Bangladesh: Government

Principal Government Officials

Chief of State: President Abdul Hamid
Head of Government: Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina

The president, while chief of state, holds a largely ceremonial post; the real power is held by the prime minister, who is head of government. The president is elected by the legislature (Parliament) every 5 years. The president's circumscribed powers are substantially expanded during the tenure of a caretaker government. Under the 13th Amendment, which Parliament passed in March 1996, a caretaker government assumes power temporarily to oversee general elections after dissolution of the Parliament. In the caretaker government, the president has control over the Ministry of Defense, the authority to declare a state of emergency, and the power to dismiss the Chief Adviser and other members of the caretaker government. Once elections have been held and a new government and Parliament are in place, the president's powers and position revert to their largely ceremonial role. The Chief Adviser and other advisers to the caretaker government must be appointed within 15 days after the current Parliament expires.

The prime minister is appointed by the president. The prime minister must be a Member of Parliament (MP) who the president feels commands the confidence of the majority of other MPs. The cabinet is composed of ministers selected by the prime minister and appointed by the president. At least 90% of the ministers must be MPs. The other 10% may be non-MP experts or "technocrats" who are not otherwise disqualified from being elected MPs. According to the constitution, the president can dissolve Parliament upon the written request of the prime minister.

The legislature is a unicameral, 300-seat body. All of its members are elected by universal suffrage at least every 5 years. Parliament amended the constitution in May 2004, making a provision for 45 seats reserved for women to be distributed among political parties in proportion to their numerical strength in Parliament. Several women's groups have demanded direct election to fill the reserved seats for women.

Bangladesh's judiciary is a civil court system based on the British model; the highest court of appeal is the appellate court of the Supreme Court. At the local government level, the country is divided into divisions, districts, sub districts, unions, and villages. Local officials are elected at the union level and selected at the village level. All larger administrative units are run by members of the civil service.

POLITICAL CONDITIONS
Despite serious problems related to a dysfunctional political system, weak governance, and pervasive corruption, Bangladesh remains one of the few democracies in the Muslim world. Bangladeshis regard democracy as an important legacy of their bloody war for independence, and they vote in large numbers. However, democratic institutions and practices remain weak.

Bangladesh is generally a force for moderation in international forums, and it is also a long-time leader in international peacekeeping operations. It has been the second-largest contributor to UN peacekeeping operations, with 10,481 troops and police active in November 2009. Its activities in international organizations, with other governments, and with its regional partners to promote human rights, democracy, and free markets are coordinated and high-profile. Bangladesh became a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council in May 2006, and began a second term in 2009. However, an explicit goal of its foreign policy has been to strengthen relations with Islamic states, leading to actions such as voting against a December 2009 UN resolution to improve human rights conditions in Iran.

Bangladesh lies at the strategic crossroads of South and Southeast Asia. Potential terrorist movements and activities in or through Bangladesh pose a potentially serious threat to India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Burma, as well as Bangladesh itself. Consequentially, the Bangladesh Government has banned a number of Islamic extremist groups in recent years. In February 2002, the government banned Shahdat al Hiqma, in February 2005 it banned Jagrata Muslim Janata, Bangladesh (JMJB) and Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), and in October 2005 it banned Harkatul Jehad Al Islami (HUJI). Following the August 17, 2005 serial bombings in the country, the government launched a crackdown on extremists. In 2006, seven senior JMB leaders were sentenced to death for their role in the 2005 murder of two judges. Six of the seven were executed in March 2007; another leader was tried and sentenced to death in absentia in the same case. In March 2008, the U.S. Government listed Harkatul Jihadi Islami (HUJI)-Bangladesh as a foreign terrorist organization. In October 2009, the Government of Bangladesh added Hizb-ut-Tahrir to the list of banned terrorist organizations. Given its size and location, a major crisis in Bangladesh could have important consequences for regional stability, particularly if significant refugee movements ensue.

FOREIGN RELATIONS
Bangladesh pursues a moderate foreign policy that places heavy reliance on multinational diplomacy, especially at the United Nations.

Participation in Multilateral Organizations
Bangladesh was admitted to the United Nations in 1974 and was elected to a Security Council term in 1978 and again for a 2000-2001 term. The country's foreign minister served as president of the 41st UN General Assembly in 1986. The government has participated in numerous international conferences, especially those dealing with population, food, development, and women's issues. In 1982-83, Bangladesh played a constructive role as chair of the "Group of 77," an informal association encompassing most of the world's developing nations. It has taken a leading role in the "Group of 48" developing countries and the "Developing-8" group of countries. It is also a participant in the activities of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Since 1975, Bangladesh has sought close relations with other Islamic states and a role among moderate members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). In 1983, Bangladesh hosted the foreign ministers meeting of the OIC. The government also has pursued the expansion of cooperation among the nations of South Asia, bringing the process--an initiative of former President Ziaur Rahman--through its earliest, most tentative stages to the formal inauguration of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) at a summit gathering of South Asian leaders in Dhaka in December 1985. Bangladesh hosted the SAARC summit in November 2005, and Prime Minister Khaleda Zia reassumed its chairmanship. Bangladesh has participated in a wide range of ongoing SAARC regional activities. The head of the then-caretaker government participated in the April 2007 SAARC summit in India.

In recent years, Bangladesh has played a significant role in international peacekeeping activities. Over 10,000 Bangladeshi military personnel were deployed overseas on peacekeeping operations as of November 2009. Under UN auspices, Bangladeshi troops have served or are serving in Sierra Leone, Somalia, Rwanda, Mozambique, Kuwait, Ethiopia/Eritrea, Kosovo, Timor-Leste, Georgia, Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Western Sahara, Bosnia, and Haiti. Bangladesh responded quickly to President Bill Clinton's 1994 request for troops and police for the multinational force for Haiti and provided the largest non-U.S. contingent.

Bilateral Relations With Other Nations
Bangladesh is bordered on the west, north, and east by a 2,400-kilometer land frontier with India, and on the southeast by a land and water frontier (193 kilometers) with Burma.

India. India is Bangladesh's most important neighbor. Geographic, cultural, historic, and commercial ties are strong, and both countries recognize the importance of good relations. During and immediately after Bangladesh's struggle for independence from Pakistan in 1971, India assisted refugees from East Pakistan, intervened militarily to help bring about the independence of Bangladesh, and furnished relief and reconstruction aid.

Indo-Bangladesh relations are often strained, and many Bangladeshis feel India likes to play "big brother" to smaller neighbors, including Bangladesh. Bilateral relations warmed in 1996, due to a softer Indian foreign policy and the new Awami League government. A 30-year water-sharing agreement for the Ganges River was signed in December 1996, after an earlier bilateral water-sharing agreement for the Ganges River lapsed in 1988. Bangladesh remains extremely concerned about a proposed Indian river linking project, which the government says could turn large parts of Bangladesh into a desert. The Bangladesh Government and tribal insurgents signed a peace accord in December 1997, which allowed for the return of tribal refugees who had fled into India, beginning in 1986, to escape violence caused by an insurgency in their homeland in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The implementation of most parts of this agreement has stalled, and the army maintains a strong presence in the Hill Tracts. Arms smuggling and reported opium poppy cultivation are concerns in this area. Occasional skirmishes between Bangladeshi and Indian border forces sometimes escalate and seriously disrupt bilateral relations. Much to Bangladesh's displeasure, India has erected a barbed-wire fence on part of its border with Bangladesh to prevent alleged illegal migration of Bangladeshis into India.

The BNP and other political parties view the Indian Government as a major benefactor of the Awami League and blame negative international media coverage of Bangladesh on alleged Indian manipulation. Former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, however, visited the Indian capital in March 2006 and reviewed bilateral relations with her Indian counterpart. Two agreements--the Revised Trade Agreement and the Agreement on Mutual Cooperation for Preventing Illicit Drug Trafficking in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances and Related Matters--were signed between the two countries during this visit. Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee met with the Chief Adviser in Dhaka on February 26, 2007. Mukherjee invited Ahmed to the April 3-4, 2007, SAARC summit in Delhi, and both sides pledged to put Bangladesh-India relations on "an irreversible higher trajectory." Mukherjee again visited Bangladesh after Cyclone Sidr hit the southwestern coastal districts on November 15, 2007 and offered help to rebuild 10 of the devastated villages. Bangladesh Army Chief General Moeen U. Ahmed paid a 6-day visit to India beginning late February 2008 at the invitation of his Indian counterpart. He met with Mukherjee and the Chief Minister of West Bengal province, besides meeting military officials. During this visit, Ahmed announced that passenger trains could start running between Dhaka and Kolkata by April 14.

After the return of the Awami League government in January 2009, Prime Minister Hasina made it clear that improved relations with India would be a priority for her government. Foreign Minister Dipu Moni traveled to New Delhi in September 2009 to begin bilateral discussions. Prime Minister Hasina herself traveled to New Delhi in January 2010 to meet with Indian Prime Minister Singh, where they signed several agreements designed to further strengthen their bilateral relationship.

