New ball game
Now that we have had a few days to digest the magnitude of Monday's election result, the time has come to try to decipher what it all means for the future of the country.
The only two scientific polls taken before the election, as far as I am aware, were the two-part Daily Star/Neilsen poll and the New Age poll, and both suggested the same thing. When it came to issues and leadership, the people favoured the AL over the BNP by an eye-popping margin.
If read objectively and not through the distorting prism of past results, the polls suggested a landslide victory for the AL. But due to the track record of the two parties in the last three elections, analysts had a hard time accepting what the data so clearly indicated.
After all, there were over 70 seats that the BNP had never lost in the last three elections, and the combined BNP/Jamaat vote from 2001 had been 47 per cent.
But the tell-tale signs of the coming landslide were there for all to see in the poll results: Which party has nominated better candidates? AL over BNP: 54-26. Which party's manifesto is better? AL over BNP: 53-25. Which party will deliver better? AL over BNP: 50-25.
The signs were there in the 47 per cent who said that prices were their primary concern (as opposed to saving Islam) and in the 37 per cent of repeat voters who said they were seriously thinking of switching their vote from the 2001 election.
We do not yet have exit polls that break down the voters by age and gender, and, in any event, it will be quite some time before complete and accurate data is available for the experts to crunch. But when it is in, I think what we will find is that the models that we have used in the past to decipher Bangladesh elections no longer hold true and that when it comes to the electoral landscape that we have entered new and uncharted territory.
We are all aware that some 33 per cent of the electorate was first-time voters. But we also need to be aware of the 23 per cent second-time voters who voted for the first time in 2001.
Added together, that makes over 55 per cent of the voters for whom previous models of voting patterns no longer seem to apply. It is no wonder that the conventional wisdom was so up-ended in this election and that the armchair pollsters and prognosticators fared so poorly in their predictions.
In 2001, the then first-time voters broke largely for the BNP. This confounded conventional wisdom regarding the voters, that suggested that voter loyalty had reached almost tribal levels and that first-time voters merely repeated the voting patterns of their parents/elders.
However, the first-time voters in 2001 preferred BNP to AL due to the anti-incumbency factor which remains strong in Bangladesh and due to the fact that BNP ran a savvy campaign targeting the young voters and projecting itself as the party with a vision for the future.
But these voters were issues-based voters, not party loyalists, and they turned against BNP in droves in Monday's election due to its shambolic tenure and inability to articulate a compelling vision for the future.
Similarly, I think we will find that the first-time voters this time were more likely to vote AL, based on their assessment of the relative merits of the two parties, even if their parents or elders were more likely to stick with BNP.
The lesson to take away from all this is that politics in Bangladesh is now an entirely new ball game. As analyst Jyoti Rahman blogged in real time as the results were coming in:
"Even in 1973 AL lost here [Rajshahi Sadar]. Liton's win in the mayor race was meant to be because BNP was not 'in the game.' If Badsha wins then we are potentially looking at a new political landscape tomorrow morning."
It seems that the old AL/anti-AL, Bengali nationalist/Bangladeshi nationalist, Islamist/secular break-down of voting patterns no longer apply. The new electorate has clearly rejected the fear-mongering identity politics that have plagued Bangladesh for so long.
No longer can one hope to sweep to victory on the back of slogans such as "save Islam" or "save the country" or by playing the anti-India card. Voters want forward-looking policies not alarmist rhetoric.
The political parties will need a new play-book to navigate this new political landscape and to speak to the new voter. The new voter cannot be influenced by horror stories of the distant past. The old scare tactics just didn't work this time.
This was the most heartening lesson from the election. We have entered a new political era in which divisive, wedge issues and identity politics take a back-seat, and the voters make their decisions based on the parties' respective visions and policy proposals and on their assessment of the candidates' honesty, competence, and ability to deliver.
So the ball is now in the court of the political parties. They know what is expected of them, and they know what fate awaits them if they fail to deliver.