Even after 10 years, is the AL on to a winner?

For an election year, the political arena in Bangladesh has been remarkably stable, almost quiet so far in 2018. Seasoned observers, over the years used to lamenting the almost inevitable election year troubles (violence, strikes, political deadlocks) and the attendant ill-effects on the economy, our image on the international stage, and above all the daily lives of citizens, would agree. On the surface, it may lend the impression of having matured as a democracy, and learning not to let the political rivalry between the country's two main factions overwhelm and disrupt the lives of ordinary citizens.

The reality however is almost the exact opposite, and as this election year progresses, it becomes more and more apparent. There is nothing more vital to democracy than a vibrant and imaginative opposition, that is able to challenge the government and keep it on its toes. Take them out of the equation, and what the government in its complacency may regard as supremacy is actually the road to atrophy. A non-intrusive, stable polity - such as the one we seem to have stumbled upon in this election year - can also be forged by sucking the life out of democracy, and the surest way to to do that is by emasculating one side, usually the opposition.

Far from an intense political rivalry engendering a highly competitive contest to sway voters, this year what we are presented with is a lopsided picture where one side led by the Awami League is at the peak of its powers, about to complete an unprecedented ten consecutive years in power, while the other more symbolised than led anymore by the BNP is mired in a historic trough. In the unfeasibly zero-sum game that politics in Bangladesh has always been, each of these ten years has seen the former's grip on power grow tighter, while the latter has drifted further and further from the corridors of influence.

Nowadays we see the AL almost toy with the BNP, who are mostly found on the run or airing complaints that unfortunately fall on deaf ears. Of course the AL's methods in acquiring this unprecedented advantage have been more egregious than anything witnessed before on the part of a ruling party. Quite early on, even before a second term was secured under controversial circumstances in 2014, it was noted that the opposition was being repressed in ways, and to an extent never witnessed before in independent Bangladesh, including the military regimes.

Ranging from sandtrucks being placed outside the gates of the opposition leader's residence to stop her from attending a political rally to the indiscriminate filing of cases implicating BNP leaders and activists through the use innovative legal concepts such as 'command responsibility' to the defenestration of constitutional bodies of enormous import such as the Election Commission, their tactics have frequently managed to leave the public stunned, if not appalled, at their sheer brazenness. Over the years, it has all been recorded faithfully in these and other pages. How it has served to severely compromise the state's administrative and judicial functions will not bother the Awami League much, caught up as they are in the throes of the powerplay in politics, but Bangladesh will be left bleeding from the fallout long after even the Awami League are gone, as one day they will be.

It's just unlikely that the BNP, in their present bedraggled state, will be the ones unseating them. Or even troubling them much, at least in the foreseeable future. It is this gradually dawning realization that has reduced the election year we are in to such an anti-climax. Just like 2013, a spate of city corporation elections have fallen due before the main event. Five in particular - Khulna, Gazipur, Rajshahi, Sylhet and Barisal - just like 2013. Back then of course, it was the main event that happened to fizzle out, after the appetizers foretold a titanic battle for supremacy in the hearts and minds of the electorate. With the odds seemingly stacked against them, the opposition's candidates stormed to resounding victories in all 5 municipalities.

This year, with two out of the five already in the government's bag, and the remaining three set to be held this coming week (a sort of 'Super Monday', June 30), the growing impression one gets around each is that of a rehearsal. More specifically, of the ruling party putting what may well go down in history as its coup de grace, through the paces, before the grand premiere at the much more consequential parliamentary polls set for the end of the year: ladies and gentlemen, say hello to the 'managed' or 'controlled' election. If ever there was a a Holy Grail in electoral politics, this has to be it. Alternatively, you may hear it referred to as 'the Khulna model', after the first of the five city corporation elections held this year, following which most people started catching on.

Genesis of a ruse

Dhaka Courier however has recorded the evolution of this model since at least as far back as the Dhaka North, Dhaka South and Chittagong municipal elections held in April 2015, when an exciting few weeks of electioneering (amplified no doubt by the 90-plus days of the opposition's violent blockade programme that preceded it, but also some novel candidates, the electorate profiles drawn from the country's two leading cities, and the genuine feeling that the contests were too close to call) in the end yielded the dampest of squibs: riled by reports of their polling agents being outnumbered at most centres, being beaten up, in some cases arrested (leading to others not even showing up) while in others absent altogether, the BNP threw in the towel before mid-day. We viewed it as a more 'sophisticated' or advanced variant of the 'polling booth capture' that is known to occur frequently during elections in the Indian subcontinent.

The day was also notable for the huge number of activists of AL and its front organisations swarming the streets, recreating an atmosphere of the usual field level politics in this part of the world, which of course is not the point on Election Day itself. The prospect of encountering Chhatra League in their present manifestation can be intimidating to a lot of people, even supporters of parent organisation AL. That is why there are restrictions on a party or candidate's workers gathering around polling centres, for example, during voting hours. Some of the BNP polling agents who got arrested or beaten up by police were turned over to the authorities by AL, Chhatra League or Juba League activists. Thus by ensuring that they not only dominate the streets, but are also seen to dominate the streets, they may have the effect of also discouraging their opposing polling agents from turning up, fearing arrest mostly, or getting manhandled.

