Tazeen M. Murshid
I have witnessed something to be proud of: elections held in Bangladesh without intimidation, where people could vote freely. The atmosphere was almost festive. People turned out in fine clothes. They milled about and chatted to friends. There was no haggling by party activists, no garish billboards near the polling stations, no noise and no fighting.
Discipline was perfect. People stood in an orderly manner in queues; elderly people were helped to booths first. Some cases were reported of old people having collapsed from waiting and fatigue. We are told that voter turnout was 87 percent! That is indeed high, and has broken all our previous records.
The caretaker government and the Election Commission are to be congratulated for giving us such a fine new year's gift.
I feel a kind of subdued excitement that the winds of change may well blow. I feel as I did when I returned to liberated Bangladesh from exile in 1971, and the future seemed to be ours for the taking. Many others I have spoken to seem to share such feelings.
Today, too, the realm of possibilities has widened. The air feels fresh. Bangladesh has pools of resources to draw from, only if the space can be created. The management of the elections demonstrates this perfectly.
The resounding victory of the Awami League-led mohajote is a victory for liberal democratic politics. Such a large majority carries hopes and challenges. Policies may be passed by the new government without hindrance. Thus, the hope is that critical decisions may be implemented with ease. The challenge, however, is to keep public opinion on its side and remain ever alert to the need for continued dialogue, debate and discussion with civil society and the opposition to ensure continued legitimacy.
On-going negotiation through state society dialogues will ensure a healthy flow of information from the government about policy formulation and development and a constant feedback from civil society about local priorities. Policies adopted through this process will be based on negotiation and have popular endorsement.
The role of the Election Commission was exemplary. The provision of a new voter list was a major achievement despite various minor problems of disfigured photographs or mistakes in the voter ID information, or that a sizeable number had not been enfranchised due to mistakes.
The fact that buses and trucks could not ply the streets meant that hired goons and thugs could not be brought in from other areas to terrorise the electorate. Similarly, the prohibition on carrying mobile phones into the centres prevented easy communication between possible plotters to target opponents. The strict enforcement of the electoral code, the violation of which carried sanctions, was an important deterrent against misconduct.
Apprehensions of political interference in the administration of the elections turned out to be largely unnecessary. Sporadic reports were received of some irregularities, including vote buying, carrying of large amounts of money to polling areas, or distribution of these to vote banks in slums the night before, and of attempts to fill the ballot boxes in favour of a party prior to the casting of votes.
A former BNP MP was arrested, tried, and sentenced for violating the code of conduct, and beating and intimidating opponents at various centres. Complaints by the BNP chief focused on the slow queues at some centres on Election Day, and of unexpected patterns in the timing of voter presence at other centres -- i.e. higher activity in the morning in some stations and none in the afternoon -- implying that voting was rigged as the stated intensity of voter turn out could not have been possible.
Election observers noted, however, that there were other centres where the pattern was the opposite, in that the number of voters in the afternoon was much higher than in the morning. In fact, the party polling agents filed no complaints directly on the day at the centres. On the contrary, they signed their agreement on the accuracy of the votes counted.
However, the overwhelming majority of seats won by the AL warns us of the need for caution, greater vigilance, and responsibility in responding to the trust and will of the people. The election verdict has defied all expectations as well: The AL alliance mohajote won 262 seats out of 299, confounding the predictions of all pundits. Of this, the AL alone won 230 and the JP 27. The BNP-JI four party alliance won 32, of which the BNP got 29 seats and the JI share was 2.
The AL alone won more than three-quarters of the seats, breaking all records since the fall of the military regime led by Ershad in 1990, such as the elections of 1991, 1996, and 2001. This is almost comparable to its victory in 1973, when it won 293 of 300 seats. It shows a huge landslide of opinion in its favour since the last elections.
In 2001, the AL suffered a humiliating defeat: it won 62 seats only although its share of the popular vote was 40.13 percent, roughly about the same as that of the winning party, the BNP, which had secured 40.97 percent, which translated into 195 seats. The unicameral system without proportional representation works hugely in favour of the winning party.
In 2008, the AL won 49.02 percent of the popular votes, increasing its share by about 9 percent. The BNP's share fell by about 8 percent to 32.74 percent. The figures imply that the BNP lost its support base to the AL. The popularity of the other parties remains almost unchanged: Jamaat's share rose slightly from 4.28 to 4.55 percent and the JP's dropped from 7.37 to 7.04, whereas the share of the remaining parties dropped from 7.25 percent to 6.55. This suggests that the support base of the parties is constant. One can thus conclude that the party bases are relatively constant. The difference is due only in part to a swing vote; in part it is the impact of new first time voters and the increased participation of women.
Other opinions emerging from the soul searching within the BNP ranks address failures of the party administration and decision making processes: indecision over participation in elections reduced preparation and campaign time for the grassroots activists; nomination of a larger number of controversial candidates than the AL disappointed many former supporters; intra-party conflict over reform led to the eviction of key figures, weakening the party organisation; the taint of corruption in the national standing committee, the policy making body of the BNP, lingered on and weakened its image.
