On whom will Awami League rely?

My last week's column, 'On whom is BNP depending?' drew in reactions from various quarters. Some even discussed it on YouTube. One analyst remarked that the column defended the 15th amendment. Some others said it had demeaned the strength of BNP's street movement.

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What I had wanted to say was, the problem pertaining to the election is completely political and if the political leadership wants to resolve it, the law or the constitution will not be an obstruction. It hadn't been an obstruction even after Ershad's fall in 1990.

The problem that arises every five years over the election is not just an election crisis. The main problem is the absence of democracy. The commitments made by the political parties before the election about running the country in a democratic manner, are clean forgotten once they ascend to the helm.

They become busy in establishing 'Awami rule' or 'BNP rule', rather than the rule of the people. They place their own people at key points all over to ensure that the election results go in their favour. The crisis that has arisen over the election at present, has been created by those in power. BNP and its associates have been out of power for 16 long years.

After the caretaker government system was abolished in 2011, two elections were held, one in 2014 and the next in 2018. For the sake of argument we may say that since BNP did not join the 2014 election, 154 seats were won uncontested. But what explanation will the Awami League leaders give about the 2018 election? Even after all parties took part in the election, why was a large chunk of the population unable to cast their votes? Awami League leaders contend that BNP took part in the election to make it controversial. They did not contest. How far is that true? If they had any such motive, then the government should not have filed any cases against even a single BNP leader or activist. They shouldn't have raided their homes.

Even if we forget about the environment before and after the election, we can take a look at the votes. According to the election commission, 100 per cent votes were cast in 213 centres of 103 seats of the 11th national parliamentary election. Does that mean no voters had passed away in any of those constituencies? In 7,689 centres, 90 to 99 per cent votes were cast. On the other hand, the candidates of the united opposition Jatiya Oikya Front won not a single seat in 1,195 centres. Do these vote statistics indicate that BNP took part in the election to render it controversial?

The statements made occasionally even by some of the ruling party leaders themselves (you may recall the comment of Kushtia district AL general secretary), as well as field-level officials of the public administration and police, are certainly uncomfortable for the government.  Actually, after the 2018 election results were announced, not just the common people, but even Awami League leaders were taken aback. To paraphrase Humayun Azad, the writer killed by extremists, "Is this the election we wanted?" During BNP's rule he had written, "Is this the Bangladesh we wanted?"

Awami League leaders and ministers of the government have called upon BNP to take part in the election, saying that the 2024 election will not be the same as the elections of 2014 and 2018. They may want to say that they don't want to win an uncontested game, that they want a competitive election. If that is the case, then bringing BNP to the election will be a big challenge for Awami League and the government.

Have those in power created an environment conducive to free and fair elections? They have not. Awami League leaders will say that it is the election commission's responsibility to hold the election. But in Bangladesh there is no precedence of any election commission holding an election independently under a political government. Only recently the chief election commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal said it is not possible for the election commission alone to hold a fair election unless the government has good intentions.

The opposition is now being able to hold rallies and meetings. That is very good. But why does the ruling party hold counter programmes every single time BNP holds a programme? Why does the police have to say, "Move away from here or else Awami League may come and attack you"? Is this an example of being able to hold meetings and rallies freely?

It is not the common people or the media, or the people who Awami League castigates as 'intellectuals', who are responsible for the abnormal situation that emerges every time before an election. The problem with politicians is that they think power is their permanent right. They do not accept that the people can vote them out of power. If they are defeated, they come up with theories of subtle rigging or obtuse rigging.

The hard fact remains that the opposition in Bangladesh has never been able to win in any election under a political government. During Pakistan times, the provincial assembly elections were held in 1954 with Muslim League in power. In that election, those in power lost in all but 9 of the 300 seats. There wasn't even an 'independent election commission' back in the day. It was the DCs and SPs who conducted the elections.

If Awami League's popularity has indeed increased over the past 14 years, then why should they fear taking up the opposition's challenge?

Awami League leadership is displeased with the US, the European Union and the countries whose diplomats talk about fair elections. They surely must recall that when BNP was not accepting the verdict of the election of 12 June 1996, it was six diplomats who met with Khaleda Zia and persuaded her to accept the election results. If that initiative of the diplomats was not interference in domestic affairs, when they talk about fair and inclusive elections today, why should that be considered an interference?

As the election draws closer, Awami League grows more restive. Their restlessness is not because of BNP's 'anti-state activities', it is because a larger section of the population is disconnected with those in power. Awami League leaders were quite elated by the results of the IRI survey, but that very same survey stated 53 per cent of the people supported the opposition.

Over the last 15 years, the government has brought about a lot of development to the country. Padma Bridge and the metro-rail have facilitated people's communication. But we are steadily slipping down in the democracy index. An environment of fear pervades all over. When we raised objections about the Digital Security Act, the government paid no heed. After four and a half year, the government amended several sections and admitted their 'mistake'. The government that uses the law to scare the people, is bound to lose the support of the people.         

The bottom line is, Awami League did not have to depend on anyone in the 2014 election. BNP did not join the election and so they sailed to power uncontested. But the fundamental factor of an election is the scope to choose. If that is not there, it cannot be called an election.

In 2018, Awami League depended on 'invisible forces' that ensured 100 per cent votes in some centres and zero votes in some. If they do not want an election like those of 2014 and 2018 this time, then they will have to rely on the people.

Awami League leaders have said, they do not want to sell out the country's interests and come to power. If they believe in democracy, then protecting people's voting rights will be the top interest of the country. And this will only be possible by means of a fair, peaceful and inclusive election. If Awami League's popularity has indeed increased over the past 14 years, then why should they fear taking up the opposition's challenge?

* Sohrab Hassan is Prothom Alo's joint editor and a poet. He can be contacted 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