“Awami League will rig this election,” blurted out my Jamaati friend as he sunk his teeth into a Tk 2500 smoked salmon sandwich.
I felt a little uncomfortable and out of place in the middle of this lavish hotel talking politics with an Islamist over an expensive dinner. Not necessarily because I stick out like a scruffy interloper who walked over to the Westin (no chauffeur to drop me off), but I have limited knowledge of what Awami League is planning. This transition period before the election is the period where all conspiracy theories have the potential to be true.
And Awami League rigging the election is on top of every list.
This accusation finds willing ears and gets further augmented by the Prime Minister’s son’s (who by most measure is more educated than almost anyone who sits in the parliament or crafts policy for this country) rather strange and out of the blue remark that, he has ‘information’ of a grand victory. While this sort of suggestive remark might allay the fears of the party faithful, Mr. Sajeeb Wazed should know better about the destructive power of vague, untimely proclamations which ruin one’s credibility to the masses. And it is fair to say that the general media reaction to this strange, unsubstantiated assessment of the inevitability of an Awami victory has been a bemused “say what” call to ridicule. But despite the dismissive tone of the reaction, Mr. Wazed’s declaration has put further doubt on the ability of Awami League to conduct a free and fair election.
Barring a divine intervention, this election (assuming it takes place) will test the mettle of Awami League more than the BNP alliance. So we are really at a critical juncture.
One of the major issues that affect any unstable democracy is the issue of transition. Historically, democracies suffer the most when the changing of the guard is done reluctantly or not at all. The modern history of dictatorship (from Germany to Nigeria) is the history of democracies’ failed transition attempts. At times, democracies need saving from democracy itself, as democratic norms tend to give rise to voices that may not actually believe in the basic tenets of democracy. It is the crisis of all new democracies, and Bangladesh is right in the thick of things with too many voices but not enough intelligent ones deliberating the issues.
As the time for election creeps up with ominous signs being lit like vacancy signs at the Bates Motel, the major point of disagreement between parties is not about choices, not about corruption, not about Zias versus Shiekhs, not about policies. It is not really even about the country (that sort of idealism died a long time ago). It is about power and who will be the vanguard during the period which no party can legally claim stewardship of the country.
The true politics of this country is the politics of transition.
How should the transition be conducted? Will there be a caretaker government?
Caretaker government has been a dirty word for a long time. When in power, the Awami League despises the idea of a caretaker government, and when in power, the BNP is no less hostile to the idea. The ruling parties are terrible observers of fairness (as our history is littered with hostility toward any action that does not benefit the ruling elites), however, and cannot be trusted. (It should be noted that our leaders do show some common sense when they have to suffer common problems, like not having the police do their dirty work or not having a motorcade to block off the roads so they can go ‘sightseeing’ in the parliament. For that very specific reason, the BNP’s common sense has been rising, while the Awami League’s common sense has been plummeting like the stock market.
Bangladesh needs a caretaker government because we barely have a functional democracy, and the government we have is unable to conduct itself with transparency even in issues that benefit them (this is not one of those issues). Now we have enough scope and reason to pursue this mode of government while the election takes place. No one in their right mind would suggest otherwise, but then again, who is in their right minds in the political spectrum of Bangladesh changes depending on the issue.
But all these observations can be taken in with a grain of salt as this has happened before in this country. So a shrug of the shoulder and muttering inaudible swear words at this sort of action is almost an integral part of my Bangladeshi identity.
But what really made me look further into this issue is the steely reluctance of Awami League to even consider the issue as a viable solution to the deadlock.
Does Awami League really believe that we as a nation are mature enough to go through a transition without a non-partisan government? Or does Awami League believe that it is on the cusp of a heavy defeat and thus need to maintain autocratic control over the process so that it cannot go against them? That is really the question we should be asking them.
Their reason for such outright refusal to even address the elephant in the room suggests the latter, as we know that the Awami League (like all political parties in Bangladesh) views the general population as chumps (the list of offensive/benign/absurd actions taken by the government would make Kafka roll in his grave).
Speaking of graves, how deep is the grave of electoral defeat that looms on the horizon for Awami League? Is their reaction a measured and calculated realpolitik or is it paranoia that will end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy?
To answer that question we have to look at how the Awami League has conducted itself under scrutiny. (This is by no means a school report card as most of our parliamentary members are unfamiliar with them; it is just an assessment of actions taken as circumstances rose.) Every major disaster the Awami League has faced in the last two years has been made worse by their unwillingness to find fault in their own reaction, be it the World Bank scandal, the workers’ rights issue, or Savar’s Rana Plaza collapse. Sometimes the Awami League found saving the hides of corrupt politicians more important than state interests, and other times the perfect storm of scrutiny that emerged from disasters like Rana Plaza ended up making the prime minister look as lost and unintelligible as I was at the Westin — unfortunately she was on CNN at the time.
This idea of constructive scrutiny is not present in Bangladeshi politics. Any scrutiny of the political parties, regardless of how much it is warranted, is met with such disdain, utter hostility, and an impervious sense of self-righteousness. You cannot counter that sort of delusion and entitlement with mere logic, data, or even history. With Awami League, the more we scrutinise their behaviour, the more they are likely to overreact, close ranks, and further jeopardise this fragile democracy. This is by no means a rallying cry to not put the government under severe scrutiny, as they surely deserve it, but the more we press, the more it seems that the Awami League is unwilling to listen. This is unhelpful. This is business as usual.
The problem here is the culture of deafness in our current politics. Will the ruling party stand up for democracy or will it stand up for itself? They are reaching a point where these two ideas are becoming more and more mutually exclusive. This must stop. If the Awami League is unable to risk losing a fair election with the civility of a civilised nation and keeps on suggesting that they are fully capable of handling the election themselves, they are not overestimating their value, rather, they have lost all their value within the political process. The Awami League must not lose its sense of responsibility that comes with governing a nation-state. They must listen, not because the BNP is growling and the Jamaat is hissing, the Awami League must listen because we the people have a right to a fair and free election. And that right is as inalienable as the right to exist as a nation. And despite history providing contradictory examples, no party is bigger than this country, and that’s where all growling, hissing, moaning must end and a constructive conversation must start.
Jyoti Omi Chowdhury is a war theorist and a visiting researcher at the Center for Sustainable Development, Harvard University.