October 13, 2023
DHAKA – We have said this before, but elections are a time when people get the chance to express their will as to which party and which leaders will govern them. But in our case, it is the cacophony of two leading political parties that will be assaulting our eardrums. Awami League’s wish for election under Sheikh Hasina and BNP’s wish for the very opposite are all we have heard of in the past months, if not years.
There has been no well-researched, in-depth and fact-based criticism of the government’s performance by the BNP. Why there has been no analysis of the ministries or the government’s performance escapes our comprehension. All we have seen is a sweeping demand for this government to quit. From the other side, no elaborate explanation has been given as to why legal ways cannot be found to respond to BNP’s demands, except that “we won’t go outside the constitution.”
With only a few months left till the election, we still have no idea what AL’s and BNP’s manifestos will reveal – though what they say and what they end up doing are usually miles apart. We know of no effort from either side to engage with the public in any way and inquire what the people’s wishes and concerns are.
There have been no open surveys, opinion polls or any big or small group discussions that we know of. How, then, will the leaders on both sides learn what the real issues are? If asked what they are doing to gauge the priorities and concerns of the people, they will most likely say, and with supreme certainty, “We don’t discuss with the people because we do not need to. We are with them all the time, we know everything about their aspirations as we are always and tirelessly working for them. It is you people – the media, NGOs, intellectuals, civil society, etc – who do not know and therefore have to ask.”
Between BNP’s “people want Hasina out” and AL’s “people know who has brought about development,” our all-knowing political leaders seem to have no wish to get to the grassroots. The Daily Star used to run opinion polls in our earlier days, especially when power would change hands every five years and when neither party was entrenched enough to be authoritarian. But with the rise of complete intolerance and vindictiveness towards those who bring out the “bad news” regarding the rulers, we have long since given up.
Presently, BNP says that they will not participate in any election while the AL government is in power because they suspect that the incumbent will misuse the state machinery to manipulate the election. Awami League says they will not deviate from the constitution, which clearly allows the government to remain at the helm of affairs in an interim capacity. This is particularly ironic because back in the 1994-96 period, when BNP was in power, AL demanded for a caretaker system to hold elections because the then incumbent could not be trusted to hold free and fair elections, while BNP argued that they could not go “outside the constitution.” After 27 years, we are once again stuck on the same issue, only with the arguments being reversed between the same two sides.
This zero-sum game has locked Bangladesh in a deadly political stalemate, threatening all our achievements of the last 32 years.
In our political world – as described above – the question that constantly runs through our minds is, given that both AL and BNP are only obsessed with their own interests, is there any space left on their plates for the people’s interests?
— Mahfuz Anam
Whatever economic gains we made stands threatened due to both international and domestic factors. Internationally, there is the Russia-Ukraine war, which has now been joined by the very fluid situation in the Middle East created by the latest Hamas attack and Israel’s all-out war against the Palestinians. Our international trade is coming under strain, with both our exports and remittance inflow showing worrying signs of dipping. Internally, the falling forex reserves, the rising prices of essentials, inflation and more threaten our economy.
Under these dramatically changed circumstances, we are faced with a very volatile political situation. Awami League is solely focused on clinging to power. And BNP will hear of nothing besides dislodging the status quo. Both parties seem to be inhabiting their very narrow, self-serving, partisan worlds. The simple question from our end is this: who is thinking of the economy, the people and the country? The answer, sadly, is “not them.”
Democracy was restored in Bangladesh in 1991. It was done through a civil movement by the combined opposition over a sustained period of time. Gen Ershad’s government was toppled by a massive alliance led by Awami League and BNP, respectively. The public massively supported the opposition alliance because of the 19-point programme that they promised once victorious. None of the promises made during that time was honoured, and we gradually descended to a state of politics that can only be described as tribal.
Today, our politics is that of an election only being “free and fair” for the party that wins and being a fraudulent one according to the party that loses. No facts or evidence seem to be required. “Democracy prevails only if we are in power and absolutely nothing is acceptable if the other side is running the show” seems to be the go-to attitude. This is the myopic, narrow-minded, and self-centred worldview that AL and BNP harbour. In this “world” of theirs, there is no accommodation, no compromises, and no space for anything other than each side’s view of the other.
I often wonder what it is in our nature or our psyche that draws us to self-defeating inflexibility in our political posturing. For the last 32 years, as a part of The Daily Star, we have been a front row witness to the politics in Bangladesh. We have witnessed specifically the behaviour of our two leading parties. The one thing that both parties have retained in their behaviours is the firm refusal to compromise on any issue, however justified a compromise may be. They continue to be insular to the political reality of the moment, in that their respective stance has no relation with the changing circumstances.
In our political world – as described above – the question that constantly runs through our minds is, given that both AL and BNP are only obsessed with their own interests, is there any space left on their plates for the people’s interests? They are too greedy for power, too insulated against people’s worries, too removed from the global realities, too unconcerned about the bigger picture, and too unmindful of the changes that are occurring all around us to have public interest high on their list of priorities. When the world is entering an era of artificial intelligence and examining the potential of quantum computers, we are still quarrelling over how to hold an election that will be acceptable to all. Sadly, we already know from past experience that even if we hold the most transparent and most well-conducted election in the world, the losing side will always reject it under one pretext or the other. Such is the irreconcilable nature of our politics. And it is what we are stuck with at a time when Bangladesh is termed one of the most vulnerable countries facing the biggest threat to civilisation: climate change.
Mahfuz Anam is the editor and publisher of The Daily Star.