After ten years, Bangladesh is back to a participatory election of sorts. Parties of all hue and colour are contesting the polls that is going to be held today. But the buck stops here.
Beyond the jacket of all those weighty words, Bangladesh is also going to see a very different kind of election where the main opposition parties were hardly visible in campaigns, their leaders and activists harassed, harried and attacked, and the police extended their long tenuous arm to arrest thousands of opposition men.
Elections have become mostly festive affairs for Bangladesh when even the person at the lowest rung of the society suddenly feels important as candidates go from house to house, seeking their votes. But this time that spirit has faced a damp squib as only the ruling party was visible in campaigns, that too with a much lower enthusiasm.
Also for the first time, a participatory election is going to be held without parliament being dissolved (it was not dissolved in 2014 too but the BNP-led alliance and other opposition parties boycotted the election) and with a party government in office since 1991, when a system was developed for conducting national elections under a neutral administration.
But above these words, there is another story too, perhaps burning bright in the cap of Awami League. It has charted the country through a development phase never witnessed before. The economy has grown by over 6 percent and crossed over the magical 7 percent mark of late. Huge infrastructure projects have been taken up, waiting to yield results in near future. The pillar for industrial development has been hammered in with power plants being set up at a breakneck speed, with a huge 2,400 MW nuclear plant fast being constructed, a hundred special economic zones are being readied and Bangladesh today has caught the attention of world investors, who are finding it a next stage, after China and India, for growth.
Despite its many gains on economic fronts, however, Bangladesh has fallen behind most of its neighbours in the Forbes’ list of “Best Countries for Business” for 2019.
Awami League’s election campaign has focused much on this shinning streak. To get growth, you need this party in power again is how it has formulated its communication strategy.
But the growth story has its dark shadow as well. Inequality has increased. Corruption is visible. Intuitions have weakened. Governance has not improved. And freedom of speech and expression has waned with the passing of new draconian laws, and the rise of abasement against pluralism is spectacular.
So it was natural that when the opposition BNP formed an unlikely alliance, Jatiya Oikyafront, with old political hand like Dr Kamal Hossain to launch a united comeback battle against an incumbent power, their main slogan was to righting the wrong and to go for a waft of reforms that aims at building institutions and strengthening governance.
But their battle is poised on an uneven ground.
First came the extraordinary wave of cancellation of their candidacies, apparently on trivial grounds. Then the subduing tactic of attacks on the opposition.
Motorcades and campaigns of more than 50 BNP and Oikyafront candidates, including that of BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, have come under attack across the country. Bangladesh’s politics has turned violent sometimes, but never before have so many candidates come under attack on campaign trail.
In the last 10 years, cases piled against the opposition leaders and activists, many of whom face over 100 cases each from long before when the BNP had waged a violent anti-government movement in 2014 in demand for an election-time caretaker government, scrapped by the Awami League government in 2011.
But many more new cases had later been filed against unnamed persons and those unnamed persons are now appearing as the opposition members.
Candidates have been arrested and at least 17 of them taken to jail — six of them after announcement of election date. The BNP and its allies find themselves confined to their houses, their party and camp offices are empty and frequently attacked. The BNP does not have its own candidates in 17 seats as their candidacies were cancelled following court orders.
The party, which formed government thrice since restoration of democracy in 1991, finds itself especially handicapped with its leader Khaleda Zia in jail in a corruption case. She has been disqualified to run.
But that has not derailed the BNP from taking part in the election and it stayed the course despite all odds. It had no choice too because boycotting this one would have completely routed the party with the cancellation of its registration.
Its only hope today is that voters would turn out in great numbers and vote it on their reform agenda. The Awami League is also confident that voters, in whatever numbers they walked in, would choose it again for all the good things it did.
The Election Commission’s role has not been inspiring. The chief election commissioner maintains a level playing field for all parties exists, a claim that has been belied by field realities. The EC has brushed aside complaints by the opposition. In a rare instance, one of the election commissioners, Mahbub Talukder, has raised his voice against the skewed election atmosphere.
Bangladesh witnessed 10 elections in its political history — four under caretaker governments and six under political governments of both parliamentary and presidential type. Of the polls held under political governments, none except for the one in 1973, could claim fair dealings. And the ones held under caretaker governments since 1991 were widely acknowledged as free and fair.
The elections to different local government bodies held in the last five years have instilled little confidence. The latest city corporation elections in Gazipur, Barisal, Khulna, Sylhet and Rajshahi, all held this year under the current Election Commission, were marred by manipulation. The EC turned a blind eye to the facts in the field.
In that sense, it is now a big challenge for the incumbent government to live up to its promise that a free and fair election is possible under a political administration. It is all the more important for stability of the country so that Bangladesh can reach the other magic number — a 10 percent growth in the coming years.