After the BNP won a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly after the 1979 elections, Zia-ur Rahman restored the parliamentary government that had been suspended since 1975 while the country went through a period of unrest. Zia was assassinated during a failed military coup attempt in May 1981; his vice president. Abdis Sattar, succeeded him. Zia's widow, Begun Khaleda Zia, became Sattar's vice president. Sattar served until he was deposed by the army chief, General Hussain Mohammad Ershad, who reinstated martial law and suspended the Constitution. Ershad tried to promote Islam, to the consternation of the strong Hindu minority; to keep any opposition under control, Ershad placed Khaleda Zia, a Muslim, under house arrest. Ershad retired from the military in 1986 and was elected president as a civilian, with opposition parties boycotting the election. The opposition parties, in a strong coalition, exerted pressure on the Ershad administration, leading him to dissolve Parliament and declare an emergency, calling for March 1988 elections. His Jatiya Party retained the majority when opposition parties again boycotted the election. Hindu-Muslim tensions escalated until, in late 1990, Ershad resigned and the chief justice of the Supreme Court, with opposition support, assumed the leadership of the government.
After her husband was assassinated in 1981, Zia found that the BNP was looking to her for leadership. Determined to continue her husband's work toward establishing a free democracy in Bangladesh, she agreed to accept leadership of the BNP. Under her guidance, BNP formed a seven-party alliance in opposition. In elections held February 1991, Begum Khaleda Zia, candidate of BNP, won an overwhelming victory. She took the oath of office as prime minister on 20 March 1991, becoming the first woman to head Bangladesh's government. She restored the parliamentary system and assumed the role as head of the parliamentary government in September. By 1994, however, her support in Parliament had eroded and the opposition parties refused to participate in parliamentary activities for the next two years. Following voting in February 1996 (boycotted by the main opposition parties), the BNP won 116 seats in the National Assembly and Khaleda Zia began a second term as prime minister. Controversy over the elections would not die, however, causing Khaleda Zia to resign; new elections were set for June 1996. The Awami League, headed by Sheikh Hasina Wajed, daughter of the first prime minister of independent Bangladesh, managed to gain control of the government with Sheikh Hasina as prime minister. But the government was still in chaos, with the BNP leading protests over taxes, electoral fraud, and government repression. In addition, bombings and other terrorist activities were on the rise. Sheikh Hasina fulfilled her five-year term and stood for reelection in October 2001. But elections held on 1 October 2001 put the four-party alliance, made up of the BNP and its coalition partners, back in control of the Parliament. Khaleda Zia was sworn in as prime minister on 10 October 2001.