Awami League's fear: BNP or the election?

General secretary of the ruling Awami League, Obaidul Quader, recently made some very significant statements. His comment made at a party meeting on Saturday at the Darus Salam Balur Math in Mirpur-1 is particularly significant. Responding to BNP leaders' declaration they would not take any vengeance against Awami League if they come to power, he said, "They say if they come to power Awami League people won't be harmed. How nice! They annihilated Awami League. They will finish off the job in one night if they come to power. That is their inner plan."

The basis and objective of this statement made by Obaidul Quader is completely unclear. Is there any specific factual basis for the fear of vengeance and violence that his words carry? Or is it just an assumption? In its ongoing one-point movement, BNP has not visibly followed any policy of violence. In fact, it has been quite the opposite. Previously when they would hold meetings and rallies, the police would assault them and disperse their gatherings. Now it is the ruling party men who do the job of keeping BNP away from the streets. There has even been a brandishing of arms.

If Obaidul Quader's words are based on conjecture, then what is the objective of his allegations? Surely he doesn't want to create alarm and break the morale of his own party workers. Or is he instigating their anger against BNP's leaders and activists? Is he aiming to flare up the fury of his party leaders and activists so as to force BNP to react violently in self defence?

When did BNP ever annihilate Awami League? History reveals that whenever Awami League has been in the opposition, they have kept BNP on its toes. During Khaleda Zia's first term at the helm, Awami League staged around 173 hartals (general strikes). In her second term too, they staged around a dozen hartals a year on average. These were not innocuous programmes, but replete with high tension. In those days, police permission wasn't needed for processions and rallies. There was no dearth of violence either. Whenever BNP committed excesses while in power, there were protests. People could not be silenced. In comparison, after 2014 till May this year, the number of times BNP was allowed to hold rallies can possibly be counted in the fingers of one hand.

It is true that BNP seems to have suddenly woken up. And after the United States in May threatened visa restrictions against those who would obstruct democratic and fair election, they have been holding large rallies in Dhaka and various places around the country. Awami League links this with foreign quarters and has started alleging that this is part of a conspiracy. The foreign quarters say they are not in favour of any party, but are in favour of democracy and thus want a free, fair and credible election in Bangladesh. Awami League, however, goes on alleging that there is a conspiracy being hatched to dislodge the government from power. That implies that the results of the election will not be determined by the voters, but in the capital of some other country. In response to such contentions, they perhaps have forgotten that the question can be also asked, were they elected in the same manner too?

Several pro-government media outlets have been publishing all sorts of speculations. The tale of the Singapore-conspiracy went to such an extent that one of the main characters of the tale, Jatiya Party's secretary general Mujibul Haque Chunnu, was obliged to issue a statement saying that he had not been to Singapore but was in Dhaka after undergoing treatment in Thailand. With these conspiracy tales being spread about the foreigners, the ruling party is gradually losing its friends and its confidence. They fear that defeat is certain if a free and fair election is held and so they have no interest in any sort of understanding or national consensus for a free, fair and credible election.

The authenticity of the past elections and the role of the foreigners back then can certainly be questioned. But that will not resolve the credibility question of the coming election

In two consecutive public opinion polls, most of the respondents said that the country was proceeding in the wrong direction. It is only natural that such responses put a dampener on the confidence of the government and the ruling party. People have lost hope in the economy despite new projects being inaugurated and development rhetoric being spouted almost every single day. Not only that, but there is a sort of despair about the course of politics. Around 47.5 of the respondents said that politically Bangladesh is going in the wrong direction. The IRI survey indicated that 51 per cent of the people believed Bangladesh was proceeding in the wrong direction. And now the survey run by Asia Foundation and BRAC University says that 70 per cent of the people feel that in the area of politics too, Bangladesh has headed down the wrong path.

The time between the two surveys was not much, just three months. While the approval rate for the prime minister personally in the IRI survey was 70 per cent, the responses to the other questions in both the surveys indicated that the people did not have unconditional support for her economic or political policies.

A more significant reflection of the people's views is seen in the second survey where 72 per cent said they are observing a one-party rule in politics and 55 per cent felt that the role of that party was negative.

Speaking to party leaders, it is learnt that Awami League nominates candidates based on the probability of their winning. However, there is a general perception that these surveys to assess popularity are carried out by certain intelligence agencies. As a result, we do not have the opportunity to see what information emerges in those surveys. But, undoubtedly, when it comes to reliability, the surveys run by professional institutions will naturally remain ahead.

It is now also more or less certain that a debate will be stirred up ahead by the open letter from over one hundred Nobel laureates and over 50 former world leaders, calling for the case to be withdrawn against Dr Muhammad Yunus and also highlighting the need for fair and credible elections. While she hinted that foreign lawyers and legal experts will be given the chance to go through the papers and documents of the allegations against Dr Yunus, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina did not seem to have taken their concerns and calls for a free and fair election into cognizance. On the contrary, she asked, "Where was this concern when the military dictators carried out elections?"

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The authenticity of the past elections and the role of the foreigners back then can certainly be questioned. But that will not resolve the credibility question of the coming election. The prime minister's explanation as to whether the coming election will be inclusive or not, may not be wrong, but it is not a complete explanation. For the voters' participation to be meaningful, they must have candidates before them from whom they can select. So if the government goes ahead with the election, leaving out those whom they consider their opposition the year round, how will the election be inclusive?

The persons who issued the open letter addressed to the prime minister are all significantly influential in their respective fields. When they mention that there was a lack of legitimacy in the past two elections and that millions of people around the world are keeping an eye on how these matters will be resolved in the coming days, then it is not at all rational to ignore or reject the interest or eagerness of the foreigners in this matter. It is more important, rather, to pay attention on how to make the forthcoming election credible and fair.

* 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