Election or coronation of the Prime Minister?

Abu Hena

It was the morning of 5th January when BBC’s Dhaka correspondent was reporting on the Bangladesh election scenario to the news room in London. “There is fog all around, so none has turned up to vote so far,” he said standing right inside an empty polling center. The news caster who was not impressed asked, “Is it an election or coronation of the prime minister?”

On January 6 afternoon the prime minister celebrated her ‘victory’ by hosting a tea party at the lawn of the Gonobhaban to entertain the print and electronic media and especially the representatives from election management bodies of the Indian state of Tripura and Bhutan. They came here to observe the election when the entire world including the UN, United States and the EU refused to send any observer. Even Russia did the same.
Tripura’s chief election officer Ashutosh Jindal told reporters that they visited six locations and 25 polling booths and saw “good turnouts at some places” but “not so good in some places.” Asked whether the election was fair and credible, he said, “That is not our mandate. We are here to observe the polling process of Bangladesh.” But India seemed to have the mandate to attest the electoral process and the pre- planned and skillfully orchestrated election with tailor-made outcome in advance.

Indian design
Following the design which many believe was crafted in India, the BNP-led 18 party opposition alliance had been forced out of the race through intricate machinations. It resulted in the election of 153 ruling party candidates unopposed long before the day of election. For the remaining 147 seats which were immaterial for the purpose of forming a government, prime minister Sheikh Hasina utilized her official network to coerce and cajole voters to turn up at the heavily guarded polling centers to give an impression to the outside world that the polls had significant popular support and that the opposition’s demand for non-partisan care taker government had no popular basis. But the vast majority of the voters totaling 50 million having been denied their fundamental right to vote, the remaining voters, much in consternation, chose to stay away from the polling. According to generous estimates and general public perception the voter turnout was in the range of 10 to 12 percent.
For obvious reasons Sheikh Hasina’s ‘coronation’ for the ‘third term’ is a shambles. She thought that she could do as she liked, and now she has quickly learnt that she has to do what the people desire and want her to do. First, she has realized with dismay that she could not keep her autocratic hold on the voters who are free citizens of a Republic. They decide how the government will be run and in what form they will elect their representatives. Chief Justice Sahabuddin Ahmed did not have to depend on the Constitution to become the country’s President and caretaker chief in 1990. It is the people who chose him to preside over the election and return to his post after he had performed the job. In 1996, election was held fully in accordance with the Constitution. But Sheikh Hasina refused to accept it and forced the government to accept the care taker system for the elections. In 2007, election was scheduled on 22 January and Sheikh Hasina’s party filed nomination papers with all intentions to participate in the election. Then all on a sudden she decided to withdraw from the race making way for the third force to step in. Sheikh Hasina welcomed the third force as a product of her Logi-Boytha movement which killed many and destroyed the country’s infrastructure.

Manoeuvring at great cost
Sheikh Hasina decided to hold the 5 January election which was boycotted by 28 out of 41 political parties including BNP which governed the country for 17 years. She challenged that she would hold a free, fair and inclusive election in spite of the opposition’s blockade and with the help of the law enforcement agencies she would present to the world a heavy turnout. The opposition accepted the challenge and urged the people to reject the one-party election which they did. At the end of the day the opposition has been successful and the government with all its repressive apparatus failed to draw the voters to the polling booth. According to FEMA’s report they visited a few polling stations in Gulshan, Banani and Mirpur between 8 am and 2 pm and estimated the voter turnout to be less than 10 percent. According to Dr. Kalimullah, spokesman for an election observation network, attendance in 75 constituencies was around 30 percent. The election which involved the Armed Forces in addition to the other law enforcement agencies created the general feeling that there was a drastic fall in the ruling coalition’s popularity which was a deciding factor in governance even 1930’s in Europe because even monarchs who lost popularity could lose their thrones as well .
In this situation even the minority vote on which the AL thinks it has a monopoly did not trust the party any more especially after the savage killing of Bishwajit in broad daylight by AL hoodlums. Even if the estimate shown by the EC is taken to be the measure the average percentage for 300 seats comes down to less than 20 percent. When compared to the 87 per cent votes cast in 2008 election there is 67 percent fall in voter participation In the polls this time. Even the random ballot stuffing by the AL activists failed to give it the minimum respectability. By all standards it appears to be a short lived pyrrhic victory. The Economist termed it as a victory of AL at the cost of Bangladesh. Others think that Sheikh Hasina manoeuvred the fictitious victory at too great a cost to have been worthwhile for herself as well as her party. All said and done the election proved to be a futile exercise, a funny business. If the EC declares AL and its alliance members as winners it shall violate articles 7, 11 and 65 of the Constitution. And any further intransigence on the part of the government to ignore the legitimacy issue will certainly meet with disastrous consequences for the country. There are indications that the country will be exposed to the displeasure of the international communities and aid agencies and even face sanctions.

‘Two wolves and a lamb’
It will be totally inappropriate to call this election ‘democratic or constitutional’. “Democracy,” in the words of Benjamin Franklin, “is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote”. His observation best explains the situation that prevails during this election. The kind of repression with which the democratic people of this Republic are threatened with resembles nothing that has preceded it. The old words ‘despotism’ and ‘tyranny ‘are not suitable any more. The despot in this country enjoys the cheap pleasures by duping the people. Her destiny is different from all others. The members of her family and the “favorites” form the whole human species for her. She dwells amongst her fellow citizens but does not see them. She touches them but does not feel them. She exists only in herself and for herself alone. She does not tyrannize like Caligula but reduces the nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid animals of which government is the shepherd.
Our Constitution has concentrated all powers and deposited them in the hands of an irresponsible person called the prime minister. Of all the different forms that democratic despotism could take this would surely be the worst. To overcome the situation simple ‘dialogue’ will not be enough. For that we have to follow AL Capone’s advice: “You can get much further with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word”. The 5th January is not an election. It’s a farce. People of this country are at war with a government which lacks legitimacy. The 9th and the 10th parliament resemble the Long Parliament and the Rump Parliament of 17th century England. Those parliaments could only be purged by Cromwell who gave England democracy. Shall we take a cue from that?
The writer was an MP from 1996 to 2006.

Source: Weekly Holiday

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