BANGLADESH observes today, March 26, 1971, the 48th anniversary of its armed resistance put up against an unjust war imposed on the people by the politico-military oligarchy of then neo-colonialist Pakistan — the resistance that soon turned into the organised people’s war of national liberation, resulting in the country’s independence on December 16 the same year. The people of Bangladesh resolved to fight for national independence and won it at enormous costs in the wake of (West) Pakistan’s brutal disregard for the sincerest electoral mandate, expressed through the first ever ‘national polls’ held in December 1970, for the East (Pakistan)-based Awami League to govern the country. Evidently, it required enormous amount of sacrifices in terms of deaths and destructions to establish sanctity of elections and recognition of election results.
Bangladesh has achieved many a success in its 48 years of independent existence, some of the successes have even surprised the world; but the ruling classes of the country have miserably failed to honour one of the core aspirations of the successful liberation war — the aspiration for representative democracy in which people can freely choose their national as well as local leaders through fair elections.
The ruling class of many a country in Asia, Africa and Latin America that had earned national independence from the colonial and neo-colonial rule through political movements or/and liberation war has, it is usually said and that too rightly, ultimately degraded democracy to mere elections for the routine change of guards or popular legitimisation of the retention of power by the same old guards. It is a ‘degradation of democracy’ in that ‘election’ itself is not democracy, rather the inevitable first step for a people through which it enters the democratic way of life — social, political, economic and cultural — while ‘equality’ remains the core principle of democracy. The most of the post-colonial countries in question have ‘electoral democracy’ without its soul — equality of citizens irrespective of their ethnic, religious and gender identities. The citizenry is rather plagued with social, political, economic and cultural inequalities in every sphere of public life.
The case of Bangladesh, which had emerged as an independent state through a people’s war against neo-colonialist Pakistan in 1971, and that too with officially proclaimed promise of a truly democratic future with ‘equality, social justice and human dignity’ of all the citizens, is rather bad. The reason is simple: the ruling classes of the country have not even institutionalised the process of elections through which legitimate governments are formed based on popular consent of the governed, let alone materialising the country’s birth-promises of pervasive equality, social justice and human dignity.
While military takeovers of power have frequently disrupted the country’s democratic process, Bangladesh has not yet witnessed a single national election held under any government — civil, military or quasi-military — which people, in general, and losing political opponents, in particular, accepted as free and fair. The people accepted four of such elections — held under the supervision of the election-time non-party caretaker government in 1991, 1996, 2001 and 2008 — as by and large free and fair although the defeated political opponents still complained of the rigging of and fraudulence in the polls. Then began a unique chapter of electioneering — a type of ‘election’, if at all, that the people of this country did not experience even in the colonial and neo-colonial eras.
The British colonial powers never did grant the universal suffrage in the 190 years of their occupation of India while they introduced ‘direct elections’ only in 1935, in which some 10 per cent of the population of the undivided India was granted voting rights, which they exercised during the elections in 1937. The neo-colonial powers of (West) Pakistan granted universal suffrage in the last year of their 23-year existence in the East, Bangladesh that is, in 1970 while the people at large exercised their universal right to franchise in the first-ever general elections of the Pakistani era in December–January 1970–1971. The elections in question were adequately contested by the candidates belonging to the politically opposing forces. Besides, the voters at large did not complain about any fraudulence, nor did the losing parties put forward any serious complaints of rigging in the elections held under the British colonial powers and the Pakistani neo-colonial powers while the allegation of the manipulation of election results by supervising authorities like the Election Commission was an unknown problem in those colonial eras.
However, the ‘election’ introduced in the independent Bangladesh in January 2014 is unique in that the elections do not require contesting candidates from politically opposing parties or camps any more, nor do they require any acceptable level of voter participation in the polls. The activists of the ruling party/coalition and the members of the politically controlled civil administration would do the job in favour the incumbents while a subservient Election Commission composed previously of picked up members would put the seal of legitimacy on such farcical electoral practices. While general elections are expected to bring in new approaches for multi-dimensional development of the country from contesting political quarters and, thereby, generate optimism among people, bitter experiences of the electioneering in Bangladesh have rather produced huge public cynicism about politics in general.
The elections of 2014 were boycotted by all the opposition parties of the country in protest against the Awami League-led governing coalition’s unilateral scrapping of the constitutional provision for holding elections under a non-party caretaker government — a provision which had been enacted based on ‘national consensus’ and, that too, in the face of League-led political movements for the cause. Subsequently, along with the political parties of the opposition, the people at large also boycotted the elections. The result was obvious: as many as 154 members of national parliament, out of a total of 300, were ‘elected’ uncontested and voter turnout in the rest of the constituencies was practically not more than 10 per cent. In the midst of widespread protests, the League installed its government, claiming that there was no legal bar for the parliament to have more than half of its members elected uncontested. However, if ‘popular consent’ is the prime condition for a government to be called politically legitimate, the one installed in February 2014 was not a legitimate government, for it did not derive its legitimacy from the consent of the governed.
Then came the general elections in December 2018, again to be held under the League’s strict partisan control of the entire state machine. This time the entire opposition camp resolved to actively contest the polls. The League and its coalition partners, who had significantly lost support bases due to political high-handedness and the reported plundering of public wealth for a decade, did not like the opposition resolve in the fear of losing the polls miserably. They, therefore, planned massive rigging in the votes and an ugly manipulation of election results and chose to produce kinds of elections that none had thought of, let alone witnessed, in the past.
