Friday, October 06, 2006

Jatiya Sangsad Elections, past and future : Election 2001

In December of 1970, I flew from Karachi to Dhaka and took a train to my village in Sylhet to vote in the first one man-one vote election held in Pakistan. The election was achieved by the people of country in a mass upsurge that established the right of one-man one vote. For the first time it gave more representation to East Pakistan in the National Assembly. As much depended on the outcome of the election, my vote was very valuable to me and hence the long journey. It was also the first time I had ever voted. I voted for then Col. M.A.G. Osmani, the Awami League candidate for the National Assembly. Col. Osmani won the seat and the Awami League went on to win 167 of the 169 National Assembly seats contested in East Pakistan. They secured 74.9% of the 57.6% votes cast in the province and 38.3% of the votes cast in the country. They won 98.76% of the provincial National Assembly seats. It was the zenith of the Awami League’s electoral achievement. In East Pakistan it seemed that every men and women had voted for the “Boat” symbol, but in fact, a quarter of the population did not.

It is often said that elections are unpredictable. This may be true in certain cases, but modern polling systems have narrowed down predictions to 3 to 4 % of the outcome, particularly in races that only have two or three main contenders. Prediction of results in multi-party, multi- ethnic parliamentary elections are more difficult due to the diverse factors at work. However even here Indian pollsters have, in recent years, had a lot of success. This is because Indian political parties have understood the shortcomings of Parliamentary systems where ”first past the post” wins the seat. In most cases the number of seats won does not reflect the amount of popular votes won. Old European parliamentary systems, as well as new democracies such as South Africa and Thailand, have adopted changes in the form of party lists that give weightage to votes won, to the number of seats won. This in fact, means that political parties get seats in parliament that reflect popular will in the form of votes won in the election. This is not the case in India or Bangladesh. In India the political parties have tried to resolve the problem by making electoral alliances. The idea is to narrow the division of votes among parties of similar ideas and programs. This has worked remarkably well in the recent few general elections, particularly against the Congress Party, who in spite of actually increasing their popular vote in the last election, saw their seats in parliament fall drastically.

In Bangladesh, an electoral alliance was tried only once, in East Pakistan province, in 1954. The United Front (of which the Awami League was the major component) won 228 of the 237 Muslim seats. The alliance government lasted less then two months as the Governor-General arbitrarily, and in a conspiratorial manner, dismissed the provincial government.

An electoral alliance is only possible when the voting population is divided along certain lines, be it religious, ethnic, cultural or political. Bangladesh is a homogeneous society with a single language, largely a single religion and similar culture. Its political division lies in its political legacy, and that is both the political strength and the electoral weakness of our political parties, including the Awami League.
1977 to 1989

The first election under the new constitution of Bangladesh was held in 1973. 55.62% of an electorate of 34 million cast their votes. The election was not without controversy. The AL won 291 0f the 300 general seats. The second election in Bangladesh was the presidential elections of 1978. Ziaur Rahman, as the candidate of the anti-AL alliance got 76.67% of the approximately 54% votes cast. General M.A.G.Osmani, the AL led Ganatantric Oikkya Jote (GOJ) candidate, got 21.70% of the votes. In the parliamentary elections that followed in 1979, the AL’s share of the popular vote increased to 24.55% and they won 39 seats. The anti-AL alliance broke up with President Ziaur Rahman forming his BNP, which got 41.16% of the votes and 207 seats.

With the assassination of president Ziaur Rahman in 1982, presidential elections were held in November of that year. Vice-President Abdus Sattar, the BNP candidate, got 65.80% of the 55.47% vote’s cast. Dr.Kamal Hussain, the AL candidate got 26.35% of the votes.

Martial Law of 1983 cut short the democratic process that was beginning to operate smoothly, and though elections were held in 1986 and 1988, they were of little consequence as they were corrupt, rigged, and boycotted by large sections of the political field.

1991 Elections

It would be the elections of 1991 and 1996 that would establish a firm pattern of vote and help to understand voting preferences. The election of 1991 was preceded by a mass upsurge that saw the over-throw of president H.M.Ershad’s Jatiya Party (JP) government. It was also the first time that an election was held under a neutral interim administration. The electoral playing field was level for most players, the JP being the exception. Their leader was imprisoned, others were “on the run”, and they contested the elections under trying circumstances. According to the media of the time, the AL were favorites to win a majority in parliament. The BNP were untried and had suffered mass desertions over the previous 7 years. The results belied all perceptions. The AL got 33.67% of the vote, but won only 100 seats. (This figure includes all constituencies contested with the “boat” symbol). On the other hand, the BNP got 30.81% of the vote and won 140 seats. The JP got 11.92% of the vote and 35 seats while the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) got 12.13% votes and 18 seats. The four parties between them got 88% of the votes cast, which was 34 million or 55% of an electorate of 62 million.

