We have reached the third phase of the election saga. The first phase prevailed till the onset of the campaign. The main concern of this phase was to ensure an inclusive, competitive election. The formation of the Oikya Front and their participation fulfilled these conditions of the first phase.
The second phase comprised the election campaign. The playing field was extremely uneven. Though the election commission, the administration and the law enforcement agencies took various measures, they were biased in favour of a certain party and its coalition.
In the first phase there was still hope about holding a free, fair and participatory election. At that phase, the situation did not require the EC, the administration and the law enforcement to exert any partiality. Some of the measures at the time gave rise to optimism.
In the second phase, during the campaign, the hopes were shattered. The election field was grabbed in the name of canvassing. The ruling party and its coalition ruled the roost, while coming down hard on the opposition. The opposition could not even launch its campaign. Oikya Front candidates were attacked during the electioneering. Only in very few instances were leaders and activists of Awami League and its allies attacked.
We have entered the third phase of the election saga. Despite so much having taken place, we still try to say that all is not lost. The hope that was marred in the second phase should be rekindled. The principle concern is whether the voters can exercise their constitutional right, whether they will be able to cast their votes safely and fearlessly for their chosen candidates, and whether the results will be fair. These are crucial questions at the moment.
We have three expectations from the election commission ahead of the 30 December election.
Firstly, the number of first time voters is 12.3 million in this election. Among the total of 104.2 million voters, 22 per cent are 22-28 years old. These young voters will come into direct confrontation with the question of whether Bangladesh is a democratic state or not, whether it has an identity of dignity and self respect.
The prime question is whether their experience will be an encouraging one, whether this huge number of new voters can cast their votes unimpeded and without any intimidation. They already have begun to witness quite the opposite.
No matter how the election commission, the administration and the law enforcement has played a biased role so far, the youth must not be obstructed from casting their votes. Let them realise they too own the state through this right. A bitter experience in this regard will affect the state and the society in the long run.
Secondly, allegations over favouritism on the part of the administration and the law enforcement have already arisen. These are not insubstantial allegations. We saw such discriminatory behaviour of the election commission and the law enforcement in the past too. At this stage it will be a blatant election offence if they cannot prevent fake votes and forced occupation of the polling centres.
It is the constitutional obligation of the election commission to hold a free and fair election. It is time for the EC to look within. It is the time now to arouse its sense of constitutional responsibility. There is no longer any scope to favour any particular party. A one-sided, biased stance will amount to an election offence. We expect they will not commit any election crime now.
Thirdly, we have some post-election aspirations too. Once the election is over, the overall development structure of the country should be reevaluated. The Awami League, in its campaign, has talked about development and on continuing with this development. BNP and Oikya Front stressed on democracy rather than development.
Risks have piled up behind the veneer of development. These include the expanding gap between the poor and the rich, spiralling unemployment and excessively costly projects. We have a propensity towards risky financing, not only in the banking sector. On the other hand, our institutional capacity has dropped.
Everything is perfect, according to those who have benefitted from this 'development'. They spew out one-sided statistics. For whoever assumes power, the biggest challenge will be to rethink the development narrative that has grown till date. And now it is to be seen what development path Bangladesh will proceed along after the election is over and done.
* Hossain Zillur Rahman is a former adviser to the caretaker government of Bangladesh. This piece, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Nusrat Nowrin.