Pakistan. Bangladesh‘s complicated relationship with Pakistan reflects the legacy of their shared history and the independence struggle. Landmarks in their reconciliation are:

  • An August 1973 agreement between Bangladesh and Pakistan on the repatriation of numerous individuals, including 90,000 Pakistani prisoners of war stranded in Bangladesh as a result of the 1971 conflict;
  • A February 1974 accord by Bangladesh and Pakistan on mutual recognition followed more than 2 years later by establishment of formal diplomatic relations;
  • The organization by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) of an airlift that moved almost 250,000 Bengalis from Pakistan to Bangladesh, and non-Bengalis from Bangladesh to Pakistan; and
  • Exchanges of high-level visits, including a visit by Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to Bangladesh in 1989 and visits by Prime Minister Zia to Pakistan in 1992 and in 1995.
  • President Pervez Musharraf visited Bangladesh in 2002.
  • Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz visited Bangladesh in 2004.
  • Prime Minister Khaleda Zia visited Pakistan in 2006.

Still to be resolved are the division of assets from the pre-1971 period and the status of more than 250,000 non-Bengali Muslims (known as "Biharis") remaining in Bangladesh but seeking resettlement in Pakistan. Since the Awami League government took office in January 2009, relations have been strained over the issue of trials of war criminals from the 1971 war for independence.

Burma. Bilateral ties with Burma are good, despite occasional border strains and an influx of more than 270,000 Muslim refugees (known as "Rohingya") from predominantly Buddhist Burma. As of June 2011, there were over 29,000 refugees officially registered in camps in southern Bangladesh. Thousands of other Burmese, not officially registered as refugees, are squatting on the bank of the river Naaf or living in Bangladeshi villages in the southeastern tip of the country. Bangladesh and Burmese officials have held negotiations on establishing a road link between the capitals of the two countries.

Russia. The former Soviet Union supported India's actions during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war and was among the first to recognize Bangladesh. The U.S.S.R. initially contributed considerable relief and rehabilitation aid to the new nation. After Sheikh Mujib was assassinated in 1975 and replaced by military regimes, however, Soviet-Bangladesh relations cooled.

In 1989, the U.S.S.R. ranked 14th among aid donors to Bangladesh. The Soviets focused on the development of electrical power, natural gas and oil, and maintained active cultural relations with Bangladesh. They financed the Ghorasal thermal power station--the largest in Bangladesh. Russia conducted an aggressive military sales effort in Dhaka and won a $124-million deal for eight MIG-29 fighters. Bangladesh began to open diplomatic relations with the newly independent Central Asian states in 1992. Bangladesh has signed an agreement with Russia for the construction of a nuclear power plant, and Foreign Minister Dipu Moni visited Moscow in May 2010.

China. China traditionally has been more important to Bangladesh than the former U.S.S.R., even though China supported Pakistan in 1971. As Bangladesh's relations with the Soviet Union and India cooled in the mid-1970s, and as Bangladesh and Pakistan became reconciled, China's relations with Bangladesh grew warmer. An exchange of diplomatic missions in February 1976 followed an accord on recognition in late 1975.

Since that time, relations have grown stronger, centering on trade, cultural activities, military and civilian aid, and exchanges of high-level visits, beginning in January 1977 with President Zia's trip to Beijing. The largest and most visible symbol of bilateral amity is the Bangladesh-China "Friendship Bridge," completed in 1989 near Dhaka, as well as extensive military hardware in the Bangladesh inventory and warm military relations between the two countries. In the 1990s, the Chinese also built two 210-megawatt power plants outside of Chittagong; mechanical faults in the plants cause them to shut down frequently for days at a time, heightening the country's power shortage. The opening of a Taiwanese trade center in Dhaka in 2004 displeased China, but the Bangladesh Government moved quickly to repair the rift and closed the trade center. In April 2005, Bangladesh and China signed nine memoranda of understanding on trade and other issues during the visit to Dhaka of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. In August 2005, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia visited China.

In March 2010, Prime Minister Hasina visited China, in an effort to strengthen the countries’ diplomatic ties and discuss regional and global issues. Bangladesh agreed to continue its embrace of a “one China” policy, and China in return pledged significant development aid to Bangladesh. China also agreed to provide financing for several new infrastructure projects in Bangladesh.

Other countries in South Asia. Bangladesh maintains friendly relations with Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka and strongly opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Bangladesh has cordial relations with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and Bangladeshi non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are active in Afghan reconstruction efforts. Bangladesh and Nepal agreed to facilitate land transit between the two countries. Bangladesh has explored importing electricity from Bhutan through India to meet its energy shortfall.

Sources:

CIA World Factbook (March 2012)
U.S. Dept. of State Country Background Notes ( March 2012)

Glossary