The ruling party’s strong-arm tactics and continued wave of oppression against opposition candidates have raised the spectre of a ‘disorderly transition’ among their opponents - that even if they (the opposition) succeed in overcoming the odds to secure victory through the ballot in the elections scheduled for December 30th, the incumbents will not relinquish power in accordance with the result. At least not easily.
The concern was raised in comments to Dhaka Courier by Dr Reza Kibria, the Jatio Oikya Front candidate for Habiganj-1, whose motorcade came under attack while he and his supporters were canvassing voters at Banderbazar in the constituency’s Nabiganj upazila on Wednesday.
“People in much of Bangladesh today live in fear of the knock on the door (getting picked up by law enforcement agencies),” said Dr Kibria, the son of slain ex-finance minister Shah AMS Kibria. “Now JOF candidates risk arrest and face violence just for campaigning. The people see this, so what you may end up with this time in the election is a true people’s revolt against oppression. The worry is a disorderly transition because of the AL's intransigence.”
A disorderly transition is the opposite of what political scientists term ‘peaceful transfer of power’ - when power changes hands smoothly from one government to the next through an election whose results are at least by-and-large accepted by all parties. It becomes most imperative when an incumbent government is forced to concede defeat and give way to their opponnets.
Considered to be a litmus test for whether democracy is ‘working’ in a country, Bangladesh mostly got around this issue in the post-1991 period with the non-partisan caretaker government provision under which elections were held till 2008, whereby the government of the day stood down three months prior to an election. Nevertheless following the election of 2001, presenting the second consecutive transfer of power to the party that was last in opposition, Bangladesh was said to have settled the issue, if you like.
In many ways ensuring peaceful transfer of power was the true function of the caretaker government, and elections were part of the porogramme. The scrapping of that provision in 2011 presented a new paradigm that remains as yet untested in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a competitive, participatory nationwide election - something the country earnestly hopes to get in less than 10 days from now.
Yet even before a single ballot has been cast, a string of incidents since the announcement of the election schedule by the country’s Election Commission have already served to render the process of holding elections under a partisan government questionable.
And with parliament not yet dissolved and a “poll-time cabinet” in place that was only minimally trimmed to 58 members from 62, it would be prudent not to take any action anticipated on the part of the ruling party for granted. Particularly in the face of adversity, Dr Kibria explained.
“I do fear for the transition. The threat of retribution (despite Oikyafront’s repeated assurances of not seeking vengeance, including in their manifesto) and being held to account is forcing the AL to commit terrible acts which will only make it worse for them when the regime falls, as all such regimes must,” he said.
The Oxford-educated macroeconomist, who left a prestigious job at the International Monetary Fund to take the plunge in the often treacherous terrain of domestic politics, did manage to put a positive spin on the adverse conditions in which he and his fellow Oikyafront candidates have been forced to carry on their electioneering:
“The only silver lining is that the public mood has swung even more in our favour as people here tend to start supporting the underdog in such an uneven contest.”
For what it's worth, the ruling party categorically rejects any notion of a coordinated campaign of one-sided violence on its part, with the prime minister herself insisting even yesterday (Wednesday) that she had no interest in returning to power employing "any means necessary" .