While the BNP and AL got votes from all over the country, they both had their own areas of strength. For the BNP it was Dhaka division where it won 56 of 90 seats. The AL won 29. This was followed by Chittagong division where the BNP won 37 0f the 59 seats while the AL won 14. In Rajshahi division the BNP won 27 of 72 seats while the AL won 20. In Barisal division the AL won 11 of 23 seats to the BNP’s 10. In Khulna division the AL won 16 of 37seats with the BNP taking 13. Lastly in Sylhet division the BNP won only 1 of 19 to the AL’s 9.

For the JP the main area of strength lay in north Bengal. It won 18 of its total 35 seats in the Larmonirhat, Rangpur, Kurigram and Gaibandha districts of Rajshahi division. 8 more seats came from Sylhet division and 5 from B’baria, Comilla and Noakhali districts of Chittagong division. The Jamaat-e-Islami’s strength was in northern and western border areas where it got 15 of its 18 seats and most of its 12% vote.

Though parliamentary elections were held in February of 1996, they were boycotted by all parties other then the BNP. The government was forced to resign after the passage of the caretaker government bill, paving the way for the general elections of June 1996 which was a most interesting election, and has set a pattern that re-enforces previous electoral trends. The boycott by all parties other then the BNP in the February election, and the widespread irregularities in the conduct of that election, may have been a major contributor to the vote swing in favor of the AL.

June 1996 Elections

The election was the first to be held under a constitutional caretaker government. This was also the first time a large number of election monitors and observers, both local and foreign, were present. The election was generally considered “ free and fair “. This time the electorate was about 57 million of whom 42.42 million or 74.34 % cast their votes. This was the highest turnout ever. The four major parties accounted for 96% of the votes cast, up from 88% in 1991. BNP, AL and JP increased their share of votes at the cost of other parties including JI.


The BNP’s share of the vote increased by about 3% over 1991 to 33.58% or 14.24 million. The party was defending 144 seats (4 independents in the 5th parliament had joined the party). It retained 81, lost 63 old seats, but won 35 new ones to take its tally to 116. Its worst performance was in Dhaka division where it lost 31 of its old seats while picking up only 5 new ones. Its best performance was in Rajshahi division where it won 12 new seats while losing 7 old ones. The BNP’s vote spread was more or less throughout the country and they came second in 113 other seats. In Dhaka district, it actually got 43.46% of the vote to AL’s 41.55%, but lost 7 of the 8 capital seats. In Dhaka City the BNP got 39.79% votes, down from 53.18%, while the AL got 46.53%, up from 35.53%. The JP got 7.75%(up from 2.58%) in the city, while JI got 2.81(down from 3.39%).


The AL also increased its vote share by a little over 3% over 1991 to 37.44% or 15.90 million votes. The party was defending 99 seats (they had lost one bye-election). They retained 65, lost 34, but won 81 new ones to take their tally to 146 seats. Their biggest gain was in Dhaka division where they won 35 new seats losing only 5 old ones. This was followed by Chittagong division where they won 16 new seats, losing 7 old ones. The AL came second in 133 seats. The vote spread for the AL is even more uniform and their strength is throughout the country.


The JP vote share had the most increase, from 11.92% to 16.23% or 6.88 million votes. They defended 35 seats of which they retained 20 and lost 15. They won 11 new ones for a total of 31. The main strength of the JP is in the Panchagarh, Thakurgaon, Dinajpur, Nilphamari, Lalmonirhat, Rangpur, Kurigram and Gaibandha districts. They came second in 37 seats. It also has a strong support base in other areas that could be crucial to an alliance partner.


This party’s performance was the poorest. Their vote share came down from 12.13% to 8.61%. The number of votes won was 3.62 million. They were defending 18 seats of which they lost 17. They won 2 new ones for a total of 3 seats in the 7th parliament. Though the party lost a lot of seats, it maintained a strong presence in the northwest, the western and southwestern districts. It came second in 14 seats. It can strongly support an alliance partner like the BNP in these areas. However its support capacity is greatly reduced east of the Jamuna.

Divisional performance

Rajshahi Division-72 seats

The BNP had won 27 in 1991, the AL 20, the JP 18 and the JI 7. This time around the BNP retained 20 of the 27, and won 12 new ones to increase their net tally to 32. In 1991 the AL had won 20, but lost 11 of those. They won 9 new ones. In 1996 their net loss was 2 bringing the total to 18. The JP had won 18 seats in 1991. Of these they retained 17 and won 2 new ones to increase their total to 21. The JI had won 7 seats in 1991. They could not retain any of those, but won 1 new seat. No seats were won by any one else.

Khulna Division-37 seats

The BNP had 13 seats to defend. They retained 9 and won 3 taking their total to 12, a net loss of 1 seat. The AL had 16 seats, of which it retained 13 and won 9 new ones. Their tally increased to 22, a gain of 6 seats. The JP won 1 new seat in this Division. The JI had 8 seats of which it lost 7 without adding any new ones. Other then these parties, only 1 independent candidate won.

Barisal Division-23 seats.

The BNP were defending 10 seats but could retain only 3. They won 2 new seats but saw their previous total reduced to half (5). The AL had 11 seats of which they retained 7. They won 4 new seats to keep their total at 11. The JP had 1 seat, but picked up 4 new ones to take its total to 5, while the JI won 1 new seat. Aside from these parties, one seat was won by the IOJ (Barguna-2).

Dhaka Division-90 seats

This Division perhaps presents the most interesting picture in that there appears to be a direct switch between the BNP and the AL. In 1991 the BNP had won 56 seats while the AL had won 29. This time the AL won 59 while the BNP won 30. Of the 56 seats that BNP had won, it retained 25 or less then half, while it gained only 5 new ones. Of the 29 that the AL had won, it retained 24 and won 35 additional seats. The JP lost all 3 of its 1991 seats but gained 1 new one in Mymensingh (Begum Raushan Ershad). The JI had won 1 seat in 1991, which it lost in 1996. Aside from the one JP seat, all seats in this Division went to either the AL (59) or the BNP (30).

Sylhet Division-19 seats

In 1991 the BNP had only 1 seat in this Division which it lost in 1996. However it gained 3 new seats, all won from the AL. The AL had 9 seats of which it retained 5 and lost 4 (three to BNP and 1 JP). It won 8 additional seats to increase its tally to 13. The JP had 8 seats. It lost 6, retained 2 and won 1 new one. No other party or candidate won any seats in this Division

Chittagong Division-59 seats

The BNP in 1991 had 37 seats of which it retained 24. They won 10 additional seats to take their total to 34. The AL had 14 seats of which it lost 7 or half. However, it gained 16 additional seats in 1996 to increase its total to 23. The JP lost all 5 seats it held in this Division and the JI the 2 seats they held. With the exception of JSD-Rab (the sole other winner) all seats (58 results) in this Division went to either the BNP (34) or the AL (23).

An analysis

The 1996 election confirmed a voting pattern that emerged in 1991. The major parties (except JI) not only retained their vote share, but also increased it. The increase was proportionate to the increased turnout, and in areas their of strength. The increase was at the cost of minor parties and individuals. It appears that voters now prefer to vote for the major parties, and individuals, no matter how influential in their own areas, do not count. The vote base has consolidated on party lines. While the BNP and AL have a vote base throughout the country, the JP and JI have particular areas of strength and are less broadly represented in other areas. We will see later how important this is to alliance formations.

In most elections in our part of the world there is an anti-incumbency factor. While on the basis of the results the BNP actually increased its vote, the anti-government movement of 1996 impacted heavily on it in crucial areas. If one recalls, the Dhaka City was the epicenter of the anti-government movement. There was an 11% vote swing to the AL, costing the BNP 7 city seats. In Tangail, Jamalpur, Sherpur, Mymensingh, Netrokona, Kishorganj, Gazipur, Narshingdi and Narayanganj districts, there was on average, around 5% vote swing away from the BNP, but it cost them 20 seats. Aside from the movement, these districts had seen strong anti-government agitation in the winter of 1995/6 due to acute fertiliser shortage. This appears to have cost the BNP dearly. The AL appeal to be given a chance at government attracted the swing voters and gave them an increase of 23 seats in these districts.

The JP and JI remained strong in north Bengal. Though the JI got a national average of 8.61% of the vote, this does not give the actual picture. The party has a very strong presence in the districts of Dinajpur, Nilphamari, Gaibandha, Joypurhat, Bogra, Nawabganj, Sirajganj, Pabna, Meherpur, Chuadanga, Jhenidah, Jessore, Bagerhat, Satkhira, and Pirojpur. In these districts, the JI averaged a vote of 15 %. Most of these districts are contiguous and added to the BNP’s own strength can be a formidable anti-AL electoral force. However, east of the Jummuna, the JI does not have a wide vote base other then in the adjoining areas of Noakhali and Lakshimpur and in Cox’s Bazar. None the less, its average 3 to 5% votes in Dhaka, Sylhet and Chittagong divisions can tilt results in closely fought constituencies.

The JP base is north Bengal where it won 21 of its 31 seats. Its next strength lies in Barisal division where it won 5 seats (2 each in Jhalokathi and Pirojpur, 1 in Bakerganj). East of the Jummuna, they pulled good votes (average of above 20%) in Sherpur, Mymensingh, Manikganj, Gazipur, of Dhaka division, and in the whole of Sylhet division (3 seats). In Comilla district too, they pulled over 20%.

Profile of the voter

Literacy may be low in Bangladesh, but the voters are intelligent and motivated. This is evident from one of the highest turnouts in the world. As we see from the results of the ’91 and ’96 elections, more then 85% of the voters, both men and women, have become core supporters of one of the four parties, with about 10% swinging from one or the other, and 5% voting for others. It is difficult to say exactly what the support base is for each party and here I can only give my own opinion. I would put BNP’s base at 30%. The AL has about 32 to 33% support base. For the JP it would be around 14% and for JI 8%.

The BNP was created from forces opposed to the Awami League, while the JP was created from breaking the BNP support base. The JI has always been opposed to the AL. It is on this historical note that lies the political division of Bangladesh. As we again see from the results of the ’91 and ’96 elections, over 60% of the voters did not vote for the Awami League. It is the division of this 60%, constituency to constituency, that will determine how many seats the AL will get or how many others will get. It is this theory that has given birth to the present opposition alliance.

Since this theory has never been tested, a crucial question is whether the votes of one party can be transferred to another. That is, would a JP or JI supporter vote for a BNP candidate in a constituency where there was no candidate from their own party, or vice-verse. The opposition alliance believes it will transfer, but the next election will put it to test.

For the AL it is difficult to form an alliance with parties traditionally opposed to it, as the whole premise is that the electorate is divided between those in favor of AL and those against. Anti-AL parties would find it difficult to transfer their votes to the AL. For the sake of argument, if the AL and JP formed an alliance, the JP votes, in seats where there were no JP candidate, would not necessarily go to the AL, as the JP voter by inclination is anti-AL. An example is in the election of 1991. The former BAKSAL was an ally of the AL. It contested 13 seats with the “boat” symbol of which it won 4. This party contested a further 54 seats with their “sickle” symbol. It did not win any, but lost its deposit in 53 of the seats with 40 candidates getting less then 1% of the vote.

Future Scenario

They say that fools rush in where angels fear to tread. I have never been accused of being an angel, and I will proceed to perhaps put my big foot in my mouth, by venturing my own opinion. The present opposition alliance is composed of the BNP, JP, JI and the IOJ. . When speaking of JP, I am referring to the Ershad led party. The Manju-Mizan led faction has no relevance as it is seen as a pro-Al party and can neither contribute any additional votes to the AL, nor get any significant votes on its own. Unless the AL give up a few seats for this faction, I do not see it winning any seat other then perhaps that of Anwar Hossain Manju in Pirojpur 2 constituency.

In a hypothetical situation, if the BNP, JP and JI had contested the 1996 elections as an alliance, they could have won 263 seats as indicated by the 1996 election results. A BNP, JI, IOJ combine could have won around 165 seats. In an alliance situation it is not simple arithmetic of two plus two equaling four. It can equal five, as an alliance tends to pull more votes then the total of its components. Though there are no recent examples of this in our country, recent elections in India and Thailand have indicated this.

