Vol. 4 Num 67 Sat. August 02, 2003  

Netrokona-3 by-elections: A decade after 'Magura'

In 1994, the BNP had been in power for about three years. The party was a surprise winner of the 1991 general elections and its performance in governance thus far, could at best, be described as naive. In that year, the death of Advocate Md Asaduzzaman, MP for Magura 2, resulted in a by-election to that parliamentary seat. Asaduzzaman was a leader of the Awami League, and had won the seat for his party in the general elections of 1979, 1986 and 1991. In his last election, he got 43.63 per cent of the votes against 23.05 per cent for his nearest rival, Maj. Gen. (Rtd) Majidul Huq of the BNP. In the ensuing by-election, the BNP decided to pull out all stops in its campaign for its candidate Kazi Salimul Hoque, who won with 50.68 per cent of the votes against 27.41 per cent for the AL candidate, Safiquzzaman Bacchu. There were allegations of wide spread vote rigging, and even the then Chief Election Commissioner left the district in a huff. The opposition combined forces and demanded the formation of a caretaker government for future elections. The country faced two years of civil unrest until the BNP was forced, in 1996, to amend the Constitution to allow for a caretaker government. General elections followed and the Magura-2 seat was won back by the Awami League with nearly 40 per cent of the votes cast. The nation has yet to recover from the confrontational politics that resulted from two years of opposition movement, and the "Janatar Mancha", which was the culmination, has divided our bureaucracy to this day.

A decade after the Magura by-election, we do not seem to have learned any lessons. The BNP has returned to power without seeming to be any wiser. The naivety of its first term seems to be replaced by sheer incompetence of the second. The Awami League, back in opposition, has not toned down its shrill voice of finding conspiracy in everything.

Against this backdrop we have another by-election, this time in Netrokona-3. This seat is one of the 90 in Dhaka Division, which I term as the heartland of Bangladesh electoral politics. In this area, the BNP and AL are almost neck to neck, and a mere 4 to 5 per cent vote swing can result in more than 30 seats changing hands. For instance, in the 1991 elections, the BNP got 56 of the 90 seats while AL got 29. In 1996, with a (-3.31%) vote swing, the BNP lost 31 seats while gaining five to bring down their total to 30. With a+5.56 per cent vote swing the AL lost five, retained 24 and won 35 new seats to take their total to 59. In other words, BNP's net loss was 26 seats while AL's net gain was 30. In the 2001 elections, both BNP and AL gained in the number of votes won at the cost of other parties. The BNP vote share went from 35.13 per cent to 42.66 per cent (+11.28% vote swing) and their tally went to 56 seats. The AL actually got more votes than the BNP, their vote share going from 42.92 per cent to 45.40 per cent (also +2.89%), but they lost 28 old seats, ending with a tally of 31. However, if you leave out Greater Faridpur District (16 seats) BNP's vote in the rest of Dhaka Division (74 seats) was 45.56 per cent to AL's 42.77 per cent. In other words, with a net positive vote swing of less than 3 per cent, BNP won 26 extra seats while AL lost 28 seats.

Netrokona district is a model of the seesaw change. It has four Jatiya Sangsad seats. In 1986, AL won three to one for the JP (E). In 1991 BNP won three to AL's one. In 1996 the AL won back three seats to one for BNP. The tables again turned in 2001, with BNP getting three seats and AL one. The neighbouring seats are similarly distributed. Mymensingh-3 is held by Mujibur Rahman Fakir of AL (margin 6,028), Mymensingh-8 is held by Shah Nurul Kabir of BNP (margin 10,274), Mymensingh-9 by Khurram Khan Chowdhury of BNP (margin 7,835), Kishoreganj-4 by Md Osman Faruk of BNP (margin 1,124), Netrokona-4 by Md Lutfuzzaman Babar of BNP (margin 3,851) and Netrokona-2 by Abdul Momin of AL (margin 7,390).

Netrokona-3 is an interesting constituency as it reflects the present trend towards a two-party system. The present AL candidate, M Jubed Ali won this seat in 1986 with 32.30 per cent of the votes against his main JP (E) rival. He retained the seat in 1991, getting 39.29 per cent votes, while his nearest rival, Md Lutfea Ahmed Khan of the BNP got 38.52 per cent. The percentage of votes cost in 1991 was 50.40. In 1996, the percentage of votes cast increased to 74.92and Jubed Ali increased his vote share to 40.57 per cent. However, Md Nurul Amin Talukdar of BNP, contrary to the general trend, defeated him by getting 45.82 per cent of the votes. Mr Talukdar retained the seat in 2001 by getting 51.14 per cent votes against 46.22 per cent for Mr Jubed Ali. The percentage of the votes cast rose marginally to 75.92 per cent, but the actual number of votes cast increased by 48,210, as there were about 60,000 new voters on the list.

The combined votes of BNP and AL in 1991 were 77.81 per cent. It increased to 86.39 per cent in 1996 and a staggering 97.36 per cent in 2001. It is interesting to see how the gap closes. In 1996, the increase in the total number of votes cast was 38,370.

BNP increased its vote by 25,966 while AL increased by 16,920. BNP got 9,046 more than AL in its share of the increased votes. In 2001, the total number of voters in the constituency increased by 60,432, and the number of votes cast by 48,221. The BNP got 32,763 more votes while AL got 30,932 more votes. (The additional votes came from increased vote share). This year, the difference between BNP and AL in the increased votes narrowed to 1,831. Though the difference between BNP and AL in the total votes secured in 2001 remained in the 1996 range of around 9,000, the proportionate share of AL was more. The significance of this is that while BNP's gain can be partly attributed to its alliance partners (the JP+JI total for 1996 was 12.53%), AL's gain has to have come from new voters.

