Politics of election or electoral politics?

Afsan Chowdhury | Updated at 12:07am on September 12, 2018

AS ELECTION time nears, uncertainty increases as well as confusion. We are not only confused about who stands for what but whether they seriously want an inclusive election or not. This is partly because both parties are accusing each other of the same sin. The Awami League claims that the Bangladesh Nationalist Party does not want to join the polls while the BNP claims that the Awami League wants to keep the BNP out. And this is just the beginning.
The BNP did not join the polls the last time in 2014. The BNP called for nationwide protests which were violent, in cases, but, in the end, futile. The BNP of course says that it did not commit the violence but ‘other forces’ did pointing a finger at the Awami League.
What the BNP had hoped to do, according to party insider sources, is to make the Awami League ‘uncomfortable and less confident’ with a movement and then agree to polls which were being held after discarding the caretaker government system. A gamble that failed.
The BNP accuses the Awami League of getting help from the departing Moeen-Fakhruddin government in the 2008 elections. Whether true or not, the mess began when the BNP went looking for a pliant caretaker government chief and ended up with the president and caretaker chief in the same body. The Awami League responded with high-intensity street agitations, leading to martial law.
Even if both are playing the same game, the Awami League is doing it better. That is great if one is a supporter of the Awami League but whether if it spells good for the political future is another matter. But in Bangladesh, doing street politics and electoral politics are both about organisational clout and not being right and the Awami League has a bigger machinery. So there…. Elections are not the issue but power is.

Does popularity matter?
THE Awami League may not be as popular as it claims but then popularity may not matter in politics any more. The disbalance between the parties is so high right now that the Awami League seems not worried about the BNP. It may, however, be worried about voters which is a genuine worry. Incumbency is a huge burden and unless there is one-party rule, people have a bad habit of changing their menu once in a while. So, understandably the Awami League has concerns. To this has been added comments by some international observers that the Awami League is not as strong as it claims.
That too is possible but then does it matter? Suppose, the Awami League does manipulate the elections and goes to power again? Who is to do what and how? In a politically informal state, political systems produce power, not public participation.
In such situations, political parties mobilise their activists and create a situation that puts pressure as protests turn into resistance as the Awami League did in 2006. But for that to happen, a party with that capacity must exist and the BNP does not have that, certainly not now. So no matter what, the Awami League is electorally safe unless something extreme happens. But no scent of that in the air.

No third force worry?
IN OUR political life that would mean a military takeover and no hiding that such speculations are being made even in Indian media. However, that assumes that the current government is a pain for the armed forces but nothing suggests that. So why should it do so? It is not a national saviour of civilian politics, is it? Unlike previous entries, no signs of unrest exists.
But since the military has taken over before and frustration with civilian political parties are high, such speculations will continue. Meanwhile, the civilian political parties continue to be in somewhat slippery slopes.
The rise of the smaller alliances are all signs that the BNP does not appear to many politicians as the only option. Two crisis haunts the current BNP. Khaleda Zia is in jail and no movement to free her is on and, maybe, cannot be on. Are they able to mount such a movement? If the BNP — even if popular — stays this way, the Awami League will be happy to be in power, no matter how less popular it is, as some say.
The other crisis will arrive with the August 21 verdict which will further disable the BNP going by AL hints about those who might be sentenced

Is conventional politics ending?
THAT international politics of the western pressure variety really does not matter has been proved by the failure of international public opinion to put pressure on the Awami League to release Shahidul Alam. Alam may be a victim of the Awami League’s threat perception rather than what he said on Al-Jazeera.
The Awami League has clouted down the conventional opposition and is now honing down on the unconventional variety. Thus, Shahidul Alam has been turned in to an ‘enemy of the state’, which he is not.
The AL government is anxious, but not about the parties. It fears conspiracies as they are unpredictable and unseen. But the conventional party politics era is limping badly, if not ending. What that means for future politics we were used to seeing is another matter.

Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.