at guessing why people (not just young ones) voted AL in December.  According to opinion polls done by AC Nielsen and the Daily Star, over 40% of the respondents mentioned high prices as a key issue facing the new government.  Similar proportion again rated prices as the key issue the government should focus on when polled in April.  In the April poll, three-quarters of the respondents thought the government’s major success was managing the prices well. 

That is, as far as we can tell, if there was one issue that attracted voters to AL in December, and one issue behind its solid popularity in April, it was prices.  And it’s easy to see why.  Look at this chart showing price of boiled rice (dotted lines mark the time of AL, BNP, and the 1/11 regime taking office).

rice prices




So much for how AL got here.  What does the future hold?

First thing to note is that the AL chief has never been more powerful.  The old guards — Tofail Ahmed, Abdur Razzaque etc — who posed significant counterweights against Hasina’s leadership until 1/11 are now sidelined.  There are still speculations among the followers of the old guard that one, or more, of their leaders need to be brought into the cabinet.  In April, for example, there was a lot of talk of ‘only Tofail can control BCL’. 

Can the old guards make one last stand?  That is one major question facing the party.

If the old guards are sidelined, then who are ‘in’ these days? 

The cabinet, it seems, is dominated by two groups of people.  First there are former communists: Motia Chowdhury, Nurul Islam Nahid, Yafes Osman etc.  This may well be the most leftist government we’ve ever had.  Then there are those with whom Hasina may share a ‘bond of tragedy’ — Syed Ahraful, Sohel Taj etc — or those who personally stood by her after 1/11 — Sahara Khatun, Barrister Shafique etc. 

And conspicuously present in a sort of state consort capacity is the PM’s sister. 

There are two other factions who would have rejoiced the end of the old guard, but currently may end up alligning with them: the post-1975 khandani AL-ers — Obaidul Kader, Sultan Mansur Ahmed etc, people who kept AL alive at the campuses and districts; and the post-1990 amdani AL-ers — bureaucrats/businessmen/professionals like MK Alamgir, Saber H Chowdhury etc who made AL trustworthy for the urban elite. 

And complicating factional calculations is the faultline that runs across the party on how to treat 1/11.   To the victims of that coup, 1/11 is something that shouldn’t be forgiven.  But to many others, there is a sense that without 1/11, AL couldn’t be where it is today. 

Sheikh Hasina’s achievement in politics is not usually noted.  Five elections in a row, over three decades, where the party increased its vote every time — this is impressive for any leader anywhere in the world. 

But all things must end some day.  Over the next five years, in addition to running the country, Hasina will have to set the stage for an eventual leadership transition. 

Jockeying for that, however, has already begun — see the photo.





How this unfolds will shape where Bangladesh ends up in 2021.


8 Responses

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  1. […] (More at Mukti) […]

  2. Quadir said, on June 28, 2009 at 8:06 am

    Happy birthday to the party that dealt the biggest blow to Muslim unity in the history of the subcontinent

    Anways, of late they have taken up a lot of massive development projects. wish them the best of luck with that!

  3. FAROOQ said, on September 14, 2009 at 5:18 am


  4. What divides us « Mukti said, on October 19, 2009 at 7:50 am

    […] have discussed why AL won here (Syeed Ahamed provides a more detailed analysis here).  The point to note here is that India or […]

  5. […] Filed under: politics — jrahman @ 4:38 pm Tags: Awami League I posted on its 60th birthday when, arguably, the Awami League was at its zenith.  I noted Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s […]

  6. […] While he could have chosen the path of Ayub and ban all politicians in the previous Awami League government, or like Mujib form a ‘national party’ of his own with a monopoly on power, or like the Pakistani Zia and Musharraf (and our Moeen) exile opposition leaders, Zia actually invited people like Kamal Hossain and Hasina Wajed back to the country to rebuild Awami League.  […]

  7. Forget about Mahmudur Rahman « Mukti said, on August 6, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    […] Joy Bangla and Allah Akbar with a cult of personality around Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.  This is the Hasina synthesis, which is articulated in the 15th Amendment, and is the Awami League is the party of Joy […]

  8. […] always maintained that Sheikh Hasina is an exceptionally able politician — you don’t increase your vote share 5 elections in a row otherwise.  The notion that she is blinded by personal vendetta is, I find, a tad bit […]

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