To genuinely win an election, a candidate needs to keep in touch with the people, build an organic relationship with them by way of responding to their needs as much as possible and, thus, establish legitimacy to seek their votes. The people have no reasons to reject such candidates. It is those who do not care about people’s needs and use organised muscle for their own material and partisan interest to the dissatisfaction of the ordinary people indulge in ‘winning’ elections through dishonest means. Most League leaders and activists did not care about the needs of the ordinary people and did not miss any opportunity to display the arrogance of power to the socially weak. The League, therefore, as was revealed in different phases of the electoral process, chalked up elaborate programmes to ‘win’ the polls by means of multidimensional fraudulences.
The active opposition supporters were arrested in thousands, hundreds were hounded relentlessly, the electoral authorities were used to unjustly disqualify dozens of opposition candidates, ordinary opposition-suspects were harassed and intimidated in every constituency and a general sense of pervasive fear was generated among ordinary voters to discourage them from going to the polling stations while politically chosen officers of the civil administration and the law enforcement agencies were deployed to supervise the elections.
The unprecedented, and the unthinkable, happened the night before the elections. The ballot papers were stuffed in favour of the candidates of the ruling coalition and the boxes were almost filled, by the coalition activists allegedly under the active supervision of the members of the law enforcement agencies and election officials working on behalf the Election Commission across the constituencies. The ballot boxes, almost filled with stuffed ballots, were taken to the polling centres in the morning only to observe the rituals. While the suspected opposition voters were already intimidated in more than one ways to make them stay away from the polling stations, the polling agents of the opposition candidates were forcibly ousted from the polling centres in many places, providing the ruling party activists with the unbridled opportunity to stuff ballots during the official polling hours.
The results were too obvious for everyone on earth to see: the entire opposition camp, which was supposed to sweep the elections, albeit not for any good deeds of its own but for the misdeeds of the ruling alliance, got only seven out of 300 seats. The ruling alliance, on the other hand, bagged as many as 288 seats with a proclaimed voter turnout of more than 80 per cent while the ruling party got more than 76 per cent of the votes cast — 2 per cent more than the party had secured in the first general elections held in the independent Bangladesh in 1973.
The opposition and the press in general accused the government of introducing the unique fraudulence in the electoral process — ballot stuffing and filling the boxes with stuffed ballots by the ruling party the night before the election — and rejected the election results. The ruling coalition and its Election Commission rejected the allegations, but a few weeks later, on March 8, 2019, the chief election commissioner, KM Nurul Huda publicly admitted, obliquely though, to the crime. Huda said that ‘introduction of EVMs (electronic voting machines) would prevent stuffing of ballot papers the night before the election day’. It is profoundly tragic that the Awami League, which had politically presided over the country’s liberation war in 1971, has now introduced such a political crime, which was unimaginable even during colonial and neo-colonial years.
Political crime is contagious, for politics is about power — social, economic, political and cultural. The local level elections that followed the fraudulent national polls in question have been plagued with the newly introduced electoral crime: the stuffing of ballots at night. The same crime has been committed even in the students’ union elections in Dhaka University on March 11 and again, the crime is perpetrated the same way by the student wing of the ruling Awami League and, that too, supervised by the pro-League teachers appointed earlier mostly on political considerations. Not surprisingly, 12 out of a total of 13 contesting panels of the Dhaka University Central Students’ Union boycotted midway through the polling, protesting at attacks on contestants, ballot stuffing, the intimidation of voters, jamming their queues outside the polling centres and the university authority’s failure to conduct the elections genuinely. The student bodies have launched a fresh movement demanding fresh elections while the pro-League authorities of Dhaka University, led by an unelected vice-chancellor, continue to pay heed to the democratic demand, as the Election Commission is doing in case of national polls.
Under such political circumstances, the politicians belonging to opposition camps have visibly been losing interests in contesting elections and people at large becoming indifferent towards the electoral process, for they have lost confidence in the credibility of the government and its subservient Election Commission. The ‘no confidence’ is evident in the fact that already more than hundred upazila chairpersons have been ‘elected unopposed’ while the voter turnout has been reduced to 40 per cent in the on-going local elections. Understandably, all this ‘elected unopposed’ chairpersons are from the ruling Awami League. The phenomenon also found expression in students’ union elections of Dhaka University, where as many as 56 candidates, which is 24 per cent of the total candidates in the hall students’ unions, became elected unopposed. The most of these leaders ‘elected unopposed’, again, belong to the student wing of the ruling Awami League.
Every genuine election strengthens a country, for genuine election produces genuine leaders and brings in genuine representatives of the people and installs genuine governments to genuinely manage public affairs. Every fake election weakens a country, for fake election produces fake leaders and brings in fake public representatives who cannot but install fake governments that are incapable of managing public affairs genuinely. Bangladesh has been getting weaker with every fake election for years now.
The people of Bangladesh, who had achieved ‘national independence’ through blood and fire, cannot accept the country getting weaker year by year, because of the authoritarian sections of politicians and their power-hungry civil and not-that-civil cohorts incapable of comprehending the idea of managing the affairs of the state based on public opinions expressed through genuinely free and fair elections. The politically conscious sections of the people are aware that the democratically oriented politicians hear about the ‘general will’ of the people through general elections while the undemocratic ones indulge in manipulating electoral process and fabricating results by fraudulent practices.
Bangladesh needs to get rid of political authoritarianism, because slogan for upholding the ‘spirit of liberation war’ and polluting the electoral system do not go together. It is, therefore, high time the democratic forces of the country became united to restore the people’s right to franchise, for casting ballot in free and fair elections is not only about choosing the representative, but also about exercising the democratic rights, choices and freedoms. Election is basic to democracy, without which Bangladesh would not be able to deliver on its birth promises – equality, social justice and human dignity.
Nurul Kabir is editor of New Age.
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