What if the elections are not as in 2014 and 2018?

Not too long ago Awami League leaders had been sneering that BNP doesn't have the gumption for any movement. They are no longer making such statements. To the contrary, the people are quite impressed in the manner that BNP is carrying out peaceful programmes, not rising to the bait despite Awami League's provocations. BNP deserves kudos for breaking away from hartals (general strikes), blockades, arson and violence.

Recently, two programmes of BNP aroused people's interest -- the youth rally and the women's rally. Rather than the size of the crowds BNP would be able to draw in through the programmes, it was interesting to observe the reaction of the ruling coterie. The moment BNP announced its youth rally, Awami League announced a similar programme on the very same day. In response, BNP changed the date of its programme. The people are not pleased by the ruling party's counter moves and display of power. Are they trying to show that the government  is unable to tackle BNP and so it needs the party's support?

Every day in their speeches, Awami League leaders list the different ways in which BNP would suppress the anti-government opposition parties. But the people are seeing for themselves how the opposition party cannot hold their rallies and meetings unhindered during the Awami League rule.

Awami League leaders say that the national elections will be as fair as the Gazipur elections. But they are not saying that if the election is free as in Gazipur, then the candidates of Awami League's 'boat' symbol will also face defeat by candidates like Zayeda Khatun

The ruling party leaders and ministers are so caught up with the new US visa policy, that they fail to see how rot has set in within the party. Awami League leaders are quite complacent over the Gazipur city elections being free and fair. But before the results were declared, could they even imagine that the party candidate would be defeated by a complete nobody?

Those who have observed the Gazipur election maintain that the administration was not completely neutral there. They leant towards Azmat Ullah, just as they had been partial towards the Awami League candidate Jahangir Alam in 2018. Had the US visa policy not be declared on the day before the election, perhaps the results would have been different.

After the 2018 city corporation elections in Sylhet, I had asked an official there how come Awami League had been defeated there, while it had been victorious all over the rest of the country. He said that those in power hadn't realised it would be like this. It was the same in Gazipur this time. Awami League's big shots couldn't imagine that their candidate Azmat Ullah would be defeated by Zayeda Khatun in such a manner. Azmat Ullah was defeated, but the actual defeat was of Awami League.

Awami League leaders say that the national elections will be as fair as the Gazipur elections. But they are not saying that if the election is free as in Gazipur, then the candidates of Awami League's 'boat' symbol will also face defeat by candidates like Zayeda Khatun. The throwing of chairs at the evaluation meeting indicates that even after the Gazipur city elections, the inner rifts of Awami League there haven't been resolved.

After the Gazipur election, a dozen or so central leaders even stayed for some time in Barishal to clear up the party's inner feuds before the city corporation elections, but they failed to patch things up. Abul Khair Abdullah, who has been nominated by the party this time, is the uncle of the present mayor Sadiq Abdullah. Sadiq Abdullah is now in Dhaka, boycotting his uncle's election. Even though a picture of the brothers Hasnat Abdullah and Khair Abdullah embracing each other appeared in the media, the party men remain divided at the grassroots.

Awami League's internal conflicts are not just in Gazipur and Barishal. The news coming in from Cumilla, Faridpur, Chattogram, Cox's Bazar, Tangail, Jamalpur, Brahmanbaria, Pabna, Dhaka and Munshiganj, does not bode well for the party. In almost all the districts, it is an open secret that the minister is opposed to the member of parliament, the member of parliament is opposed to the upazila chairman, the elected representatives are opposed to the local leaders and so on. There have even been violent clashes resulting in death in certain instances. Even the gathering organised in front of the central office in Dhaka on 7 June, resulted in a chair-throwing melee.

It was support from the youth that led to Awami League's landslide victory in 2008. The youth at the time had really believed in their commitment for change. But the youth that the government is nurturing under the banner of Chhatra League, certainly is not adding to its public support. It was during the term of this government that two top leaders of Chhatra League had to step down before the end of their terms for their involvement in extortion. Those before and after them who came to Chhatra League leadership, never tried to win the support of the students either.

Let me recount a recent incident. Samiul Islam, a residential student of Jahangirgar University's Mir Mosharraf Hossain Hall, recently staged a hunger strike on the hall grounds, with a three-point demand. The three points of his demand were for the eviction of non-students from the hall, shutting down the 'guestroom', and allocating seats for all students temporarily housed in the 'mini-guestroom'.

Samiul finally broke his hunger strike on the eighth day after the hall authorities gave them their assurance. Prior to that, the university Chhatra League leaders and activists had assaulted him. They set fire to his bed, bed sheets and pillows. They broke the intravenous saline stand next to him. Then a Chhatra League leader forcefully sent him by ambulance to the university medical centre. The law remains blind, the university administration helpless.

Such behaviour by Chhatra League towards a fellow student on hunger strike is downright cruel. What gives these Chhatra League men the arrogance to attack a student on strike for justified demands? Is this the lessons that they have been taught?

Do Awami League leaders think they will be able to carry out the election this time too as they have done in the past? In 2014 BNP had boycotted the polls. Awami League sailed to victory sans competition. In 2018 BNP did join the election, but the Nurul Huda commission, with the help of the administration and the law enforcement, arranged the election in such a manner that the voters in most cases didn't have to take the 'trouble' of coming to the polling booths to cast their votes. Awami League's candidates didn't even bother to campaign for votes.

If BNP actually joins the election this time and the law enforcement as well as the administration is not biased, then whether the election is held under a non-party government or any election-time government, those talking so big now with police protection, will have to face a harsh reality.

* Sohrab Hassan is Prothom Alo's joint editor and a poet. He can be reached at [email protected]

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