WHAT should be a festival of expression of Public Will is being turned into, as we can foresee now, a destructive encounter between our two giant parties with voters becoming increasingly fearful of what is likely to happen. Theoretically, elections are when voters reign supreme. Tragically in Bangladesh, it is when the voters are cowed down the most.
Except for the one in 1991, which was preceded by the fall of the autocratic government of Gen. Ershad, all other elections were preceded by months, if not years, of mass agitation leading to violence and deaths. At the end of it all however, because of the caretaker government (CTG) system, we were able to have highly participated and internationally acceptable elections, leading to a peaceful transfer of power. With the abolishing of the CTG system this time around, such a prospect has become less likely.
As the time for elections is drawing nearer, all sections of the society are becoming more and more apprehensive as to what is likely to happen before, during and after elections. Parents are worried about their children’s education, business people about running their factories, traders about imports and exports, professionals about implementing their annual plans, etc. It would not be an exaggeration to state that we are all in the grip of fear — fear for our future and everything that it entails.
And all this is because Sheikh Hasina refuses to go to polls under a caretaker government and Khaleda Zia refuses to do the same without it.
Last Monday the prime minister announced, as she had done innumerable times, but this time before the highest level government functionaries, that it will be under her government and within the present parliament’s tenure — that is by January 24, 2014 — elections will be completed. It is basically a reiteration of her stance that she will not move “a single hair-breadth” of distance in accommodating the opposition.
With this announcement, Sheikh Hasina can be said to have drawn the curtain on any possibility of talks. All the imploring of the UN, US, EU members and, surprisingly China, (surprising because China does not usually publicly say anything on such issues) that elections must ensure participation of all parties, basically meaning BNP and its allies, obviously did not impress her.
Sheikh Hasina wants to hold the elections very much like the way she ran the country in the last nearly five years. It was her wishes that her cabinet and her party always endorsed. There has not been one known instance where her cabinet or party was able to dissuade her from what she wanted to do.
Similarly, she now wants to hold the election precisely the way she proclaimed that she would. She first abolished the CTG system and has now said that it would be under her government and with the parliament remaining in place, that the coming polls will be held. What surprised all those who have been following her statements is that only a few months ago Sheikh Hasina promised to dissolve the parliament before the polls.
So why, knowing as she does that her proposition will not be acceptable to the opposition alliance, is Sheikh Hasina pursuing a course that is bound to lead to stalemate at best, and serious violence at worst? What has made the PM change her mind? What gives her the confidence that she will be able to pull off something which everybody, including her crucial supporters, are advising her against.
There are many people openly saying that Sheikh Hasina does not want the opposition to participate in the elections. So she will take all sorts of outrageous positions that will force the BNP to boycott the polls. The argument here is that AL cannot win a free and fair election and hence wants to create conditions that will force BNP to boycott. Then using the ‘walkover’ Sheikh Hasina will do everything possible to make it look like a ‘free and fair’ election including taking less seats than she has now, thereby trying to give the impression that the polls were well fought in spite of BNP’s absence.
This argument does not answer the question as to how Sheikh Hasina will run her newly ‘elected’ government in face of opposition’s agitation, which will likely to be from day one?
We are not convinced by this line of thinking simply because AL has never been a party that shied away from elections. If anything, this party has always, in spite of Herculean obstacles at various stages of its chequered life, participated in elections. So the question resurfaces, why is Sheikh Hasina taking positions that are making her look increasingly inflexible and making it impossible for the opposition to participate in the polls?
We do not pretend to know the answer. However, we would like to think that being a leader of the masses that she is, having suffered at the hands of undemocratic regimes as she has, having tasted the fruit of democracy for the last 23 years, she will do everything in her power to preserve the system even if it means that her arch rival may come to power.
We can understand her reluctance to see BNP in power again because of the post poll violence in 2001 that was carried out against her party. But the truth is all that violence did not weaken the AL. On the contrary, the party emerged stronger. For a party like AL, setbacks are not new and re-emerging from them is also nothing new. Given that history behind her, and given the fact that the pendulum is likely to turn in the AL’s favour next time around, Sheikh Hasina should really offer some workable options that will break the present political stalemate and save the nation from the inevitable clashes that we now seem to be certainly heading for.
The writer is Editor, The Daily Star.