The JP card is now the joker in the pack. The bottom line in the alliance is a combination of the BNP and JI with breakaway JP elements. The IOJ only has marginal influence in certain pockets. Rajshahi division has 72 seats. The average vote for the four parties is over 98%. Based on 1996 results, the combine of the BNP and JI could win close to 50 of those seats in a future election. If JP were to stay in the alliance, the combine would win all 72. In Khulna division where there are 37 seats, the alliance minus the JP could win 30 seats while with JP, the alliance could win them all, with the exception of perhaps Bagerhat-1 and Khulna-1 which was won by Sheikh Hasina in 1996. In Barisal division there are 23 seats. The alliance minus the JP could win up to 15 seats and with JP 18 to 20 seats. There are 16 seats of Dhaka division west of the Jummuna in Rajbari, Faridpur, Gopalganj, Madaripur and Shariatpur. The AL has a strong lock on those seats winning 14 in 1996. The BNP won 2. However, a combined alliance with the JP may win 5 to 6 of those seats,

In Sylhet division there are 19 seats. A combine of the BNP and JI could win 8 to 9 seats. Along with JP, the alliance would win them all.

The battle east of the Jamuna will be in Dhaka and Chittagong divisions that account for 133 of the remaining seats. It is in these areas that the contest between the AL and BNP is the closest and even marginal vote swings can alter results dramatically. Here we have two scenarios. The first is a BNP, JI and breakaway JP combine, while the second is a full alliance with united Ershad led JP. In case of the last scenario, which now seems unlikely, the alliance could win over 120 of those seats.

To make a prediction on the first scenario, we have to take some lessons from 1996 and extend certain theories. The opposition alliance has been very active in these areas over the last 15 months. Workers and supporters of all the parties, including the JP have fought the government and AL forces. The JP activist or supporter is by inclination anti-AL. The movement has further reinforced their antagonism to the AL. They have been a part of the alliance even down to Union Parishad levels. Talk of contesting the elections unitedly have been discussed and speculated on. Local arithmetics have been made, and they all see the logic of a united single anti-AL candidate. They understand the danger of splitting the opposition vote. Furthermore, the JP has been out of power for a decade now. For the first time, senior leaders as well as ground level workers see an opportunity to share power in a future government. This is an opportunity they are unlikely to give up easily. Should General Ershad opt out of the alliance, which now seems likely, it will appear to be a betrayal and he may not be able to pull all of his supporters away from the opposition alliance.

If we take the BNP support base at an average of around 30%, we can add JI support of about 5% in these areas. The break away JP may bring a minimum of 5% to take the opposition tally to 40%. Adding to it the effect of the movement, and the anti-incumbency factor, it could cross 45%. In the vast majority of these seats, the AL would find it tough to reach 40%. In the next election, with the AL fighting an opposition alliance, it would be near impossible to win a seat with less then 40% of the votes cast. Of the 61 seats the AL won east of the Jummuna in Dhaka and Chittagong divisions (minus Dhaka City), 15 were won with over 40% votes while 27 were won with above 45% of the votes cast. A mere 5% vote swing away from AL would put 50 seats in jeopardy. Of the total 149 seats in Dhaka and Chittagong divisions, a full opposition alliance could take up to 125. An alliance minus Ershad could win 90 to 100 seats.

I cannot overstate the intelligence of the Bengali voter. In any election the voter knows what is at stake and what is in his or her’s best interest. They know what issues are most important to them. In 1996, the anti-government movement, and the fertiliser crisis cost the BNP dearly in the 150-mile radius of Dhaka City. This time around, the poor law and order situation may adversely effect the AL in the same areas. The next election will be held after the longest stretch of uninterrupted democracy we have experienced. The results of the 1996 elections saw a greater consolidation of votes to the major parties. As Mr. Mafuz Anam wrote after the results were out, the AL did not win a mandate, they were given a chance. The BNP were not routed, but reprimanded. Will the voters this time around give the AL another chance, or will they opt to bring back the BNP? Only the actual results will give the answer. I can merely give my own opinion. I think that in the next election, the AL’s share of vote is unlikely to exceed 35% of the votes cast. An alliance of BNP, JI, IOJ, and JP is likely to win over 265 seats. An alliance minus General Ershad’s would, in my opinion, win over 200 seats.

Most of this article is simply facts and figures as gathered from the Election Commission and other publications. Where I have digressed is where I have given my own interpretations. Others will definitely have their own opinions, and as the recent US elections showed, there is no last word, even after the election is over.

The writer was the GS of DUCSU in 1968/69. He was one of the ten members of the Central Students Action Committee of the 11-point movement and mass upsurge of 1969. In 1979, he was elected to the 2nd Jatiya Sangsad as a BNP nominee. He retired from politics in 1991. He has written and published a number of articles on the military, the constitution, the parliament and politics.

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