The popular explanations of the electoral verdict are given below: the new generation of first time young voters have rejected the old order in favour of clean politics. They are inspired by the values of the war of liberation and favour a liberal democratic model.
A second notable phenomenon is the enfranchisement of female voters, who outnumber men for the first time by about 2 million. It is reported that in some areas women had been prevented from casting their votes by men for decades. They now exercised their franchise for the first time in 4 unions of 3 zilas, Madaripur, Gopalgunj and Noakhali.
Spot interviews of the electorate by the media clearly indicate that they rejected the instability created by the previous elected government, and the rampant corruption, violence and lies that marked the period, and which were exposed during the early months of the caretaker government.
Their expectations from the elected government touch fundamental issues relating to the economy, ideology and the political culture of the nation. People want food prices to go down, they want an end to violence and the politics of religion, they want a corruption free society, they want war crimes and crimes against humanity to be investigated and a tribunal to be set up, and they want a peaceful Bangladesh.
Apart from the question of how to account for the swing vote in favour of the AL, there are several other issues that arise from the election outcome: how will the new government tackle the opposition, already sounding belligerent in the refusal to acknowledge facts as the rest of the world sees them; does this place an insurmountable responsibility on the winning coalition and in particular on the AL to deliver on its promises and to strengthen democracy?
What are the other challenges they face, e.g. vis à vis the legitimacy of the CTG, the excesses committed by segments of the security forces, the lengthy incarceration of politicians in prison on what appeared to be trumped up charges in some instances?
In addition, there are the issues uppermost in the minds of the electorate: the economy and high food prices; violence, terrorism and the politics of religion; commission to examine crimes against humanity and war crimes tribunal.
The task of articulating and realising the dreams falls on all of us. There are many here who are looking to the elected to take the lead in formulating policy and giving direction to the state. This is natural. But the fulfilment of the tasks will require the active cooperation of the entire nation. Perhaps this is what some analysts mean when talking of participatory democracy.
Now, a plethora of opinions are being flung by the nation to the elected representatives, and particularly to the leader of the AL. Some of these are useful and others require a cautious response. The key elements identified are the appointment of a dynamic, young, meritocratic cabinet to deliver change; the establishment of an administration based on skills and merit, not party affiliation or personal loyalty; establishing control over mastaans and hoodlums who may tarnish its image and delay development; involve people's participation in the political process; address the economy through agricultural development and reduce poverty; adopt appropriate fiscal policies, and build a welfare state with provisions for basic care, education, and shelter.
How is the PM-elect to respond to all these "well-meaning" suggestions? The first step is to
build a core team of advisers and policy analysts. One must have teams of advisers and supporting research cells examine the suggestions on a daily basis, who will prepare alternate scenarios of responses for consideration. Think tanks may also be entrusted to report on specific policy areas by presenting the state of play and offering strategy options. These cells could be called upon to respond to the needs of the newly formed cabinet and yet be independent of the ministries to ensure that research is independent, though responsive to request.
Bengalis are fickle, with a very short memory, often lacking the knowledge base to be able to draw logical links between problems and solutions. Some have already asked within two days of the elections why food prices have not come down, not realising that this requires a process involving policy formulation and implementation, and time for the results to show. How does one deal with such impatience and build popular opinion? Through good public relations exercises, whereby information is shared with the public and the public becomes an ongoing interlocutor of a dialogue between the state and civil society on all important matters.
Public relations need to be a major pillar of AL policy and administration. Designated public relations officers should present the considered positions and counter misconceptions. A very good way of doing this is through discussions, seminars and information sharing sessions, the findings of which are broadcast to the wider public.
Thus, good relations with the media is important, who should be trained to deal with sensitive information in a responsible way. This already happens to a large extent and should be strengthened. But there is another positive spin off, it allows for an open and accessible means of communication that permits the state to feel the pulse of the population and for the people to understate the state and its policies.
Otherwise, "we are shrouded in mystery" as a colleague noted in the context of a country not too different from ours in terms of the history of genocide, poverty, massive electoral victory, and a history of corruption and political violence, Cambodia. And such mystery breeds distrust.
Bangladeshis tend to sway with the tide and change their tune regularly, depending on who calls the shots. Such an approach tends to camouflage truth and hide pitfalls in the dark because it breeds sycophants. It will be important to remain vigilant against this.
In the seventies, the Sheikh, our Father of the Nation was undermined by rumours, lies, speculations, and half-truths. The nation was adrift with saboteurs who resisted the fundamentals of the state. Such developments cannot be allowed to pass now.
Every such situation would have to be countered, addressed, and responded to with intelligence and a sense of humour, but in a strategic, planned and concerted way through appropriate public relations bodies, spokespersons, and media outlets.
While I continue to be wary of saboteurs, provocateurs, and sycophants, I am hopeful of an important shift in the nature and quality of our democracy. Bangladesh has the skill and the talent to make democracy work. We now have a window of opportunity to realise this dream once again.
Dr. Tazeen M. Murshid is Associate Professor, Universite Libre de Bruxelle, and Director, DRC-Global, Centre for Development Research and Cooperation.