In absence of agents, it is easier to commit many electoral offences, including ballot box stuffing, fake voting and inflating the vote count in absence of polling agents. For example, the EWG observers have found evidence of inflating the vote count in two centres in favour of a candidate in Gazipur, according to Shujan.

"We have come to realise that a huge number of police, RAB and BGB personnel were deployed only to help the ruling party secure victory without people's participation," Moudud Ahmed, vice president of the BNP, told journalists in the immediate aftermath of the boycott.

The blatantly partisan role of the law enforcers is held up by Dr Badiul Alam Majumdar, secretary of Shujan, or Citizens for Good Governance, a civil society platform that has long involved itself in trying to clean up politics in the country, as one of the defining features of the Khulna model, or controlled elections.

Addressing a press conference in the wake of the Gazipur mayor election held last month, Shujan held up four essential characteristics of controlled elections, noting that in both Khulna and Gazipur, the elections were held removing the main opposition's activists and workers from the field with help of law enforcers, in the process obstructing or intimidating polling agents of the BNP candidate from taking up the assignments they had, use of 'muscle power' during the polls in favour of the ruling party candidate, and perhaps most glaringly, inaction by the EC.

Some of the features become identifiable during the campaign period itself. The sudden spike in arrests of BNP activists in Sylhet ahead of the polling day on July 30 can really only mean one thing. The rather elaborately wrought fix is in.

Given their almost complete lack of preparation for tackling something like this, you can hardly blame some of their leaders for becoming distraught, and acting like beaten men.

Smelling the coffee

Senior leader Amir Khosru Mahmud Chowdhury this week urged their party leaders and activists to put up a resistance against unfair arrest by law enforcers.

"I've seen a mass wave in favour of 'sheaf of paddy' in Sylhet city, but police has started arresting our party men to spoil it. People created resistance there against such arrest by encircling a police station twice," he said.Nagorik Odhikar Andolon Forum organised the programme at the Jatiya Press Club.

Formerly commerce minister under the last BNP-led government, Khosru further said, "Police stations will have to be gherao (surrounded) in every area if opposition leaders and activists continue getting arrested unfairly. I think resistance against such arrest must be put up everywhere."

Also a BNP standing committee member, Khosru said Awami League has taken an 'election project' to grab power again by keeping people out of the election process, reported our sister newsagency UNB.

As part of the 'project', he said AL are arresting BNP leaders and activists, forcing out polling agents and harassing them and providing Awami League leaders and activists with 'ballots in the dead of night'.

Recognising the emergent BNP leader said their party will also have to take a counter project now to resist unfair arrest. Gherao the Election Commission, its officials and those involved in Awami League's election project.

"We also need to prepare a list of those police officials involved in Awami League's election project to expose them before people. We must thwart Awami League's project through a strong resistance to ensure a fair election," he observed.

The BNP leader also said law enforcers and different agencies, not Awami League and its candidates, are carrying out electioneering ahead of the elections to local government bodies. Khosru also took the opportunity to criticise the government for the attack on Amar Desh acting editor Mahmudur Rahman in Kushtia, saying it is a sign that the government is "headed for a fall". Although that would sound to be little more than misplaced optimism.

Field notes

With less than a week to go before polling day, a delegation of the BNP went and met with the Chief Election Commissioner K.M. Nurul Huda, requesting army deployment in all three cities. They were promptly turned down. Yet the CEC, if he was truly independent and not the product of yet another elaborate scheme devised by the ruling quarter, would do well to give it some thought, if only to restore people's faith in the process, which has been shot.

It was yet another instance of inaction by the EC, completely ignoring the extensive powers and authority granted to him (or rather his office) in the constitution, when it comes to arranging elections. In both Gazipur and Khulna, numerous complaints were repeatedly made regarding the violation of electoral code of conduct, harassment of opposition activists by law enforcement agencies, which the EC largely ignored. Although law enforcers have been arresting BNP leaders and activists for quite some time, the EC issued a directive one day before the election in Gazipur not to arrest anyone without warrant, which amounted to "a doctor showing up after a patient's death", in the words of Dr Majumder.

Ultimately, the government would prefer nothing more than securing a clean sweep of the 5 city corporations, if only to set the record straight from 2013, which hung over their heads in the years that followed even as they rode high on success after success. Yet the universal perception held across all political observers was that those city corporation elections stood out for a long time afterwards as the last legitimate elections held in the country, with no scope for any questions to be raised regarding the integrity of the vote. For their part, the BNP never shied away from reminding AL of this, pointing to the results as a sure sign that the tenth parliamentary election was theirs to lose, or that they were simply more popular. But Sheikh Hasina and her party have endured, and now armed with the Khulna model, look poised to get rid of this blemish from their record.

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