Journalists and researchers from home and abroad ask me what I expect from the ‘new’ government. What will I say? What are my expectations? Naturally we don’t want the next government also to be run by forces that destroy rivers, hills, forests and communal harmony. We want the next government to bring to justice the killers of Tawki, Tonu, Dipon, Niloy, Sagar, Runi and so many more men, women and children. We want it to bring a halt to the crossfire killings, the forced disappearances, the unabated rape and sexual harassment on the streets.
We don’t want to see the ‘helmet forces’ and the ‘hammer forces’ being used to silence protesting youth. We don’t want any environmentally harmful projects in the name of development. We don’t want the Rampal project that is destroying the Sundarbans or the Rooppur nuclear power plant project that stands as a threat to the country.
The government should actively stand up against communalism and racial hatred. The universities, banks and all institutions must be free of sycophants and corrupt, inefficient elements. Discrimination, injustice and the erosion of democracy cannot continue in the name of equality, justice, human dignity and all that the liberation war stood for.
Is there any scope to expect all this from the ‘new’ government when this is exactly what the government in its earlier terms promoted? How can we expect this from the government when the farcical election has simply further empowered the bank looters, the drug dons, the killers of Tawki and others?
Over the past year or so, a certain degree of enthusiasm had been generated over the election. But from a few months before the election, it became clear that the government would be determining the election results. However, there were differences over what results the government would actually display. It was assumed that the government would want to keep at least 200 seats for itself. They wouldn’t mind relinquishing the remaining 100 seats to their allies and the opposition.
The very simple question that arises is, can an election be run in this manner? How is it possible? It is obvious that the matter had been carefully planned for quite some time. PR agencies and many local and foreign companies worked on implementing this plan.
This work involved several angles. Firstly, there was optimum use of all ways and means to highlight the government’s success and also to point out that Awami League was indispensible for Bangladesh.
Secondly, on one hand the opposition was to be demonised, and on the other, it was to be obstructed from any sort of movement. On one hand the rivals would have to face attacks, arrests and imprisonment, and on the other, the ruling quarters would step up their own campaigning.
Thirdly, the media would be completely controlled and monitored. All sorts of measures, legitimate and illegitimate, were to be adopted to ensure that TV talk shows, newspaper reports, Facebook , all went in favour of the government. The digital security act was one such tool.
Fourthly, the ruling party’s absolute control would be ensured in all institutions.
Fifthly, financial incentives and other perks would be arranged to expand the ruling party’s support base.
We saw all of this during the campaign period, right from the villages to the capital city. The election commission talked about a level playing field for all, but it was only possible for the ruling party candidates to campaign unhindered, regardless of ‘caste, creed, religion, gender, political affiliation, age, etc.’ After the announcement of the election schedule, I only saw the ruling party processions and posters in my constituency. I heard their blaring songs, their piercing vuvuzelas and campaigning over the TV and radio.
I saw and heard so many candidates outside of the ruling party being assaulted all over the country, their campaigns being disrupted. Police went from house to house arresting leaders and party workers. There was a deluge of fake cases. The administration and the police actively supported the ruling party candidates and so did the election commission. There are videos, and I have seen many of them, where the government officials at a local level addressed public meetings of the ruling party, instructing the people to obstruct any candidate other than that of the ‘boat’ ruling party. They threatened dire consequences if the vote went anywhere else than the ‘boat’. For the ruling party, the election environment was festive and assured, while the rest were in fear of attacks, arrests and threats.
The people of Bangladesh love to discuss and debate politics. They are all politically opinionated and eager to express their views. When elections come around, it is inevitable that such discussions and gatherings crop up all over the place, in tea stalls, at the local drugstore and such. But it was different this time. There were only gatherings for the ‘boat’, but these too were hardly lively in absence of any differing voice.
The most despicable incident occurred on the night before the election. Eye witness accounts, news in the media and written complaints reveal that in many centres the ballot boxes were stuffed on the night before the polls. It is alleged that 30 per cent of the votes were thus cast in advance in many of the centres.
Secondly, rival candidates, their polling agents, supporters and voters were obstructed from coming to the polling centres. They were assaulted, threatened and detained.
Thirdly, all throughout the day, workers of the ruling party stamped the ballot papers and filled the ballot boxes. I saw very few voters turned up at my polling centre in the morning, hardly more than 20 per cent the entire day. There were just ruling party posters and people all around. It was the same in all the polling centres of the vicinity. There may have been 8 or 9 candidates, but only on polling agent in each of the centres.
From the results it is obvious that despite advance preparation by the government and the concerted efforts of the ruling party organisations, the election commission, the administration and the law enforcement agencies, they couldn’t restrict the victory to 200 or 220 seats as planned. They couldn’t even control the number of votes for the ruling party. With everyone’s joint efforts, enthusiasm and hard work, the number of votes and the number of votes in favour of the ruling party, were abnormally high. In such manipulations, many candidates of the opposition ended up with no votes at all in some of the centres.
Did Awami League have to go to such an extent to win the election? Given the measures taken in advance and the monopolised campaigning, they may have won anyway without such actions on the voting day. But all said and done, the ruling party was apprehensive about facing the people and so these scandalous incidents took place.
Such a one-sided election, using all state power to suppress the opposition candidates, does not prove the ruling party’s strength. It proves, on the contrary, the party felt extremely insecure about contesting in the election. It is a matter of question as to why such a powerful party, with significant public support, was reduced to such a pitiful situation.
Undoubtedly, after the 2014 election, this election has set an even worse precedent for the ruling party. However, the government and the ruling party are hardly bothered. After all, to the government and its partners at home and abroad, power is all that matters. There is very little consideration as to whether the ways and means were legitimate or not, ethical or unethical, or what the long term consequences will be to the development of the democratic process and institutions.
* Anu Muhammad is an economist and professor of economics at Jahangirnagar University. He may be contacted at email@example.com. This piece appeared in Bangla in the print version of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir