Is Awami League increasing, or decreasing, its votes?

The apathetic parliament has once again proven that in Bangladesh, political past does not let the present to remain in peace. The Lalmonirhat-1 member of parliament from Awami League, Motahar Hossain, during discussions on the president's address in parliament, commented that Jatiya Party chairman Hussain Muhammad Ershad had lost his deposit in his seat during the 2014 election. His comment let loose a furor. The Jatiya Party members protested in unison, "Lies, lies!" They claimed that Ershad didn't even contest in the election that year. This debate spilled over to the next day. Jatiya Party MP Mujibul Haque, who is also the party's secretary general, said, "Jatiya Party boycotted the 2014 election. At the last moment our late chairman Hussain Muhammad Ershad said he would not join the election and issued a letter calling for the withdrawal of the nomination of all candidates around the country."

"He withdrew the nomination that day. As the situation that day stood... BNP was not joining the election, no party was joining. If Jatiya Party did not come forward, an unconstitutional situation would emerge in Bangladesh.... That day a few of us along with Begum Raushon Ershad, betrayed Hussain Muhammad Ershad and rebelled, joining the election under Begum Raushon Ershad's leadership."

Mujibul Haque thus let the cat out of the bag about Jatiya Party's joining the 2014 election. BNP leaders have been terming the 2014 election as a staged election. Now Jatiya Party's secretary general has dubbed it as an election of betrayal. Then again, he pleads that they were upholding the constitution. In the past, BNP too pleaded that they were upholding the constitution by holding the 15 February 1996 election. Bangladesh has innumerable records in development and democracy. Staging an election with 154 uncontested seats is certainly a record too. This can never be seen in any other democratic country of the world.

In this context, Awami League leaders are assuring the people and foreign friends that the 2024 election will in no way be a repeat of the 2014 and 2018 elections. They say this time the election will be peaceful, inclusive and competitive. The question is whether Awami League is prepared to hold such an election. The activities, statements and speeches of the party leaders are hardly reassuring.

Over the past 14 years, Awami League has carried out a lot of development. They have made the Padma Bridge, the metro rail. These have eased people's communication. People's average income and life expectancy has increased. But Awami League leaders do not realise that development alone cannot win popularity or people's confidence. In a democratic country, people want freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of the media.

The people will want to see what development has taken place over the last 14 years in the areas of politics, democracy, the election system, etc

And more important are votes. Despite all the development they have brought about, Awami League has failed to conduct a free, inclusive and credible election. There is no guarantee that they will be able to do so in the future. In the latest development, the manner in which the candidates nominated and favoured by the ruling party were made to win in the by-elections to the six seats vacated by BNP, the entire election system is being questioned. Chief election commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal has said, 15 to 25 per cent of the votes have been cast. That means, 75 per cent of the voters have said 'no' to the by-election.

During Pakistan times, the Tangail by-election was a turning point. In independent Bangladesh, the Magura by-election was another turning point. Now we are waiting to see which direction the future of politics will take after the one-sided and forced by-election in the six seats.

Awami League leaders claim that over the past 14 years they have taken the country along the development highway, that the people will spontaneously vote for them and bring them to power in the next election. Surely they recall, there was significant development in Sheikh Hasina's first term too. The allowances for poor and distressed people were initiated in that term. They had managed the 1998 floods well too. Despite World Bank's opposition, the government had provided plenty of subsidies to agriculture and the people had reaped the benefits. But even after so much achievement and success, Awami League failed dismally in the 2001 election due to the emergence of 'godfathers' in certain areas.

The people will want to see what development has taken place over the last 14 years in the areas of politics, democracy, the election system, etc. Because of the political vengeance during BNP's rule, the 21 August grenade attack in particular, the people ushered Awami League to power in a landslide of votes. After independence, Awami League had never won such support from the youth. I am speaking with 1972 in mind. But how far has Awami League managed to meet the aspirations of the youth? The Abrar murder in BUET, the tragic death of a CUET teacher, the 'guestroom' culture in the Dhaka University halls, the eviction of students in Rajshahi University halls for their differing opinions, the VC's room being smashed up in Chittagong University and the innumerable misdeeds of the government-backed student organisation, are just a few glaring examples.

Awami League is holding meetings and gathering almost every day to highlight the misdeeds, the money laundering, that took place during the BNP rule. The thing is, when the moon rises, there is no need to call people and display the moon. If the people feel that their living standards have improved during this government, that nobody has to pay bribes to get services, then they will vote for Awami League.

But if they see people amassing wealth simply because they are a part of Awami League, while the majority of people struggle to eke out a living, then they will search for an alternative. Awami League leaders begin their speeches with BNP and end with BNP. But they should realise that rather than what happened 16 years ago, people remember the misdeeds of the recent past more.

If Awami League does not want another national election like 2018 or 2014, or a repeat of the recently held by-elections to six seats, they must change their political strategy and mindset. They must keep in mind, it may be easy to bring back errant and expelled leaders into the party fold, but it is extremely difficult to win back the confidence of voters who have lost their trust in the party.

* Sohrab Hassan is Prothom Alo joint editor and poet. he may be contacted at [email protected]

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