The question that now begs to be asked is will the BNP+Alliance arithmetic of 2001 work again? A lot of factors have changed. After the last elections, in an article in The Daily Star, I admitted that though I had got most of my predictions right, I had made one very big miscalculation. I had not expected AL to increase its overall vote share. My guess at that time was that the AL vote share would hover at the 36 per cent to 37 per cent mark. The fact that AL has increased its vote share to 41 per cent mark changes all future calculations. As a single party, it is a formidable vote bank. The increase in AL's vote share must have come from a greater share of the new younger voters that became eligible to vote in the 2001 elections. Otherwise, if the new voters had voted in the same proportions as before, the BNP+Alliance vote percentage would have crossed 53 per cent range as a national average.

What is actually the present BNP+Alliance arithmetic? For all practical and electoral purposes, the alliance comprises BNP and Jamaat-I-Islami. The question now is what does JI bring to the table. In 1991, the JI got 12.13 per cent of the vote. In 1996 their vote share dropped to 8.61 per cent. But this alone does not tell the whole story. A full 67 per cent of the 1996 JI vote (or 5.77% of the national) was in Rajshahi Division (41.43%) having 72 seats and Khulna Division (25.80%) having 37 seats. In rest of the 191 seats, the JI national average is less then 3 per cent. There is not much it can offer in the Dhaka Division.

We do not know if the JI has increased or decreased its popular base. Here I can only offer conjecture. A party that does not participate in elections cannot hold on to its vote base. The "Scale" symbol has not been seen in 169 constituencies for the last seven years. Its voter base was already on a decline and there is no tangible reason to think that the course has reversed. Contrary to popular perception, I think the fact that the JI is a part of the Government has cost them dearly. They have to take the responsibility of governance without really being a part of the process. There is very little for them to offer their supporters, leave alone any reason to attract new ones. This is, in a way, rather sad. All said and done, the JI is a democratic party and has done a lot to keep a section of our politically more religiously inclined populace under its umbrella. There is a recent trend for many such people to drift towards more extreme parties due to both national and international politics. No nation is an island and neither are we. The other members of the BNP alliance has little to contribute anywhere. Had the BNP nurtured JP (Naziur), it might have been a platform for some elements that, if critical of BNP, are not ready to switch to AL. However, this no longer seems relevant.

Returning again to facts, this bye-election will be straight fight between BNP's Khadija Amin, widow of late Nurul Amin Talukdar and the old warhorse, Jubaid Ali of AL. Jubaid Ali, an advocate who still practices law in Mymensingh, hails from Kendua Upazila which has 12 Union Parishads. The late Nurul Amin Talukdar, a retired police officer turned businessman was from Atpara Upazilla which has seven Unions. Khadija Amin is originally from Faridpur. While the AL will be banking on its core support base, the BNP will try to arouse sympathy votes for the widow. Among the other contestants is Osman Ali Khan. He contested in 1986 in the hayday of JP (E) as its candidate, and got 8,484 votes. He again contested in 1996 as a candidate of Samridhya Bangladesh Andolon (Fish) and got 741 votes. Abdul Ali is another candidate from JP (Monju). In 2001 he got 629 votes. Abu Jafor Sabet of KSJL also contested in 2001 getting 462 votes.

With BNP and AL sharing almost 98 per cent of the votes, the election will be decided on the voter's perception of the performance of the parties. The BNP vote share is at its peak. It is difficult for an incumbent government to maintain its vote base at that level, as voters will judge them by their performance. If a section of the voters are dissatisfied with the performance of the Government, there are two courses open to them. One is to vote for the opposition, and the other is not to vote at all. In either case, the benefit will accrue to AL. A voter turnout of 65 per cent or less will almost surely mean an AL victory. A turnout of upto 70 per cent will be a close fight, and a higher turnout will bode well for the BNP.

Both BNP and AL must approach this election with caution. They must trust the voter. With the question of uncertainty of future caretaker governments, the BNP government has an added responsibility. Not only must it ensure that the election is fair, but that it is seen to be fair. It must reign in lose cannons and aid the Election Commission in every way that the Constitution provides for. It must ask its Ministers to follow, and to be seen to be following, all EC guidelines. The BNP should not approach the election as a prestige issue, but rather as a verdict on its performance. If they win, they can take it that their performance has not been as bad as some people may think. If they lose, they should take it as a wake up call, examine the reasons why they lost, and rectify their policies so that they perform better in the more crucial elections to come.

For the AL, a victory should not mean a no-confidence in the government, but merely a message to it to put its acts together. A defeat, provided the elections are seen to be fair, means that they still have to go the extra mile to convince voters to give them another shot at government.

The most important role in this election is that of the Election Commission. The voting patterns of the constituency will guide them as to how to ensure fairness. They should examine vote centre wise voting patterns. This is the DNA of the constituency. Sensitive or venerable centres can easily identified, and precautions taken. If complaints are received of irregularities in any centre, and the vote swing is 10 per cent or more, the issue should be examined urgently and if necessary, re-polling should take place. If the services of the Army are called for, the officers concerned should be fully briefed on the history of the constituency, and their responsibilities in ensuring fairness.

The Chief Election Commissioner and his colleagues in the EC have demonstrated in the 2001 general elections that they are fully capable of carrying out the responsibilities entrusted to them. Let not the faith that the people have reposed in this institution be again shaken. Let us not have another Magura as it will further destroy an already battered nation.

Nazim Kamran Choudhury is a renowned election analyst and businessman