A survey, pessimism and the caretaker government issue

Voters at the Cumilla city corporation elections, at the Shaktala High School polling centre

In developed democracies, various institutions often carry out surveys on the government, the head of government, the ruling party, the opposition and various contentious issues. These surveys are carried out by universities, the media and different private institutions. There are many professional survey research institutions too that only conduct surveys.

These surveys are not like our media’s online voting which only cover the views of the regular users of the website. After our country reverted to democracy, for about two decades the trends in our politics were depicted well in the annual surveys. But with the deterioration of democracy that practice has more or else come to a halt. Now if any survey is carried out other than for business purposes, it is first checked as to whether it has government approval or not, otherwise the professional experts or their institutions are unwilling to take the responsibility. Just as there is fear about speaking out, there is also fear about wanting to know.

The US non-government institution, International Republican Institute (IRI), which works for the promotion of democracy, is an exception. They still occasionally conduct surveys on sensitive political issues. That is why questions have even been raised on the surveys they conducted before and after the two controversial elections of 2014 and 2018 respectively. On 8 August they published a survey on the forthcoming election too. Certain information that appeared in their survey completely matches with what the Awami League general secretary Obaidul Quader has said.

At the extended meeting of Awami League held at Ganabhaban on 6 August, he said that according to the latest survey of Bangladesh, 70 per cent of the people still support Bangabandhu’s daughter Sheikh Hasina and are waiting to vote for her in the coming election. (Manabzamin). The survey that IRI published does not speak directly of voting intention, but does mention support for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. They use the word ‘approval’ in their survey, in other words, the people approve what she has done. As the numbers he referred to are similar to the April survey, many feel that their survey report was at first submitted to the government, as a stakeholder, which is not unnatural at all. The question may also arise as to whether they shared this with other parties as well. Of course, he may have been referring to a separate survey of the government or the ruling party which is not open for all.

The survey has two parts – one is based on direct interviews with 5000 persons taking into consideration the men, women, age and rural and urban population. And the other is based in discussions and questions and answers carried out with eight focus groups of 10 members each. Before discussing other aspects of the survey, two factors first need to be taken into consideration. Firstly,45 per cent of the respondents said they are more or less fearful of expressing their opinions openly. Whether it was out of fear or not, we don’t know, but 5 per cent refused to even answer that question.

Secondly, in the focus group discussions, an urban woman in Khulna said, “If I say anything about political issues now, I fear that I may even be killed.” Similarly, in Mymensingh a rural woman said Awami League is on power now. If BNP tries to come out and campaign, they are attacked.

It is clear that everyone did not speak their minds openly out of fear in the survey. They may not have been able to trust those taking the survey.

Many questions thus may arise about the survey, and already have, at least on the social media. It is extraordinary that in the entire survey, the majority of the people  have expressed their dissatisfaction with the country’s politics, economy, democracy and the future of the country. And 63 per cent of the people approved of or supported the opposition’s activities. 69 per cent were against elections under a party government, of which 44 per cent wanted elections under a caretaker government and 25 per cent under a government made up of all parties.

Also, 92 per cent of the people were eager to vote, indicating that they people of the country are waiting expectantly for a credible election. There was probably a reflection that the last two elections under Awami League were not credible – 55 per cent of those who said they would not vote in the next elections, said that their votes had been cast by others.

From the focus group discussions it was also apparent that people are not interested in an election without participation of the opposition. A rural youth of Chattogram said, “If there is no opposition party, who will I vote for?” A rural woman of Mymensingh said that the opposition must send out a message that there is someone who can stand up against the government.

This pessimism is about the economic struggle, the pitiful state of democracy, the elections and the role of the political parties. Over half the voters of the country feel that the country is headed in the wrong direction

If Obaidul Quader tries to use this survey positively then we must say he has courage, or he has not read the rest of the report. Among Awami League, BNP and Jatiya Party, the most negative comments have been made against Awami League. And the least negative attitude have been against BNP.

That was about democracy and politics. Awami League may be optimistic about economy. But this survey does not say so. While the people have support for the development policies, economically speaking they said they are suffering. 51 per cent of the respondents said that the economy was in a bad or a very bad shape. Among the surveys over the past eight years, this is the most negative opinion people have about the economy. Only 26 per cent of the people believe that the economy will be better next year. And 36 per cent believe it will be worse. Around 87 per cent of the respondents believe that the wealthy have benefitted abnormally from the economics of development and 87 per cent believe that the rich-poor disparity has increased.

The question about what the biggest problem of the country is even more significant. People are struggling with living costs due to inflation, but the majority of them, 36 per cent, feel that corruption is the main problem. The results of this survey possibly indicate how much more corruption has increased over the past 15 years compared to the allegations of corruption the Awami League leaders bring about against BNP.

There are innumerable indications in this survey that Awami League, the party that believes in singular leadership, will not find it easy to cash in on the 70 per cent support of the people shown for the prime minister’s work so far. The biggest concern for the party possibly is the people’s pessimism about the future.

This pessimism is about the economic struggle, the pitiful state of democracy, the elections and the role of the political parties. Over half the voters of the country feel that the country is headed in the wrong direction. It will not be easy for any party in the next five to six months left for the election, to generate a sense of hope among the majority of the people regarding the future of the country.

But based on the underlying message of the survey, one cannot dismiss the fear that a credible and fair election may become even more uncertain.

* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir