Bangladesh’s most intriguing elections ever?

Bangladesh’s most intriguing elections ever?

Afsan Chowdhury,
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The 2018 general elections weren’t even supposed to be held. Many believed that given the political situation and hostility, violence would spill over onto the streets and the elections would be postponed. This was particularly so when BNP chief Khaleda Zia was convicted of corruption and bail was denied to her. At that point, the BNP said that it will go for a national movement to secure her release. Bail was expected any day.

Bail was not granted and Dhaka and other cities in Bangladesh were not visited by violence. In a strategic move, which was unexpected given the BNP’s past record, it protested peacefully. Obviously, the party felt that not much could be gained by mayhem. The party said that come what may, it would take part in the elections without Khaleda Zia. But after the sanglap (talks between the ruling Awami League and the opposition) there has been a subtle shift in the BNP’s stand: polls without Khaleda Zia out has now turned to “Khaleda will be out in a day once we come to power”. It has kept BNP alive in politics and the polls.

Also Read : December 30 and the cycle of violence  

Does China care?

The Awami League would have much preferred that the BNP boycotted the elections but selling two consecutive elections without any meaningful participation of the main opposition party is tough. Let’s face it, the consumer of quality elections in this case is not the local electorate as they really have little voice in such issues, but the international community probably thinks differently. Of course, it’s not the West that matters in Bangladesh but its two powerful neighbours.

There is very little reason to think that China cares because it has no stake in boundary/border management or security issues with Bangladesh. The only thorny issue between the two, which is Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas who were forced into Bangladesh. China backs Yangon and it has shrunk its clout publicly. Now, having backed an ethnic-cleansing, genocide-committing government has not been a problem with China as it is not with any super power. However, any political leveraging might bring to the fore issues of give-and-take, so it would serve China’s interest more to leave them alone. It is best to discuss Padma bridge funding, Dhaka Stock Exchange investment and of course OBOR. So, China is an economic, not a political power, as far as Dhaka is concerned.

What about India?

India is a different matter going by facts. India has three major issues with Bangladesh:a)there are transit facilities to the northeast that cut through Bangladesh, which it needs to protect;b)a fragile northeast with active insurgencies whose intensity has greatly reduced, thanks partly to the Bangladesh regime’s policy of no-sanctuary to NE rebels; and c) It would prefer a government which doesn’t want to do business with Pakistan which could run spook operations from Dhaka.

Since the Awami League fits the bill on all counts India could have a stake in the elections much higher than China. Illegal immigrants are another issue and so are illegal cows imported for slaughter in Bangladesh. In India, beef chomping does provide good feed for internal mobilisation.

India is strong enough to exert influence on Bangladesh far more than ever before. More importantly, if the BNP manages to come to power, it would be friendlier than it was in its last avatar. But India needs a better-looking friend not produced by ‘bad’ elections. So, a positive influence may be in convincing Bangladesh to have a more competitive election. The Bangladesh PM has said the same as well.

But, of course, the part on Indian influence speculative, though the conjectures are not.

Also Read : In Bangladesh, a poor politician is of no use to anyone

Will it be a ‘good’ election?

What everyone knows for sure is that the BNP-centredJatiyoOikkyo Front has called for a shot at power in the future. Dr Kamal Hossain’s leadership has helped the BNP to be a party of substance rather than just a party hungry for power in alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami which many describe as its heaviest baggage. The AwamiLeague machinery has focused on this aspect with a systematic demonising campaign against the Front, but one is not sure whether this is the prime issue on the voter’s mind. Though the pre-electoral mud-slinging continues, it is not as visible compared to the campaign investment. State of the economy and law and order and safety issues dominate, not the political ones.

What do people want?

Bangladeshis simply want a safe and violence-free election and no more. If they get to vote, it’s great. If they can’t, a section of the voters, not the majority, will be disappointed. The disconnect between politics and the public has continued for far too long, so their expectation is not about political democracy but economic improvement.

The level of need, expectation and aspiration are high, but the reality of a growth-based, low job-creating economy is a fact too. The two most significant street events in the last five years after the Shahbagh movement were about jobs and road safety. Both were led by the young and of course both the AwamiLeague and the BNP have aimed their messages at this section of voters.

Electoral violence is high and that is indeed having an effect. Th people are concerned about their safety and if violence continues, some/many voters may stay away from exercising their franchise. However, army deployment is scheduled from the December 24 and a less turbulent campaigning is expected.

If voting is safe, people will be happy to see either party win provided there is a large and meaningful opposition. They are smart enough to know that overwhelming victories are not good for socio-economic safety.

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