Several indices on democracy have identified the current Bangladeshi political system as “semi-authoritarian,” “hybrid,” or only “partly free.” Despite showing promise of re-democratization from the early 1990s to the late 2000s, the country appears to have returned to its path of “democratic backsliding.”
The controversy in 2013 over the International Crimes Tribunal—which was instituted to prosecute the people involved in crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, and other crimes under international law that occurred during the 1971 liberation war—accelerated democratic backsliding in the country, accentuated the rift between secular and Islamist parties (reflecting the left/right divide) in Bangladeshi politics, and led to two opposing mass movements. On the surface, pro-tribunal, leftist forces won this battle with the successful conclusion of the tribunal. Some experts claim that since the Awami League (AL) came to power in 2014, it has enacted policies that undermine freedom of expression, minority rights, and women’s empowerment, contributing to democratic backsliding and an overall rightward shift in the country. On top of this, others argue that the party’s policies have contributed to further marginalization of the opposition.
Today, Bangladeshi opposition parties are struggling. The center-right Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) never quite recovered from its boycott of the 2014 election, and its party chair, Begum Khaleda Zia, was imprisoned in 2018 on corruption charges. Zia was granted bail on certain conditions through a government executive order in 2020. Although the government extended the bail for the fifth time in March 2022, BNP leadership still complains about repression. The other center-right party, Jatiya Party (JP), struggles to maintain its role as the main opposition party, holding only 26 out of 350 parliamentary seats. The far-right Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami (BJI) lost its registration status due to the leadership’s war crimes in the 1971 liberation war. Another far-right party, Islami Andolan Bangladesh (IAB), captured third place in the 2018 parliamentary election, but it failed to secure a single seat in parliament. Absent any electoral threat from right-leaning parties, the current conservative shift in Bangladeshi politics is perplexing, especially considering the AL’s electoral and executive alliance with some leftist parties.
This paradox leaves observers wondering why leftist parties have failed to exert their influence and reverse the country’s rightward shift and creeping authoritarianism. In today’s Bangladesh, these parties have been relegated to what one expert called a “microscopic condition.”1 Although not monolithic in terms of nature and ideology, leftist parties in Bangladesh share institutional and ideological constraints that curtail their abilities to emerge as dominant political actors.
This article analyzes thirty-nine expert interviews, four focus group discussions with students at the University of Dhaka, and qualitative content analysis of the party platforms, manifestos, and publications of four leftist parties to explain those parties’ failure to aid democratic consolidation in post-1990 Bangladesh.2 It begins by tracing the history of leftist parties to the colonial era, examining the role of the country’s authoritarian past and how the parties’ habits of acting within larger parties limits leftist politics. Then, the article identifies ideological and organizational challenges that impede party success and grassroots mobilization, including leftists’ reputation of being “elitist” and “atheist,” their inability to engage civil society networks, and intraparty feuds. Finally, the piece closes with a discussion on the future of leftist parties in Bangladesh.
History of Leftist Parties in Bangladesh
Leftist parties in the Indian subcontinent have a well-documented history of participating in anti-colonial movements against the British. In the post-partition era, Bangladeshi leftists played an influential role in anti-authoritarian mobilization against Pakistani dictatorship. Though these parties were not allowed to operate openly, some worked through the AL. After the party spearheaded the liberation war in 1971, however, leftist parties suffered from internal feuds and confrontation with the ruling AL. Even when leftist parties became the only viable option for opposition politics when religion-based politics was banned in 1972,3 these parties still could not agree on how to initiate a socialist revolution. The military coup in 1975 removed the AL from office, but opposition politics were still restricted. After fifteen years of military dictatorship, the two centrist parties along with smaller leftist parties mobilized the nation and reinstituted parliamentary democracy in 1991.
Still, leftist parties struggle in national elections. Well-known parties like Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JASAD) and the Workers Party of Bangladesh (WPB) have some parliamentary representation, but their constituencies and subsequent vote shares are very small. Focus group discussions (FGD) conducted among students at the University of Dhaka indicated that these parties have become so irrelevant that most young voters cannot even name more than two leftist parties or their leaders. Participants also admitted that they have very little or no clue about the political ideology of these parties, save the ones that occasionally end up as part of the governing coalition. Although in no way representative of the total voting population, remarks by student participants in FGDs indicate that leftist parties in Bangladesh suffer from a legitimacy crisis. Ultimately, this crisis has been a result of authoritarian rule and the left’s failure to popularize their agenda.
Politicking Through Bigger Parties: Erosion of Party Power
Most experts interviewed by the author argued that Bangladeshi leftist parties lack a distinguishable voice compared to their moderate counterparts. Historically, leftist parties avoided the wrath of authoritarian rulers by politicking through more mainstream parties. Dictatorial rule and legal barriers necessitated their collaboration with mainstream parties to achieve common goals—such as independence from Pakistan and the end of military dictatorship—but this strategy also meant leftist parties existed under the shadow of their mainstream counterparts. Following the end of military rule in 1991, coalition politics exacerbated this dependency, further compromising leftists’ ability to push their agenda. A veteran leftist politician explained:
There are some benefits and profits of coalition politics. In fear of losing those benefits and profits, [leftists] sometime take a softer approach in speaking against oppression and unfairness and in favor of changing laws. I will call this an opportunist tendency. Because of this opportunism, sometimes they do not come off as active in the field, inside and outside the parliament, on the street as one expects them to. This is one shortcoming of forming an alliance with bigger parties.4
These explanations demonstrate that leftist parties in coalition often become less able to hold centrist parties accountable and push for alternative policy proposals. The leading parties, too, take advantage of this dependency by not taking leftist policy proposals into consideration.5 In its “political program” (রাজনৈতিক প্রস্তাব), JASAD recognizes that despite being a coalition partner of the AL, it is not treated well. Its official program reads,
Leaders-activists-supporters of JASAD are not happy with the number of seats it received for being part of the 14-party alliance and the grand alliance in the past. All levels of party leaders-activists-supporters believe that the number of seats offered to JASAD as a result of electoral coalition is not respectable for the party. We definitely want this situation to change. However, reality is brutal. Whatever injustice has been done to the party in terms of seat distribution has happened because of party’s own weakness. Our own weakness has forced us to accept this compromise over seat distribution.6
Reputational Damage: The “Elitist” and “Atheist” Image
Both FGD respondents and experts emphasized that leftist politicians in the Indian subcontinent have a reputation for being elitist. Marxism became popular in nineteenth-century Bengal among a small but powerful section of educated, young Hindus known as Bhadraloks. This enlightened group was responsible for the Bengali renaissance in the nineteenth century but was also perceived as snobbish and clueless about the real world. This perception deepened after the 1947 partition when a minuscule number of Hindu communists chose to stay in East Pakistan instead of migrating to West Bengal, India, due to fears of communal violence. Those who stayed behind were mostly teachers, limiting leftists’ promotion of communist ideas within the “petty-bourgeoisie or lower-middle classes, and to students” and solidifying their elitist reputation. Legal restrictions further prevented these parties from operating freely in united Pakistan’s military dictatorship, eroding any chance to expand their platform beyond these classes.
Leftist politicians and intellectuals are still viewed this way by students at the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh. When asked about leftist politicians and activists, FGD respondents described them as “snobbish” and “elitist.” A professor of economics at the University of Dhaka found the tendency to talk about revolution from the comfortable urban setting as one of the biggest reasons behind the leftists’ failure to emerge as an alternative political force. In his words:
They cannot sacrifice on a day-in day-out basis like Sheikh Mujib[ur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh] did. . . . Their tendency is to do good without challenging the status quo as much as possible. The mindset is like this: ‘I will not compromise [with my beliefs], but I will not sacrifice [for my cause] either. I will not take risks.’ Here by compromise I mean tactical compromise. But there is no such commitment as leaving the suit [that is, upper-class elite status] behind and explore Bangladesh from one end to the other for six months.7
FGD responses indicate that this allegedly elitist attitude of the parties might have spilled over into student fronts of leftist organizations as well. This perception of young leftist activists perhaps comes from a deeply ingrained belief that not all people are equally capable of comprehending their political message, and hence their efforts should focus on the truly interested ones. Therefore, even within their historic area of operation—public universities—leftists have not been able to garner much support.
One leftist politician, however, contradicted this stereotype, claiming that the young generation of his party’s activists are still active in the countryside where they mobilize peasants and downtrodden people.8 While grassroots mobilization might not be at the level it reached during the 1980s, the tradition has not totally died. The politician did admit to a leftist proclivity to ahamika, the Bengali word for arrogance, which causes reputational damage and alienates leftist politicians from the people.
Leftists in Bangladesh also have a reputation for being atheists. This label makes building strong grassroots networks and a stable constituency difficult, given existing anti-atheist stigma in the country. In Bangladesh, “if you go to the countryside and tell people that you are an atheist, they will look at you like they have seen a snake. Bengali Muslims are petrified by the term atheism.”9 Authoritarian rulers both before and after Bangladesh’s independence conducted propaganda campaigns against leftists, branding them as impious nonbelievers. One veteran leftist politician remarked that “this label [atheists] cannot be removed. It has always been there, still is, and will always be.”10 The FGD participants confirmed his frustration; most of them used words such as “hedonist,” “immoral,” and “atheist” to describe leftist political parties.
Such defamation grew stronger when the Shahbagh movement, which demanded capital punishment of 1971 war criminals and a ban on religious politics, emerged in 2013. Leftist students at the University of Dhaka received criticism from right-wing political parties for promoting a secularism tantamount to anti-Islamism. The term “atheists” came to be used to identify anyone sympathetic to the secular movement, although only a handful of activists involved were self-proclaimed atheists. This type of attack on leftist politicians has continued today; famous religious preachers label politicians as “atheist” for their sympathy toward minority sects. These leaders are called “murtads” (apostates), “atheists,” and “enemies of Islam” because their version of secularism calls for respect for all groups.
Leftist political parties realize they must find a balance between staying true to their ideology and avoiding offending prevailing religious sensitivities. Instead of providing conceptual clarity of secularism and making it Bangladesh-oriented, most leftist politicians have opted for the strategy that the AL has been using since mid-1990s, showcasing the piety of their leaders to offset anti-religious allegations.
The FGD responses reveal that public displays of piety, like embarking on the holy pilgrimage to Mecca or referring to Islamic documents in political speeches, do not help the leftists much in removing the perception that they are anti-religious. Rather, these strategies give the impression that leftists are only trying to score political points. For example, one respondent commented, “We have seen these leftist parties, such as JASAD and BASAD, relying on a leftist vocabulary in protest demonstrations and rallies. However, when they participate in real politics, meaning election, they try to play the religion card as well. We have seen that leftist politicians, from Hasanul Haq Inu to Rashed Khan Menon presenting religious issues in their election manifestos, even using religious phrases like ‘Allah is the most powerful’ in their posters.”11 Another respondent further explained that “their core ideology might be Marxism. But they also have the opportunist tendency like all other [political] parties. Since Bangladesh is a Muslim majority country, they try to use religion to serve their interests.”12
Mobilizational Limitations: Lack of Issue and Organizational Linkages
As the successes of leftist parties in Greece, Portugal, and Spain over the last decade suggest, linkages with like-minded groups and civil society organizations help smaller parties garner support.13 Linkages provide these parties with legitimacy to establish themselves as integral to the party system and reinforce party messages. Parties have the choice to create, penetrate, and collaborate with civil society organizations to make themselves more “credible in the eyes of the electorate” and foster grassroots mobilization.
Historically, trade unions are the strongest ally of leftist parties in the civil society arena. However, leftist parties’ linkages with this vital civil society organization have gradually diminished over time due to the authoritarian-era legacy that restricted access to trade unions. After partition, East Pakistani jute and textile industries had been home to left-dominated labor unions until General Ayub Khan rose to power in the 1960s. To exert control over the working class and carry out an anti-communist campaign, Khan introduced factory-level unionism that benefited corrupt union leaders close to the regime. In independent Bangladesh, the politicization of trade unions continued: the AL administration (1972–1975) nationalized key industries and incorporated all labor unions within one single organization.
Military rule further exacerbated this trend in two ways. First, Ziaur Rahman’s regime made it mandatory for all registered political parties to declare their own labor fronts.14 This measure introduced fractionalization within unions, and leftist parties lost their hegemonic access to the working class, their core constituency and base for mobilization. Second, the successor Hussain Muhammad Ershad regime intensified the denationalization of the economy, and the rising private sector was against union activities. This further shrank the room for maneuver for leftist parties through unionism.
In the post-authoritarian era, trade unions started mirroring polarization in Bangladeshi politics. The two bigger, centrist parties, the BNP and AL, took turns running the country. While in power, each party promoted their own labor fronts and union leaders instead of letting the working class organize their own interests. By this time, leftist parties were organizationally so weak that their presence in these unions could not match BNP and AL power. BNP and AL fronts outranked leftist ones, and leftist parties lost the ability to lead on important issues related to labor rights and welfare. This weakness has become painfully visible in recent years on issues of minimum wage and decent working conditions for readymade garment workers in Bangladesh.
It would be unfair to suggest, though, that leftist parties do not pay enough attention to their core constituency. Official documents from four leftist parties show a clear commitment to the betterment of the condition of the working class, with a particular focus on minimum wage and workplace conditions. However, the restriction of trade union activities makes it difficult for these parties to realize these goals. One leftist politician said that even though trade unionism has been greatly hampered by stricter laws of entry and the introduction of “dalals” (middlemen) and the “trade union mafia,” leftist parties are still trying to work through unions. From his point of view, leftists are also not solely focused on mobilizing factory workers. Since the khet-mojurs (farm laborers) constitute a vast majority of working-class people in the countryside, leftist parties now cast their net more broadly. However, he also acknowledged that grassroots mobilization remains less than ideal in present day Bangladesh. No leftist leader has been able to impress and inspire younger activists through a demonstration effect.15
Leftist parties also share several goals with other members of Bangladeshi secular civil society, goals ranging from poverty alleviation to the betterment of human rights. However, the parties and civil society organizations disagree over how to achieve those goals, so there is hardly any formal or informal cooperation between them. Their relationship is also strained by political parties’ animosity toward civil society organizations for their interference in political processes. A seasoned leftist politician remarked that these civil society organizations have tried to “depoliticize” politics by bypassing political parties. Such sentiments do not bode well for collaboration between the two types of actors.16
In leftist circles, suspicion of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which form the bulk of secular civil society in Bangladesh, is strengthened by those NGOs’ dependence on foreign funding. Leftist parties in Bangladesh generally view these groups as puppets of imperial forces. The following excerpt from the political proposal adopted at the eleventh party congress of the Communist Party of Bangladesh, for example, explains why NGOs are not viewed as credible partners in social reform:
Today, NGOs are running a big campaign in the country. Broadly speaking, NGOs are working as the “security net” for imperialism to offset the social unrest created by poverty, inequality, and unemployment borne by the anti-people policies of the very same imperialism. . . . In the name of poverty alleviation, they are offering micro-credit in the countryside. The high interest rate of these credit programs is forcing the debtors to take a loan from one NGO to pay back the loan from another NGO. Instead of getting rid of poverty, rural people are getting caught in a vicious cycle of debt. Therefore, the number of poor, stressed, loan-defaulting people has increased in the country. However, the NGOs that are involved in this business of micro-credit are making huge profits. NGO-led reform activities might bring some benefits in the short term. Although there is no reason to oppose these “reforms,” it is our obligation to fight against this reform-ism. We have to remember this about the NGOs. So it is safe to say that considering everything, NGOs are a negative and dangerous actor.
This sentiment has been echoed by the WPB in its 2018 election manifesto. The party pledged to “save the peasants and agriculture from the hands of loans of rural money lenders and NGOs, by taking practical and effective steps.” Documents from the leftist party Gana Samhati, too, portray NGOs as loan sharks preying on poor rural people. In its blueprint for action, the party declares its obligation to “save the peasants from the multinational corporations selling fertilizers, seeds, pesticides and also from the debt-traps of rural NGOs and mahajans [money lenders].”17 Some experts mention certain cultural organizations, such as Udichi or Chhayanot, as the true civil society of Bangladesh. They see prospects for collaboration with these groups, especially in reversing the rightward shift in politics and society. However, these experts also recognize that deliberate state policy during the dictatorial period promoted a conservative version of cultural Islam, limiting secular civil society’s ability to continuously and consistently mobilize supporters.18
Experts identify intraparty feuds and a lack of internal democracy as two of the biggest weaknesses of leftist parties. In the 1971 struggle for an independent Bangladesh, there was a split in leftist support for the AL. Today’s leftist politicians regret the lefts’ inability to unite at this defining moment of national politics. In post-independence Bangladesh, debates over the appropriate form of social revolution and personality clashes among party leadership only entrenched divisions. The lack of a coherent vision about the future course of politics became even more evident with the military’s 1975 intervention into politics. One leftist politician who was active at the time explained how this era further eroded the collective policy-shaping power of the leftists:
With the military intervention in Bangladesh, the leftists practically became more marginalized. They fell into the trap of disagreement over whether to engage in a strong anti-dictatorship movement or a somewhat tepid one. . . . Pretty much all leftists in Bangladesh suffered from this hesitation/indecision from post ’75 era through the entire decade of 1980s to 1990. Some of them supported Ershad while others supported Zia. Some even defected from the party to join Ershad’s party. At the end of the day, the leftists came out as the most damaged ones.19
Leftist parties carried the legacy of factional politics into post-authoritarian Bangladesh as well. Some experts opined that party disagreements are still largely personal clashes masked as ideological rivalries. They also identified a lack of internal democracy, an inability to accommodate alternative views within the party, and an absence of strictly enforced party discipline as reasons why personal disputes become intractable, reinforcing fractures among leftist parties. However, one expert dissented and claimed that the capitalist media amplifies the division within the leftists and presents them as feeble to the voters.20 The majority of experts claimed fractionalization has affected leftist politics in three ways: it fragmented their voter base, reduced their organizational strength in terms of both manpower and money, and diminished leftist parties’ individual and collective bargaining power vis-à-vis the centrist parties in power.
What Lies Ahead?
Leftists are not oblivious to the challenges they must overcome to reassert their politics. See more from the Communist Party:
In spite of so many attempts and successive efforts it was not yet possible to institute a structure of left unity. The influence and mass mobilization power of the majority of the left parties is weak. Besides, many of them have many defects, deviations and confusions. One part of the left is a partner of the “Mohajote”21 and therefore they still remain a part of the government. On the other hand, some left parties are suffering from the various kinds of weaknesses like, left sectarianism, revolutionary phrase mongering, confining oneself to ivory tower theorization completely estranged from mass people. . . . Till now there is also no visible influential, progressive, large, honest and patriotic political force outside the left who could unite with the left and form a left-democratic alliance.
Yet not many experts interviewed for this project were hopeful about a leftist resurgence in the near future. Many of them observed a puritan, ritualistic version of Islam gaining prominence in the country, making a secular, leftist ideology unpopular and a reversal of support for right-wing parties unlikely.22 One leftist leader expressed frustration over the younger generations’ unwillingness to take up the mantle of leftist ideology. From his perspective, an infusion of consumerist culture in Bangladeshi society and the normalization of conservative Islamic practices have led to a situation that makes leftist ideology unappealing to this generation.23 A few experts predicted the rise of a third force and the collapse of the two extremes on the political spectrum.24 However, when asked if they see any leftist political party in present-day Bangladesh that might transform into that third force, they could not offer a positive answer.
Some leftist politicians and civil society members were hopeful about the creation of a new political agenda based on the changing socioeconomic needs of the people. They thought that climate change and environmental degradation in the natural disaster-prone country might be one issue on which the leftists could mobilize constituents. The protection and promotion of valuable natural resources like gas and coal could be another issue where leftists could rally support. However, even the most optimistic observers made cautious predictions about the left’s ability to lead. One leftist leader’s advice to fellow leftists was, “Organization! Organization! Organization!”25 He identified being active and visible in politics and participating in elections as the most pressing obligations for leftists. Leftist publications analyzed for this project also reveal this realization among the parties, where they emphasize ideological solidarity and organizational strength to stay relevant in Bangladesh.26
However, almost all experts recognized that for leftists to do their job, procedural democracy through free and fair elections must be established in Bangladesh—the opposition should be allowed to operate freely. To quote one left-leaning expert, “We have failed to create a viable alternative force, something that we want. We do not have the kind of force that you need for the minimum level of democracy, secularism, and egalitarianism. You need social democracy, which is absent here.”27
1 Interview conducted at the expert’s office in Dhaka on February 20, 2020.
2 The publications of the Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB), the Worker’s Party of Bangladesh (WPB), Jatiya Samajtantrik Dol (JASAD), and Gana Samhati were used for this purpose. These four parties were chosen based on their electoral strength, popular recognition, and alliance history. The analysis was completed between February 2020 and May 2022.
3 Interview conducted at the expert’s residence in Dhaka on February 22, 2020. Article 38, paragraph 2 of the first Bangladeshi Constitution, enacted in 1972, stated that “no person shall have the right to form or be a member or otherwise take part in the activities of, any communal or other association or union, which in the name or on the basis of any religion has for its object, or pursues a political purpose.”
4 Interview conducted at the expert’s office in Dhaka on February 21, 2020.
6 JASAD’s political proposal, adopted in 2018, p. 6.
7 Interview conducted at the professor’s residence on February 19, 2020.
8 Interview conducted over phone on May 18, 2022.
9 Interview with a professor of political science at University of Dhaka on February 20, 2020.
10 Interview conducted at the expert’s residence in Dhaka on February 21, 2020.
11 Focus group discussion conducted at the University of Dhaka on February 19, 2020. The author did not come across any posters with that phrase published by any leftist political party during her research.
13 Myrto Tsakatika and Costas Eleftheriou, “The Radical Left’s Turn Towards Civil Society in Greece: One Strategy, Two Paths,” South European Society and Politics 18, no. 1 (2013): 81–99, https://doi.org/10.1080/13608746.2012.757455.
14 Md. Abu Taher, “Politicization of Trade Unions: Issues and Challenges in Bangladesh Perspective,” Indian Journal of Industrial Relations 34, no. 4 (1999): 403–420.
15 Interview conducted over phone on May 18, 2022.
17 Outline for Gana Samhati Andolan, p. 6.
18 See Kazi Shahdat Kabir, “Islam as a Symbol of Ligitimization: The Islamization Project of President General Ershad in Bangladesh,” Far Eastern Economic Review (April 16, 1982); and Muhammad A. Hakim, “The Use of Islam as a Political Legitimization Tool: The Bangladesh Experience, 1972–1990,” Asian Journal of Political Science 6, no. 2 (December 1998): 98–117.
19 Interview conducted at the expert’s office in Dhaka on February 21, 2020.
20 Interview conducted with the expert over phone on May 18, 2022.
21 Mohajote, or “grand alliance,” is the name of the AL-led coalition that won the parliamentary election in 2008 and formed a government in 2009.
22 Interview conducted at the expert’s residence in Dhaka, Bangladesh on February 22, 2020.
23 Interview conducted at the expert’s office in Dhaka, Bangladesh on February 21, 2020.
24 Interviews conducted in different locations in Dhaka, Bangladesh in February 2020.
25 Interview conducted at the expert’s office in Dhaka, Bangladesh on February 21, 2020.
26 Including JASAD’s election manifesto from 2018 and CPB’s political proposal adopted at the eleventh party congress in 2016.
27 Interview conducted at the expert’s residence in Dhaka, Bangladesh on February 19, 2020.