Wake up call | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 25, 2010 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, June 25, 2010

Wake up call

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BNP fortunes turning around? Photo: Raj Anikat/ DRIK NEWS

WELL, well, well. For the past six months all I have heard from AL-ers is that things are not as bad as the media is making it seem, and that, what's more, the people remain happy with the AL government.
They would point to poll results from last December which showed that, a year into its tenure, the government did indeed remain quite popular with the general public, and hint at internal polls which supposedly suggested that the support level had remained high since then.
To the outside observer, this always seemed unlikely. The state of the nation has deteriorated markedly in the past six months, with, among many other failings, the power and water crises becoming more acute, and with no evidence that any real relief is in sight.
But what did the voters think? Were they comforted that things were on the right track, and confident that, given the time, the government would rise to the challenge?
Or were they fed up with a year and a half of inaction, and concerned that the government did not seem to be taking the steps necessary to improve things in future?
The Chittagong mayoral election has thus provided us with a sneak peek at voter satisfaction -- at least in the country's second largest city -- and the results could not have been encouraging for the government.
AL-backed mayor, A.B.M. Mohiuddin Chowdhury, who had been in power for 17 years, including being elected and re-elected with BNP at the helm of the national government, was unceremoniously dumped from office by a margin of over 95,000 or over 10% of the total.
It was a shock result. Most on-lookers, myself included, thought that Mohiuddin was untouchable. If he could win re-election when BNP was in power, how could he lose under an AL government?
Now, of course, the AL spin-doctors are already suggesting that Mohiuddin's loss had nothing to do with the popularity of the party at the national level.
Mohiuddin had been in office for 17 years. He had become arrogant and out of touch. He had alienated too many of his core constituencies. He was unpopular within the Chittagong AL. The people of Chittagong wanted a change. Et cetera.
There is no doubt that there is some small measure of truth to all this. But it would be profound folly on the part of the AL to think that the Chittagong results are not in any way a reflection of public opinion on the government's performance.
To be sure, the BNP's vice chairman has written that the election result is a ringing endorsement of the BNP's conduct as a political party over the last 18 months, showing that delusion is alive and well on both sides of the political aisle.
But the lesson for the AL is clear. Those within the party who think that all is well and that the party has everything under control need to put down the crack-pipe and take serious stock of the situation.
Most crucially, what is apparent is that while the voters may have rejected BNP in 2008, this does not mean that the party is permanently discredited to the point where people won't vote for it again.
As unpopular as BNP was in 2008 after five shambolic years in office, if AL does not deliver, it will be voted out of office in 2013 and BNP will be returned to power, regardless of how compromised the party may seem today.
AL now has 3 1/2 years to sort things out. It now knows what the price of continued inaction or under-performance will be.
And, might I point out that in light of the fact that the party may well be tossed out of office at the next elections, all of its targeting of opponents and other petty power plays look even more foolish.
It is bad enough to crack down on your opponents like that when you think you will rule forever, but it is sheer idiocy to do so when it looks like you might get the bum's rush in a few years time.
But if the voters were sick of AL in 2001 and sick of BNP in 2008, and starting to get sick of AL again, then the more interesting point is that they might be more willing then ever before to countenance something new.
It is clear that neither of the two parties really speaks to the aspirations of the people. They are willing to vote for the party that they dislike less, and are mature enough that they will and do vote for the lesser of two evils, whoever they deem that to be at any given moment in time (usually the party out of power).
But the real lesson in these swings is that they are clearly unsatisfied with the choices on offer. Either of the main parties could and should try to address this need.
If they do not, the ground for a new party or candidate to try and harness this discontent with politics as usual has clearly been laid. Is there anybody out there?

Zafar Sobhan is Editor, Editorial & Op-Ed, The Daily Star.

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