ARE we more into politics on Facebook than the field level because it allows many to participate safely? We have no control over traditional politics, never sure which way it will flow but Facebook is under many kinds of control, our control. It’s more reliable and authentic; our opinions matter and if we want we can check and see which opinions are poplar and which aren’t. Nobody beats you up, and everyone has friends and followers. We matter and it matters to us. Increasingly, Facebook is becoming an option for many in Bangladesh, with as much intensity as politics once drew. Is it a sign of political decline or the rise of options in a world where parties matter less to people, voting is less urgent and it’s an exclusive and violent club to which few can dare to belong?
Elections matter when the electoral decisions affect livelihood. Elections don’t automatically deliver nor matter in themselves but what matters is what it leads to. For example, the 1954 elections lead to the expulsion of Pakistani political forces and assured the rise of the Awami League in East Pakistan leading to the Six Points. In fact, the 1954 election results were discarded by the Pakistanis by dislodging the United Front government that came to power through it. So although the election results were discarded, the impact of the election was deep and wide.
Similarly, the election of 1970 produced a result that was not implemented and, in fact, led to violence but the denial itself generated a result that ultimately led to the greatest social mobilisation of them all in our history and finally delivered an independent Bangladesh.
However, the health of elections after 1972 has never been very positive and the institution as a whole has not exactly gained strength over time. It has, in fact, become a great negative indicator of traditional political health. If the top two major political parties who together get about 95 per cent of the vote can’t decide how to hold elections and are ready to go to war over it, we should not deny that electoral political health doesn’t exist much in Bangladesh.
Do people expect elections to deliver development?
I AM also influenced by a study I did in 2006 to look into public interest in elections and if people felt that it contributed to poverty reduction. It was thought by this aid agency that elections contributed to this economic objective and, hence, their support to electoral democratic objectives.
My results surprised me a bit because it was a time when political restlessness about the coming elections was high. Three major findings came out. (a) People didn’t find any direct co-relationship between elections and poverty reduction. (b) People can’t get involved in politics because it is controlled by a powerful few who use it for personal gain. (c) People want elections as it gives them a sense of importance and participation for a few days although they generally agreed that it is not a life and death issue for them. People also enjoy the fun, food and other electoral entertainment including attending meetings. That is why they are pro-elections. But they didn’t expect elections to improve their life.
It was a very sobering finding but the impact on the stakeholders surprised me. First, the agency which commissioned the study refused to make it public and even quoting from it was disallowed. Later, the ban was removed but I was told I couldn’t name the commissioning agency as it was a very sensitive finding. I have later on quoted from it but have kept my word about the source.
However, one group which was directly affected by my report was the ‘election lobby’, a loose group of NGOs and civil society bodies who do get funds to promote quality elections or supervise and monitors them. The report caused loss of funds for them and it created a crisis. I was approached by them and asked if I thought the situation could improve or not. I said that, of course, the situation could always improve which goes without saying. Using this statement of mine, an assessment was prepared which was very positive of elections and, of course, funds were released. It saved the working outfits but I am not sure if it saved the elections.
Decline of the political, rise of the administrative state?
WHILE we do think that elections were of quality in 1991, 1996, 2001, the flaws and loopholes were not hidden in these three either. The 1991 was probably the best election we had and that was because of the influence of the 1990 uprising and not necessarily an improving institution. The neutral caretaker system was an admission of the system’s weakness and also points to the weakness of elections as an instrument of governance. Had elections been systematised and formalised, both parties would not have bargained over it. Its dismantling by the Awami League leading to the non-elected election of 2014 which continues its uncertain impact would not have occurred either which the BNP boycotted. The BNP itself began to damage the institution in 1996, cranked it up in the 2006 mess and both together have made elections where they are now.
In doing so, voters have become slightly unnecessary in deciding the electoral future of the country because the political parties are naturally more keen about power and not sharing it. Consent of the people has become a formality of sorts. However, it’s in believing that the people also care about the elections that the gap is created. People would be happy if their votes make a difference but as they don’t see such a situation in reality, the interest level is much less.
This gap between the administrative and the political part of the state is very significant. People no longer depend on political tools to improve their lives and governments also depend more on bureaucrats to deliver development. A good administrator is, therefore, more welcomed than a good MP and the reliance on officials has gone up. Even the elected politicians depend on bureaucrats to do their job and beyond the rhetoric; it is much more of an administrative than a political state. Given this scenario, it’s no surprise if elections mean less and less.
One needs to admit that the present system is convenient for the ruling class as long as one is in power. Since the transfer of power is no longer a systemic issue but of negotiations, confrontation and corruption of election supervising systems, the government in power gains much more than usual and the opposition loses in that proportion as well. In such scenario, the voting public has much less role to play. For them, participation is much more easy, convenient and satisfying on Facebook. It is where political participation and democracy is more visible than in the conventional political space.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.
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