Moral legitimacy cannot be won through force
Tomorrow is the election. What sort of election will it be? It has already become unprecedented in many ways. This is the first time that the ruling party and the prime minister Sheikh Hasina are contending to come to power for the third consecutive time. And for the first time in almost four decades is the election to be held under a political government, with the inclusion of all parties. A sense of fear prevails all over as to whether the voters will be able to actually cast their votes. Yet in a country considered to be democratic, this is a very fundamental right.
There are other first-time factors too. Rather extraordinary coalitions have been forged. Certain politicians have slipped out of the scene, at least for the time being. The highest number of new voters has been added to the voters’ list. Then there are the attacks on the opposition candidates, leaders, activists and supporters. Many are behind bars.
There have been all sorts of elections in Bangladesh: inclusive, one-sided, rigged and spontaneous. The results of some elections were known from beforehand, in some elections all predictions were proven wrong.
This is the eleventh parliamentary election. Over the past few weeks focus has been on the four elections preceding 1991. These were deemed to have been totally lacking in credibility, rife with rigging and irregularities.
As in any election around the world, these elections came up with a winning party and a defeated party. These ushered in new governments, some with full terms and some with terms cut short. But it does not take any historian or political scientists, or even hindsight, to tell us that these elections lacked in moral legitimacy. We were well aware of this during the elections.
These elections lacked the essential factors of moral legitimacy. The function of an election is to provide mandate for governance, not a licence to freely wield power. The winners of these elections saw no difference between the two.
It is not that all the elections after 1991 were totally credible. The February 1996 election and the 5 January 2014 election failed the credibility test. The other four elections – in 1991, 1996 (June), 2001 and 2008, were taken to be legitimate by the majority of the voters, despite allegations of rigging by the defeated.
Legal and constitutional legitimacy is essential in an election, but not everything. Only moral legitimacy can draw the people to the new government as their true representative. Such legitimacy cannot evolve in an election where its integrity is brought into question. Moral legitimacy cannot be won through force.
The voters must be able to vote, their voice must be heard. There is still time. The voting day must ensure that the election can arise above all doubts and questions that have been nagging in the people’s mind so long, no matter what the results might be. The 100 million voters too must come forward and vote. That will make the election credible. The future is not preordained. Today’s actions can create tomorrow.
* Ali Riaz is a professor at Illinois State University in the US. This piece appeared in Prothom Alo in print has has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir