IF there's one thing that Bangladeshis love, it's an argument. Indeed, you can't flip through the cable TV channels for more than a few minutes without running across talking heads berating one another.
So perhaps the time has come for us to aspire to something a little more enlightening when it comes to political discourse, and what could be more enlightening than a debate between the two party leaders and prospective prime ministers.
I was thus delighted to read in the paper earlier this week that the EC has initiated discussion on holding such a debate live on BTV. More than anything else, voters need and should be able to demand, information.
And what better way of learning what to expect for the next five years than to have the prospective prime ministers debate one another live on national TV before the election.
Something screened on BTV and broadcast simultaneously over Bangladesh Betar would reach a significant chunk of the country's 80-million electorate, and would go a great deal towards explicating what the parties stand for and helping people to decide who to vote for.
Sceptics and cynics will argue that the Bangladeshi voters are bound by tribal affiliation to one party or the other and have no interest in hearing debates on issues or principles, but this sells the public short.
In fact, the recently published Daily Star-Nielsen poll indicates that fully 40% of returning voters are considering changing their vote from the party they voted for in 2001.
In addition, fully 23% of the electorate is first time voters, who, almost by definition, most likely do not have strong party loyalty or affiliation, and might be looking for information to make up their minds one way or the other.
The simple fact is that, under the current system, the personality of the prime minister will be firmly stamped on the government she heads, and nothing will tell a voter more about what to expect from the incoming government than an up-close look at the person who will head it.
Conventional wisdom on both leaders is, I think, incorrect. The book on Hasina is that people find her too strident and that she puts voters off. I suspect, however, that this is more of an urban elite perception, and that she tends to come off quite well to the regular folk of the country who appreciate her simple direct manner of expressing herself.
The conventional wisdom on Khaleda is that she isn't too bright and is unlikely to acquit herself well in such a format. Again, I think this judgment considerably underestimates her abilities, and I think that she might well surprise people in a debate.
The bottom line is that both the party leaders are not without their political skills and both are very popular with different segments of the population for a reason. In addition, both firmly believe that they are in the right and that the other would lead the country to catastrophe, thus both should fancy their chances in an open debate.
Nor need the debate necessarily only be restricted to these two. One can argue that the next two biggest parties, Jamaat and JP, are in alliance with BNP and AL, respectively, and thus there is no need to include them. Then again, the counter-argument could be made that if they are part of an alliance then their presence on stage is all the more important to allow voters to make an informed choice.
In addition, I would have no objection to a representative from the BDB-Gono Forum alliance on stage. One could argue that they don't have sufficient popularity, but one could equally argue that if you don't give them airspace then how can they be expected to gain popularity. In any event, these are all factors for the debate organisers to decide.
Since the upcoming elections are parliamentary ones, we should also encourage debates between candidates at the constituency level. Citizens groups in each constituency can organise a forum for the candidates to meet and debate each other in public, or, even better, take questions from the audience. It would be far more edifying than the endless speeches and rallies that the candidates themselves will be putting on.
Debates and question and answer sessions are long overdue as part of our political landscape. The fact that our politicians do not even think about debating one another and feel that they don't owe the voters even that much has been part of the problem.
Giving the people the chance to see and hear what the candidates are all about and to make an informed decision is the essence of democracy, and there is no reason why we cannot make it happen.