Disengaged voters in a declining democracy
As Bangladesh celebrates the centennial birth anniversary of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman via the commemoration of 2020-2021 as the "Mujib Year", it is important if not necessary for citizens to reflect on the symbolic achievements of Bangabandhu, in addition to partaking in celebratory events throughout the year. In hindsight, Sheikh Mujib was not simply a statesman, but equally importantly, he transitioned his political acumen towards navigating the Bengali people towards emancipation and freedom.
Perhaps, more than anything, his vision for our country remained ingrained in the idea of common people having a direct say in electing their public representatives. Nevertheless, as we celebrate the ideals of a leader whose reach goes beyond partisan lines, the recently concluded Dhaka mayoral elections indicate a severe eradication of public interest in the very idea of voting, and a simultaneous repudiation of the political elite in the form of a public message that people have little to no faith in the electoral system.
In recognising the influence of Sheikh Mujib in constructing the very roots of an independent nation, it is important to understand the narrative that neither he nor the Awami League became the symbolic manifestation of the independence movement by force or by luck. Throughout the 1960s, Bangabandhu pushed the West Pakistani leadership to heed the call of their own citizens; by 1970, he was able to inspire a clear majority of East Pakistanis to go to voting centres and thereby determine their own destinies. This is the very notion where our current political and civil leadership have completely and, in reality, intentionally failed.
Over the past decade, the Awami League has undoubtedly steered the nation towards successes on the economic front. For that, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina deserves our gratitude. Nevertheless, what is also certain is this—the public have lost interest in their right to vote. This stems from not simply the allegations of rigging, intimidation, and voter suppression which have become the political norm, but more importantly the genuine belief by Awami League activists that their party cannot lose or in other cases, must not be allowed to lose electoral battles. To a large extent, the BNP under the leadership of its imprisoned Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia have faced severe institutional flaws too—failing to integrate the public in their activities and having a lacklustre grassroots system have resulted in the party becoming a docile political force. In summary, our political parties, with their aggressive actions and lack of democratic practices, have created a system wherein voter interest in politics and public life remains low. What the people are seeing with their own eyes, through a bold yet cautious media, is startlingly different from what our government and public institutions are reporting. In essence, we are witnessing and participating in a camouflaged version of the political reality, where people are being disillusioned left, right, and centre. Hence, the citizens of the country continue losing their trust in a system which clearly has no respect for them.
On February 5, the Chief Election Commissioner told reporters that the voter turnout across the Dhaka elections was less than 30 percent, with Election Commissioner Mahbub Talukder stating it to be less than 25 percent. However, let there be no doubt that the people of Dhaka have expressed their concerns regarding the city—made clear by city dwellers in their anger regarding the overuse of plastics in the election campaign, the need to make Dhaka a safer city for women and children, the immediate requirement to prioritise a cleaner Dhaka, and importantly, ensure a city which is more liveable.
For the 18 to 35 age group representing one-third of the Bangladeshi population, the need for accountability and answers is critical. In an age where technology and social media play a prominent role, that too within an increasingly nepotistic system, it may be possible for the powerful to dictate politics according to their needs, but in doing so, they concurrently make the young voters disengaged from a system which, in fairness, has rarely aimed at integrating youth perspectives. The Election Commission for one has failed in this regard miserably. The primary responsibility of this institution is to create the foundations for free, fair, and participatory electoral exercises—participatory not merely in relation to political parties, but in a sense that voters are encouraged to come to the polling stations. In the 2018 general elections and across the recently concluded mayoral elections, this very disengagement of voters from their "elected" leaders has resulted in the public losing its faith in the voting system.
I do not question the merits or the credentials of the newly elected Mayors for DNCC and DSCC—I sincerely hope they succeed in making the lives of Dhaka citizens better. They have the backing of a government which, in fairness, is at its strongest across its own political history. Yet, if the Awami League is to pay tribute to the ideals of Bangabandhu on his 100th birth anniversary, then what is certain is that it must take the leading role in engaging and enhancing the basic scope for democracy, and particularly participatory elections, to function and take place in Bangladesh. The right and ability to vote is a form of unparalleled power given to citizens by the Constitution, with the intention of ensuring that the public provide a mandate to its leadership. However, if current trends continue, then the future of this democracy, which is infected with gaping holes, will surely be the Achilles' heel in Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's vision of a thriving, developed, and sustainable Bangladesh.
Mir Aftabuddin Ahmed is a regular contributor of The Daily Star, focusing on economics, politics and international relations. Email: [email protected]