AWAMI League-backed candidates lost five city corporation polls. Losing in an election is not unusual in a democracy and of course not the end of the story. Today's losers are tomorrow's winners. That is the motto of democratic elections. But as usual, every election leaves a 'long trail' from which one must dig out the real causes behind winning and losing. This is also a healthy practice that offers opportunity for both, the winner and the loser, to look back at their strategy and revise it, if necessary.
Let us diagnose the recently-held city election results. Ruling Awami League claims that it has delivered on a lot of its promises and is not lagging far behind on other promises. Its opponents deny such claims and suggest that the ruling party failed to keep the promises it made to the nation and did everything wrong. Certainly, neither side is right in its assertion. Of course, there are failures as well as successes. It might be 50-50, or 60-40, or even 40-60. The question is how you reach out to your electorate with the right kind of message which they will keep in mind before they stamp the candidate's symbol in the polling booth.
The media plays the most crucial role in delivering messages and influencing the consent of the voters. Noam Chomsky argued that 'yes' consent can be 'manufactured.' Civil Society, through its independent voice, also plays a pivotal role in educating the public on important issues. But what matter most in a democracy are the grassroots political workers who have the important role of going door-to-door to the electorates, giving them the right (or wrong) kind of information as per their election strategy, and many a times taking the voter to a polling booth. They are a big factor in influencing opinion at the ground level.
Awami League is said to have the strongest political organisation which extends to the grassroots and is blessed with many dedicated and devoted party activists. BNP, too, does not lag far behind. Since 1991, both AL and BNP enjoyed two-terms in power, and voters are well aware of their record in office. Both have serious allegations of widespread corruption, squandering public money, and mal-governance against them. The degree might vary but most agree that many of the allegations are true.
Therefore, it would be unusual for voters to show preference for either of these two parties -- no matter how good they pretend to be, people have their score cards of two decades. The five city corporation polls have to be analysed in this context. Did Awami League so far deliver up to the expectation? The answer will be 'no.' Did BNP deliver last time? The answer is again 'no' (if it had, it would probably have made a comeback). Will BNP deliver if voted to power next time? About this, the people are ever sceptical.
This being the case, it would be fair to assume that the voters, in choosing who to vote for, will focus on candidates and their track records rather than decide along party line. However, this logic did not apply in city elections. As media reports suggest, most of the losing candidates (from the ruling party) were better than their counterparts. Here lies the big question. Then, what else influenced the elections? The answer will be seemingly the religion card. The results suggest that Hefajat and Jamaat were able to successfully reach out to the 'independent' voters by labeling Awami League an anti-Islamic force. Why could not the ruling party and its candidates defend themselves against what they believed was a smear-campaign that severely hurt their election campaign? The answer to this question may provide us an insight on how the Hefajat-Jamaat campaign was apparently so successful.
Let us assume that Awami League had not confronted Jamaat and Hefajat, then the scenario would be that despite the bad governance of AL it would still remain competitive and, given their image, most of its candidates would be reelected. This is because, BNP, the main competitor, also bears the stigma of corruption and mal-governance.
Let us recall the reelection of Mizanur Rahman Minu in Rajshahi City Corporation election during the last BNP regime. Despite being heavily criticised for massive corruption, rise of religious extremism, torturing of the then opposition activists and minorities, Minu managed to stay competitive and won the election. It is a lesson for AL that if it can't rein-in the party thugs, and cannot deliver on governance, then confronting idealists and fundamentalists will only significantly compound its woes and influence the election outcomes.
AL is now facing a dilemma. Despite, its higher scores on many economic indicators in comparison with the last BNP regime, the religion card has been really hurting its prospect. BNP's political network is not better equipped than that of AL's, it cannot also outsmart AL in corruption allegation, and its party rank and file are also as de-motivated as their counterpart's. These factors would allow AL to fight neck-and-neck, and sometimes with some leverage.
However, although BNP doesn't have the moral standing to seriously question AL's mal-governance issues because of its own pitfalls, the religious extremists have the fullest motivation to pursue a deadly and dedicated campaign against AL. To face such an organised and dedicated campaign at the grassroots level, Awami League's grassroots workers no longer appear to be strong enough. While AL workers can effectively be at par with BNP workers, there isn't much qualitative difference between them.
The results are certainly a big lesson for the political parties. If neither the party leaders nor the workers deliver good governance, preaching honesty and moral values will not be convincing to the electorate; nor will it be easy to correct the wrong acts of the past. Taking on the extremists will also be difficult. Once the people's trust is lost, big talk on big ideas (secularism, morality, spirit of liberation, which are good and real causes) will only hurt those real causes and undermine our national pride.
The writer is a political analyst and researcher at the Institute of Governance Studies, BRAC University.