Bangladesh is, in fact, passing through a full-blown election season, no matter how people are responding to it. Hot on the heels of the 10th national election, the country is now heading towards its fourth upazila elections beginning on February 19. This local body election looks set to generate much more enthusiasm among the electorate than what we saw during the national election held on January 5. The elections to five city corporations – Khulna, Sylhet, Rajshahi, Barisal and Gazipur – in mid-2013 galvanised the voters at the grassroots level. The memories of unilateral election the country experienced on January 5 will take time to fade as we still cannot forget the farcical election held on February 15, 1996. There were debates, there are debates and there will be debates in the future over these two national elections pinpointing the weaknesses of Bangladesh ‘democracy’.
As we await the interesting February 19 upazila polls in the wake of a dull national election, many people are already enjoying election frenzy in their localities. It is a time where people’s minds are focused and engaged on their hopes and aspirations. It is about the issues affecting the communities and the nation. It is the time people want to have a conversation about the candidates of their choice. It provides the opportunity for people to promote their agenda for their localities, constituencies and above all for their country. It is their democratic right to vote; to have that choice. The upcoming upazila elections may turn out to be a game-changer for those who boycotted the national.
Even though it is a local body election, Bangladesh could look like a very different place on February 19, 2014 with elections taking place in the 98 upazilas across the country in the first phase of the staggered polls. When the national saw only 1.8 percent candidates in each constituency, the 98 upazilas with 292 posts have got 5.51 percent candidates against each post, much higher than the national election– a disgraceful figure for a general election!
Things are going to be quite different in the local polls as the BNP-led alliance is joining it after its much-hyped boycott of the national election, which was seen by many as a strategic mistake for Khaleda Zia’s BNP. Still reeling under the fallout of the national election, the BNP now thinks it is time for it to join the election to rejuvenate its leaders and workers at the grassroots level who are obviously upset with the party’s failure to resist the Jan 5 election. The BNP leaders think it will be a morale booster for the party rank and file if the BNP-backed aspirants can fare well in the third-tier local body elections. Battered by the wave of arrests of its leaders and workers and criticised for depending too much on its key ally Jamaat-e-Islami for its street movement, the BNP now thinks of reinventing itself through the upazila election. But it is not going to be an easy sail, as its arch rival Bangladesh Awami League has put in place its own trap for the BNP.
If the gossips are to be believed, the ruling coalition has chalked out a plan to keep the BNP engaged in its election boycott sentiment through provocative statements and thus woo its grassroots leaders to the election ignoring the command of the central leadership, which will ultimately weaken further the already demoralized party. According to the Awami League insiders, the ruling coalition had sketched out it blueprint to keep the opposition BNP out of the national election much ahead of the election, and dumping the caretaker government system form the constitution was its first step.
They knew it very well that BNP Chairperson Khaleda, highlighted by the party rank and file as an uncompromising leader of the country, would boycott the election if the scrapped caretaker government system is not restored. And Khaleda Zia stepped into the trap insisting that there would be no election under Sheikh Hasina. Over the years, Khaleda carried out her campaign but failed to move the government. Khaleda Zia’s movement gathered storm only at the end of 2013. But, the government moved ahead with its plan and held the election defying all pressures – both from home and abroad. Though the ruling alliance lost the public sympathy, it has been able to retain power with the election. Now it has launched a campaign abroad to bolster the credibility of Sheikh Hasina’s new government. This election has proved that ‘in politics, there are no rules’.
After January 5, now it is a different ball game. This is good news for the BNP sympathisers that their leaders have now returned to their senses. Had they stuck to their own boycott guns there was a possibility for the party of late President ZiaurRahman to have been sidelined further in politics. For the last two years, both the Awami League and BNP fought the battle for their own existence. The Awami League ultimately came out winner in the battle, which at times turned nasty, as it fought it with a well-thought out plan. The BNP lost it as it always lacked the strategy to take the appropriate decision and move ahead overcoming the odds. Sometimes Khaleda looked distraught and alone. And at times she looked overconfident seeing the good crops in the field. But it is too impulsive to be overwhelmed by seeing the field full of paddy giving little attention to how it could be harvested. After the general election, Finance Minister AMA Muhith even commented ‘BNP should have participated in the election, it could have won it… ‘Who knows?’
Many BNP admirers claim that though the Awami League has outsmarted Khaleda’s party, the ruling party would have to pay a heavy price one day for manipulating the election and thus winning the election through over-maneuvering. They insist that the Awami League will have to go for election, a participatory election, even after five years, if not in 2-3 years. But the image deficit it has suffered with this election will take decades to be regained. Though Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is trying to garner public support with lofty promises, including containing corruption, it will be difficult to ensure good governance overnight as state institutions are not ready yet to ensure such delivery, particularly with half of her cabinet members coming from the business community.
According to media reports, 22 of the 48-member cabinet are businessmen and of them 33 have not been elected with direct votes. The political commitment cannot be expected from a cabinet which has only six ministers having the clean political career. For reasons more than one, it will be difficult for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to make her record third-time government a memorable one with good governance as it already came up with an all-time low approval rating. She will have to work with a magic lamp to reverse its waning popularity. It is also wrong on the part of the ruling party to pursue an aggressive political campaign with self-praise on one hand and making scathing attacks every day on their opponents on the other. Such offensive politics does more harm to the party than good.
The success now the governing coalition is relishing is more of situational than what they realise. It is just their luck and maneuvering, but everyone and everything is subject to the laws of probability. Issues like price hike, worsening law and order situation and unchecked corruption have the potential to develop into spirited protests anytime. The winds of change have been blowing in the country for a quite some time now with the young generation getting linked itself with the technology, particularly the Internet. The global connection of the young generation is gradually bringing a change in our voting behavior, too. The day is not far away when the nasty political game will turn out to be a burden for any forward-looking political party. The dirty game that seems to have played a magic may not click in the next round. The current churning in the country’s politics suggests that a creative thinking is needed to do politics. Mere slogans and empty rhetoric of self-praise and successes are unlikely to cut the ice with the electorate in the future.
Article source: Dhaka Courier