In the next 24 hours Bangladesh will have a national election. The question is what kind of an election will it be?
It has already become unprecedented on many counts: the incumbent is seeking a third term, an election is being held under an incumbent government which is being participated in by all political parties, and it is taking place at a time when fear has permeated society and there are questions whether voters will be able to exercise their fundamental right which is considered paramount when a country calls itself democratic. There are other unique features too: various alliances have emerged which defied all conventional wisdom, it has eclipsed some political actors, at least for the moment, and the voters' roll has the largest number of first-time voters. Above and beyond these, it is marked by the relentless violence faced by the opposition candidates and activists since the election process began.
The history of Bangladesh is replete with various kinds of elections, participatory and non-participatory; rigged and fair; state managed and spontaneous. Results in some cases were forgone conclusions, while at times, given a fair opportunity the voters had proved the predictions wrong. Although this is the eleventh parliamentary election since 1973, extant discussions have frequently referred to the elections held since the fifth parliamentary election in 1991, a clear recognition that the previous four elections were not something of which Bangladeshis are proud. Because they have failed to meet the fundamental criterion of credible and acceptable elections, whether participated in by major political parties or not. Some call these elections a sham, while others insist, they were mockery. This is merely a semantic difference. These elections, like any election anywhere in the world, have delivered winners and vanquished; these elections have created governments, who subsequently ruled the country—for a short period or relatively longer. But we know, not only in hindsight, not only because historians or political scientists have told us so, that they lacked the moral legitimacy which is an essential element of governance. Elections are supposed to deliver a mandate to govern, not an open-ended license to rule, a distinction often forgotten by those who emerged victorious in these elections.
It is not that all elections since 1991 passed the litmus test of credibility and acceptability; the February 1996 and the January 2014 elections fell far short. But four other elections, 1991, 1996 (June), 2001 and 2008, have succeeded in crossing the threshold of credible and acceptable elections. Although vanquished parties alleged various anomalies—from blatant rigging to fine-tuned machination, the voters at large have viewed these results as legitimate. Constitutional and legal legitimacy are necessary for any election to be considered acceptable, but these are not enough; it's the moral legitimacy which rallies people around an elected government and makes the ruling party their true representative. Moral legitimacy can neither be gained through an election which lacks integrity, nor can it be achieved through coercion.
Political scientists, for long, have described democracy as a system where the people have the opportunity of accepting or refusing the people who will govern, via competitive elections. As such, an election is the way to select who will represent them and who will make the laws. But it is well to bear in mind that, election is not only about who wins, but also how the victory is secured. The means of the victory determines the depth and breadth of legitimacy or lack thereof. That's why some victories become hollow, a cursory glance at recent elections all around the world provide ample evidence in this regard, as is the history of elections in Bangladesh. Prior to 1991, almost all elections in Bangladesh suffered from the crisis of moral legitimacy; and in post 1991, elections held in February 1996 and January 2014, fall within the same category. This was the past.
We are now standing at the cusp of the future. As the nation faces another election, the questions are what kind of an election will it be? What kind of an election do the Election Commission and the incumbent intend to deliver? Despite the events of the past weeks, which have put a big question mark on the integrity of the ensuing election and diminished the possibility of an acceptable election, the die is yet to be cast. The opportunity is still there to make it an historic election, through creating an environment which will allow the voters to come out in droves. After missing the opportunity five years ago, the voters are eager to cast their votes as we have seen before. In 2008, after an election was delayed for only two years, voter turnout increased by almost 10 percent compared to 2001. Let the people speak, let their voices be heard. Let an election be held which cannot be questioned, whatever the result may be. It is also upon the voters, 100 million of them, to step up and make the election inclusive and credible and deliver their verdict. The future is not predetermined, they are shaped in many ways by what one does today.
Lest we forget, history bears witness to all things that happen, and it also judges the actors. These judgments are contemporaneous as well.
Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor of political science at the Illinois State University, USA.