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     Volume 8 Issue 52 | January 9, 2009 |

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All those Good Elections . . .and More

Syed Badrul Ahsan

There are good elections and then there are bad elections. The bad ones are the stolen ones, or those in which the winners, already ensconced in power, claim victory to the tune of more than ninety percent of the vote. That is when a bad election turns into a farce. It is pointless, a sheer waste of time, speaking of bad elections. We will, therefore, talk of the good ones.

And the first story that you remember is the general election that Pakistan's military regime organised in December 1970. It was an exercise that set Bangalis down the road to freedom. The Awami League, which its rivals thought would not be able to muster enough seats to form a government, ended up obtaining 167 of the altogether 313 seats in the Pakistan National Assembly. For the first time since the partition of India in 1947, a Bangali-dominated administration stood poised to take charge in Islamabad. But, of course, that did not happen. We remain aware of that history.

One election you cannot forget is the one that sent John Fitzgerald
Kennedy to the White House in 1960. Source: www.jfklibrary.org

An equally good election, for us in these parts, was the one that took the Awami League back to power in 1996. There was something of the euphoric about it, for it ended a long nightmare for us that had begun with Bangabandhu's assassination and the murder of the leaders of the Mujibnagar government leaders in 1975. It gave us an opportunity for a new beginning; and one of the first things we as a nation were able to do was to do away with the notorious Indemnity Ordinance that had blocked, thanks to Bangladesh's military and quasi-military administrations, the trial of the assassins of the five national leaders. That electoral exercise was a journey back into sunlight. It stayed that way, until the next such exercise, in October 2001, was commandeered by unseen hands. The consequences were horrendous.

There are some wars that are beautiful. And there are elections that leave you energised with a sense of purpose. The elections that brought Harold Wilson and his Labour Party to power in Britain in 1964 galvanised people into a new understanding of human purpose. But, of course, such a sentiment was even more powerfully demonstrated in May 1997, when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown led what they called New Labour to Downing Street after years of Tory sloth. New Labour's shine was not to last, though. Today, Brown struggles to keep the party in office after the grave damage Blair did to it, through association with George W. Bush over Iraq. Blair and Bush lied --- and then destroyed a country.

One election you cannot forget is the one that sent John Fitzgerald Kennedy to the White House in 1960. Sure, there are people who think Chicago Mayor Richard Daley stole the votes that gave Kennedy an edge over Richard Nixon. But it is the Kennedy myth, together with his mystique, that has kept people spellbound. Not until 1992, when Bill Clinton pushed George Bush senior from the Oval Office through beating him hollow at the voting, was similar huge interest generated at an American election. And now Barack Obama, with not much experience other than four years as a senator, has proved inspirational enough to become the first African-American to win the United States presidency. He has prevailed against formidable odds. And he deserves to be celebrated as a truly heroic figure.

In 1980, the return of the disgraced Indira Gandhi to power was as much a tribute to her resilience as it was a protest against the miserable governance of the doddering old men who had beaten her at the 1977 elections. In Pakistan, good elections in 1988 brought the young Benazir Bhutto to power, though a bad rigging of the vote in March 1977 had led to her father's overthrow by the military and eventual execution. Pakistan slipped into a long tunnel of darkness. In 1980, general elections in Zimbabwe ended white minority rule and propelled the former guerrilla Robert Mugabe to power. It was an experiment that offered hope. Twenty nine years on, Mugabe presides over a country maimed by his arrogance and pauperised by his thievery. It is unlikely he will go soon, at least not until mortality takes over.

In Burma, back in 1990, its people overwhelmingly and cheerfully elected Aung San Suu Kyi and her friends to parliament. A rainbow seemed to appear across a sky that General Ne Win and his soldiers had blotted out with their villainy since 1962. In the event, the villainy prolonged itself. Suu Kyi remains in incarceration; stern-faced men in uniforms go on squeezing the country dry. In recent times, good elections have brought Thaksin Shinawatra and his allies, in that order, to power. But it is the bad men, the anti-poor, the urbane thugs that kept Bangkok's airports under siege for weeks, that threw the country's elected leaders out of office. And now it is these bad, smooth-talking men who think they can govern Thailand. In 1986, an acclaimed election in the Philippines led to the collapse of Ferdinand Marcos and the rise of Corazon Aquino to power. Now think of the irony: in late 1965, Marcos had ridden to power as a voice of hope when he defeated President Diosdado Macapagal, but he ended up being a dictator and a kleptomaniac.

It was plain optimism that in 1980 led to the election of Yoweri Museveni as president of Uganda after the cannibalistic years of Idi Amin and the faltering moments of some of his successors. Museveni should have left office of his own volition. He did not. He had the constitution amended to give himself a fresh term in office. It was an unhealthy thing to do. In Peru, Alberto Fujimori was elected president in a decent election in 1990. Over the course of the next decade, he squandered his people's goodwill, turned a megalomaniac and ignored creeping corruption. He then fled to Japan, stayed there for years in exile before coming back and heading straight to prison. The French did a most wonderful job when they elected Francois Mitterrand their president in 1981. For the next fourteen years, it was a cultured individual, a man of letters, who occupied the Elysee Palace. Years earlier, in what was then West Germany, the extremely intellectual Willy Brandt took office as chancellor after an election that saw him forging a coalition with the small Free Democrat party. His old partners in the 1966 grand coalition, the Christian Democrats, would stay in opposition for years until the rise of Helmut Kohl in the 1980s.

The elections that brought Harold Wilson and his Labour Party to
power in Britain in 1964. Source: UK Independent

We could go on and on about elections, about the patterns of voting that have transformed people's lives or have led to social regression. Think of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Their years in the White House, sixteen in all, were a waste because they offered hardly anything that was new. Bush comes off worse, for he leaves a world scarred through his manifest inability to utilise presidential authority in a promotion of human welfare. Britain's Margaret Thatcher left her society polarised. The years in which the Bharatiya Janata Party wielded power in India saw the country turn away from its old Nehruvian dreams of social egalitarianism.

But let all that be. Here in Bangladesh, Bangalis have a new opportunity to rebuild the country --- because a party and its allies have just come by an unprecedented majority in parliament. And yet one must be on one's guard against an abuse of such support, against a strange malady called the arrogance of power. Arrogance destroyed the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. It ruined Richard Nixon. It pulverised Jose Maria Aznar in Spain.

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