Politics after the election: How will things be?

While in constitutional and legal terms the formality arranged for 7 January 2024 may be described as an ‘election’, if the ongoing events are taken into consideration, it would be difficult indeed to actually call this an election. That is why the question in everyone’s mind is, what is the government’s objective with this election? After that, where will Bangladesh’s politics stand?

A sort of uncertainty prevails before any election, questions arise in the public mind – which party will nominate which candidate, who will win, what pledges are the parties making, who will emerge victorious? Due to these questions, as in other democratic countries, a trend of public opinion surveys started in Bangladesh too after 1991. Many would take note of these surveys conducted by various organisations and the media. But that trend fizzled out before 2018.

Those who theoretically study democracy and want to come up with a credible definition for democracy and identify the characteristics of democracy, have all sorts of differences among each other. But they are all in consensus at least on one matter, that democracy is such a government or regime where the public offices are filled by means of competitive election.

In an article by José Antonio Cheibub, Jennifer Gandhi and Raymond Vreeland published in 2010, referring to this consensus, it was said that ‘public office’ meant the chief executive and the legislative assembly and ‘competition’ meant a situation where the government had an opposition that had a chance to win in the election (Democracy and Dictatorship Revisited, Public Choice, 143 (2)).

The renowned political scientist Adam Przeworski, in his book published in 1991, pointed to three criteria of elections in a democracy: 1. Uncertainty, that is, the results of the election aren’t known before the election. 2. Unchangeability, that is, the results of the elections cannot be changed; the winner actually takes over responsibility. 3. Repeatability, that is, elections that meet the first two criteria, are held regularly and at fixed intervals. The latter two criteria are irrelevant if the first is absent.

In the election that is to take place on 7 January, ruling Awami League’s main contender, BNP, has been, in effect, removed from the election process. The important fact is that politics has not been used for this, state institutions have been used to do this. The treatment by the state forces towards BNP is nothing new. There is no reason to forget what happened all over the country before the 2014 and 2018 election. A reign of fear was spread through fictitious cases, indiscriminate harassment of the general citizens, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, and once a one-party and then a multiparty election was held.

But before the start of the election process this time, by using force to thwart the BNP rally on 28 October, a sort of war was declared against the party. Human Rights Watch called this a ‘violent crackdown’. Thousands of activists and the top ranking leaders have been detained. And over the past three and a half months, the old cases against BNP leaders have suddenly gained unbelievable momentum. Till last Friday, 815 persons have been convicted in these cases (DW, 8 December 2023).

The behaviour of the ruling quarters towards the opposition, and above all, the treatment by the state forces and the perception of the court being used politically, is creating an environment which leaves no reason to consider this an election.

Alongside creating this situation, three so-called king’s parties have been formed with direct and indirect backing by the government, and these have overtaken others to be given registration so that they can break BNP to collect candidates. This has been done to give the election semblance of inclusivity. There are allegations that the state forces are being used for this purpose. The parties and individuals suddenly changing their stances to take part in the election have been lured or pressurized to join the election bandwagon, others speak of ‘pressure’. The parties and individuals want to be elected without any competition.

It is not that the ruling quarters are simply arranging the election. They are actually paving the grounds of future politics. They aim at displaying that there are many parties in the country, but in effect they will bring an end to the multiparty system.

Even if we forget about the uncertainty of an election, Awami League allies are not turning to the people, but to the ruling party to be assured of victory. The matter of seat sharing is so blatant that Sharif Nurul Ambia, leader of JSD which had been a partner of the 14 party alliance at one point of time, had said, “Work is on in the election process of sharing seats among political parties of one camp.” They turn to Awami League to seek assurance, because they are aware of the reality. They will not win unless the ruling party so wants.

It is not that just the allies are wanting a share or seats. There are reports that Awami League rivals too want seat sharing.  

Also Read

The so-called rivals did not murmur a word of protest against these reports. The leader of such a party claimed that he has joined the election as he ‘couldn’t cope with the government through the movement’. And when the Awami League leader’s candidature in the seat of that leader was cancelled, the indications are not difficult to discern.

Under the directives of Awami League, Jatiya Party for long has been ensconced in the role of the opposition. Even when there is conflict within that party, its leaders rush to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Over the last three elections, there has been an understanding between Awami League and Jatiya Party. In the 2008 election, JaPa had candidates in 49 constituencies. It won in 29 where Awami League did not field candidates. In the 2014 election, JaPa won 33 seats, again where Awami League had no candidate. JaPa won against the boat in one seat. In the 2018 election, their seats fell to 22. So JaPa is well aware that their fate lies in Awami League’s hands and so they are now awaiting Sheikh Hasina’s decision.

The arrangement being made with a few parties and a few defectors from other parties can in no way be called an inclusive election. The question is whether it can be called an election at all. And the manner in which preparations are on for the election, indicate what the state of the country’s internal politics will be after the election. It is not that the ruling quarters are simply arranging the election. They are actually paving the grounds of future politics. They aim at displaying that there are many parties in the country, but in effect they will bring an end to the multiparty system.

China is an example of how such a system can be. Many are not aware that, according to the official narrative, there are ‘eight other democratic parties in China, other than the ruling Communist Part of China. The official narrative states that these democratic parties were formed before the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and have chosen to support the leadership of the Communist Party as part of the longstanding cooperation and joint struggle with the Communist Party.

The party system in Cambodia is almost the same. There are 17 parties outside of the ruling Cambodia People’s Party and their aim is not to challenge, but to support those in power.

It does not only depend on Awami League and those participating in this election as to whether they will be able to materialise this aim through the 2024 election. It also depends on whether those who have boycotted the election are able to realise this and are prepared to tackle this venture.

The opposition parties for long have been fighting for reestablishing the voting rights of the people, have been in a movement for free, fair and inclusive elections, but the government had not taken this into consideration. It is going ahead to hold the election as it wishes. The political plans of the ruling quarters do not end with this one ‘election’. And so the much-divided political parties must realise that the country’s future political pathway and their existence is hinged onto this election.          

* Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor of the Department of Politics and Government at the Illinois State University in the US, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and president of the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies.

* 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