It is difficult to recall a fallen military dictator anywhere in the world who has survived the pitfalls of democratic politics as well as H M Ershad has. Gen Suharto, Ferdinand Marcos, Idi Amin, Augusto Pinochet, Ayub Khan and Yayha Khan or the smart saluting Pervez Musharraf all faded away in disgrace or landed in huge trouble. The Burmese generals still control the country’s political system but one can’t see Than Shwe leading a party in a fair election in what is still largely a military-ruled country. A fair election will lead to an Aung Sang Suu Kyi sweep, as the by-elections have indicated.
To be alive and kicking after being ousted by people power is in itself some achievement. I can remember a placard left hanging on a Jatiya Party office after Ershad’s fall — it read “Jatiya Souchaghar” or “The toilet of the Nation”. Jatiya Party is still not a national party that its name claims to be but it has the third largest chunk of lawmakers in the national parliament after Awami League and BNP. And with politics in all democracies getting ever more competitive, anyone with the kind of support Ershad enjoys and gets to translate into votes should give him the chance to emerge as a king maker if not a king. What a survivor!
But Ershad is nobody’s man. He has shown he can play rivals India and Pakistan — or US and China — with equal ease and that will be true of domestic politics as well. His game at a particular hour may make someone happy but that could change swiftly. So it would be wrong to imagine Ershad is playing this game for the Awami League to lend credibility to the elections they plan to hold with or without the BNP.
He is doing what he is because as a politician he sees major gains for himself and his party in the emerging situation.
If he has decided to break free of his promise of staying away from the polls if other opposition parties boycott it, it is because he realises (a) that those opposed to or upset with the Awami League would tend to vent their anger in the polls regardless of BNP’s participation in the polls and if the BNP is not around, any other Opposition alliance in the fray would benefit from it (b) if that happens, Ershad and his party (and the alliance they may club together) may emerge as a viable third force capable of taking on the two other major parties like the Awami League and BNP (c) having contested as an opposition party but having been part of an all-party government before the polls, Ershad and his party would be free to bargain for a place in a ‘national government’ that the Awami League may need to form to offset the questions of legitimacy of the polls not contested by the BNP. Ershad’s appeal as an alternative to the two-party ‘tyranny’ is aimed at making the JP a viable third force, not keeping the Awami League in power.
In BNP’s persistent refusal to boycott polls unless they are sure to win them, Ershad also senses an opportunity for becoming some kind of a magnet drawing BNP dissidents who want their party to contest the polls because they see their chances of victory brighter than ever before. These dissidents are perplexed with the top leadership who they feel are not aware of the grassroots realities. If the BNP dumped the Jamaat, supported the war crimes trials and joined the polls, it was destined to do very well this time not because they have done a great job either in power or in the Opposition but because a lot of Bangladeshis seek a change because they are upset with the Awami league for a wide variety of reasons the normal cycle of anti-incumbency in Bangladesh has experienced.
Khaleda Zia, apparently, wants to be 100 percent sure of victory before she joins the polls. Under the present dispensation, she fears the polls may be rigged. Rigging may ensure narrow victories for marginal candidates but it can never swing fortunes from the rock bottom. In neighbouring West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee kept crying hoarse about CPI (M) rigging as the Marxists swept one election after another. But the day West Bengal decided it had enough of the Left, it voted them out of power decisively and Mamata was in. If the parliament polls and the panchayat polls before the state elections were any indication, it was that the Left would not win the state polls. And they did not. In Bangladesh too, if the city corporation polls are any indication, it is that the Awami League is not expected to retain power if the BNP contests the polls with its allies. It actually suits the BNP well since the Jamaat is not registered to contest anymore. Who will angry Jamaat voters exercise their franchise for !?
Now if the BNP is not contesting, Ershad would be smart to sense this is his chance to make hay while the sun of anti-incumbency shines on the electoral stage. So he breaks off from the alliance after critical jibes for a year. The BNP’s boycott may give Hasina the chance of a victory that appeared fading away all the while in the last days of her government but it gives Ershad the chance to go for the jackpot. From disgraced military dictator to providing a ‘democratic option’ ! Election has its own sweet dynamics that Obaidul Quader describes as ‘musical chairs’; even Maoists in neighbouring India and Nepal failed to enforce their decisions to boycott the polls. In areas like Chattisgarh, where the Maoists have killed upto 75 Indian para-military soldiers in one strike, the voting percentage crossed 75 percent despite a call for boycott.
So a boycott of the polls is unlikely to work. If people have an option, they will vote. Be it Bangladesh, India or Nepal. So the Maoists in Nepal gave up armed struggle and came back to electoral politics and now face defeats in polls to create the Constituent Assembly. Going by the normal game of ‘musical chairs’ that polls have become in Bangladesh after the fall of Ershad’s military regime, this parliament election would belong to the BNP and its allies. If Awami League cannot win a stronghold like Gazipur, it would be difficult to imagine they would win in most other places in Bangladesh.
The irony of Bangladesh is that angry citizens, upset with a ruling party which is seen not to have delivered and the leading Opposition party which is busy burdening the people with violent strikes and disruptions, will have no option but to go and vote for a military dictator who was brought by one of the fiercest street protests the world has seen in recent years. Musical chairs indeed!
Source: Bd news24