Lessons from the 7 January event

Clash between the supporters of 'boat' and independent candidates on the rise across the countryProthom Alo

Paying no heed whatsoever to the foe (read BNP, Ganatantra Mancha, CPB or any anti-government party), the 7 January event is being termed as an ‘election’ and this proves that there really has been astounding development in the country. The increase in wealth and income of the candidates as recorded in the affidavits they have had to submit for the election, will surely silence those who raise questions about development. There can be no more room for doubt about the figures regarding per capita income.

For over the past two weeks or so, there have been no reports in the news of both the wealth and income of the candidates decreasing. In the case of 90 per cent, wealth increased, for some by 4 times, for some others by 400 times, and some even by over 600 times. It may seem difficult to believe at present that anyone has over 10 million taka in cash on hand, but they do, they have millions and millions of taka in cash.

With the anti-government elements not joining the polls, not only is the election being a one-sided affair, but the publishing of the wealth and income of the government supporters has also been one-sided. That is why the terms ‘bank robbers’, ‘share market looters’, ‘ records in corruption’, ‘money launderers’, are being mostly applied to those involved in power politics. Transparency International now says that there are 18 candidates in the election who are billionaires. And 87 per cent are more than millionaires (with over 10 million taka each).

Before Awami League began its development spree, 27 per cent of the candidates were such millionaires. They have even highlighted the fact that a certain minister has 25 billion taka in assets abroad, but has not mentioned this in this affidavit. It would not be wrong to assume that everyone has not enlisted all their wealth and assets in their affidavits. Also, the value of the assets mentioned in their records is not of the present market value. If the present market value is taken into account, this will multiply several times over.

There had been a lot of speculations over the financial benefits of being in power or being on the side of those in power. But now we know that for real. In this election where actual political contenders have been pushed aside and ‘dummy’ candidates fielded in their place, the voters may not have the chance to choose candidates of their liking, but they are getting to learn many things from this arrangement. We too are learning about all sorts of new political strategies. My exercise of today is to draw up a list of what lessons we have learnt so far, other than knowledge on development matters. If anything is missing from this list, excuse my ignorance and add as deemed necessary. Here goes:

Also Read

- It is intra-party conflicts, groupings and factional fights that enrich democracy rather than political contest with the opposition parties. That is why though 264 persons have been given the party ticket to contest in the election, it has been possible to give another 269 persons of the party permission contest as independent candidates. Contesting as a candidate against a candidate nominated by the party is deemed as an offence in the party’s constitution and hundreds of party leaders and activists have been expelled from the party for this offence in the past. Now, however, this is legit for the sake of giving a new form to democracy.

While they now may be resorting to unethical measures like using state benefits which are the legitimate right of the people, as tools in the interests of the party and intimidating people into voting, they perhaps forget that in the future Awami League itself may be victim of such actions

- There is no problem when the campaign clashes between the actual candidates and the dummy candidates turns even more violent and bloody than the clashes apprehended during campaigns when the opposition takes part in the polls. Even when three people die in such clashes, there is no need for even an iota of concern. In fact, it is more important to highlight that such clashes and bloodshed are a proof of stiff competition in the election.

- The so-called sabotages of the opposition movement will be erased from people’s minds in no time, given the extent of violence among the ruling party factions and grouping that has already spread so far.

- In order to step up competition in the election, grouping and rifts are encouraged not just within the party but within the mahajote (grand alliance) as well. As a result, while Workers Party, JSD and Jatiya Party leaders had wanted just a façade of contest, they are now spending sleepless nights in fear of losing their seats. They have only been doled out half the number of seats compared to before, making them realise that they will have no place in the future at the table with the big leaders.

- In order to completely exile the opposition from politics, after having distanced them from the election, a dummy opposition is created from among the loyalists, but leaving them only 26 seats, not the required minimum 30 seats for them to have official opposition status and risk their becoming self-dependent.

- In this new form of democracy, if you agree to change parties, that is if you leave BNP, you can be released on bail and get the ‘boat’ nomination, as had been proven in the case of Shahjahan Omar. Also, if the leader of an opposition party has the clout, it is not impossible to move the ‘boat’ candidate to one side, as proven by General Syed Muhammad Ibrahim.

Also Read

- If the party participation in the election is not competitive or is questionable, a drive has been taken to ensure voter turnout, even if by force. Legitimacy, ethics or morality doesn’t count here. The state can use all weapons in its hands. A new precedent has been set in ensuring that voters turn up at the polling booths, even threatening to stop their social safety net allowances and benefits if they fail to turn up. The Awami League government over the past 15 years has undoubtedly expanded the state allowances significantly, now extending to 12.8 million according to official figures. This is around 11 per cent of the voters. Given the spiraling cost of living, the fear of losing the allowances can hardly be brushed aside.

- The officials of the local government institutions including the union parishad, upazila parishad and the city corporations who are duty-bound to provide services to the people, are almost all members of the ruling party (due to BNP’s past boycott). Some of them have threatened to stop providing services to those who do not come to the polling centres.

Also Read

- The police who helped in making the 2018 election known as the ‘election of the night before’, have now enthusiastically taken up a drive to bring voters to the polling centres. They have called upon the Dhaka city corporation councilors to take up special initiative to bring the voters to the centres. We are all aware of the police’s duty to maintain law and order, but which law gives them the responsibility or authority to bring the voters to the polling centres? At a juncture where the opposition is calling for a boycott of the election, their initiative can hardly be seen as anything short of a new precedence in providing special services to the ruling party.

It is not compulsory in the country to vote. And there is no provision in the ballot to express one’s rejection of anyone. Also, even if the number of damaged ballots is more than half the total votes, there is still no hindrance in declaring the results or the winner. And so, if one is forced to vote even if they do not support any one, this can be equated with repression.

While they now may be resorting to unethical measures like using state benefits which are the legitimate right of the people, as tools in the interests of the party and intimidating people into voting, they perhaps forget that in the future Awami League itself may be victim of such actions. History reminds us that they were the ones who suffered the most from the Special Powers Act, the act that they had promulgated back in 1974.

* 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

Also Read