Since the campaign season for this month's election began on December 10, news headlines were dominated by violent clashes in different parts of the country. The “spectre of violence”—as a lyrical headline by The Daily Star points out on December 12—has returned. Figures compiled so far by the media paint a sobering picture: in the first seven days since December 10, according to an estimate, there were 96 violent clashes in 45 districts, resulting in the deaths of at least two individuals and scores of injuries. Another estimate, by the Bangla daily Prothom Alo, gives a more detailed account. It says that there were clashes in five different areas on the first day, 18 on the second day, 17 on the third day, 23 on the fourth day, and 8 on the fifth day. On the sixth and seventh days, there were violent incidents in at least 19 and 16 districts respectively.
Overall, it has been quite a bumpy ride so far, mostly for the opposition alliance led by BNP, whose candidates were most affected by the attacks. Prominent among them were the attacks on the motorcades of Jatiya Oikyafront chief Dr Kamal Hossain, BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, and most recently, Gono Forum candidate Reza Kibria by men with alleged ties to the ruling Awami League. A unique form of protest against these motorcade incidents saw Abdul Latif Siddiqui, an independent candidate for the Tangail-4 constituency, go on a fast-unto-death strike in front of the office of the respective Returning Officer (RO) with nothing but a blanket, a quilt and a tent—the combination of which symbolised more than a need to cover himself from the winter chill; it seemed almost as if he was the living embodiment of men's primordial need for protection from the threats on their life.
One way of reading these events over the past 10 days is to say that the current political climate, as far as the safety of the candidates goes, is still heavily skewed in favour of the ruling coalition—and against anyone opposing it. The optimism fostered by the previous weeks of relatively positive political engagement about the likelihood of a free and fair election was all but dampened, among other things, by the violence. In hindsight, the return of the “spectre of violence” was undesirable, if not unexpected, given the unresolved political issues that kept piling up in the run-up to the campaign season which made it a disaster simply waiting to happen.
Another way of looking into what is going on is by putting it into a historical context, especially in terms of the way individual candidates are being threatened. The trend to target the candidates, not just their supporters, is quite unprecedented in recent history. It has the effect of striking fear right into the hearts of those who matter, the brains—not the muscles—behind the opposition camp, and can therefore be a useful tool of power for those who wield it. In an interview with the BBC Bangla, former Election Commissioner Brig Gen (retd) M Sakhawat Hossain, who was part of the team that oversaw the 2008 election, said, “None of the elections held between 1991 and 2008 saw this kind of [pre-poll] violence.” The only other election held under a democratic government in Bangladesh was the now-infamous January 5, 2014 election which was marred by violence, low turnout and opposition boycott. It is difficult to imagine a different scenario for its successor if the current trend holds.
Several questions come to the fore when violence is allowed to continue through denial or lack of action on the part of those who have a constitutional obligation to do neither: Who benefits from the continuation of violence? Who benefits from the EC's silence over, or downplaying of, violence? Who benefits from the condemnation and character-assassination of the victims? Who benefits from the mass arrests and “ghost” cases? Who benefits from the fear and chaos that come in the wake of violence? And who benefits from a tumultuous electoral environment? If we understand the “who”, it might lead us to the “why” and other mysteries. The silver lining is, despite the physical danger facing its candidates, Oikyafront remains determined to stay put and not do what BNP did in the 2014 election: boycott the election.
The recent spate of violence has also laid bare the fault lines of Bangladesh's democracy in which the enduring political concept of a level playing field for all contesting parties has been relegated to a dangerous fiction which, like the fabled El Dorado, both haunts and fascinates those who pursue it. It is there, as the Chief Election Commissioner would have us believe, and yet it is not, as the rest of us would painfully discover every so often. The CEC is confident that he can deliver a “participatory” election. But a participatory election is not necessarily a fair one, as another Election Commissioner, Mahbub Talukder, has rightly pointed out. “A participatory election is one in which all the parties take part,” he said, adding that ensuring the participation of all parties is a basic requirement for an election but the more important requirement is to hold an election that is acceptable to all.
Since this EC took office, and led us through one disastrous episode after another, we have fooled ourselves by hoping against hope that it would redeem itself and correct its mistakes, but that hope was never really reciprocated. As of now, the EC has done little to convince us that we are likely to have an election that is both fair and participatory. It has directed the police to withdraw three officers-in-charge (OCs) in connection with the attacks on opposition leaders but stopped short of recognising the gravity of the situation by claiming, against the evidence, that there is a proper environment for election in the country. The government also doesn't seem to appreciate the gravity of the danger that a continuation of this situation poses, even though it says it doesn't want a repeat of the 2014 election. Ironically, this is a point that all the parties seem to agree on. But history teaches us to hope for the best but prepare for the worst, since violence can lead to further violence and spread fear which can be a powerful motivation for disruption in the electoral process.
The question is, with so much agreement on this issue, who will bell the cat and actually do something to stop violence so that it doesn't hurt the chances of a fair and participatory election?
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.