Monday, December 31, 2018

After the "election". What next?

Perhaps the biggest surprise of polling day was how much the Awami League government felt they had to rig the election on the day itself - since they had taken pretty extravagant steps to ensure victory before the vote itself. But clearly, the Awami League did not want to take anything for granted and used the police and their own activists to stop BNP supporters from voting, preventing opposition polling agents from entering polling centres, and stuffing ballots. 

There are enough eye-witnesses and reports to suggest that this was a widespread and systematic in most parts of the country. The plan set out in the documents leaked yesterday by BangladeshPolitico seemed to have been followed pretty assiduously.

The Bangladesh opposition should perhaps counts itself lucky that the Awami League government allowed it to win 7 seats!

Perhaps, the only institution whose credibility is more questionable than those involved in holding the elections is the small international observer mission which has played a home run for the government in bestowing legitimacy on the election. They clearly had no idea what was actually going on in the real world of Bangladesh's polling stations. (The EU, US government and Commonwealth did not send, or were not permitted to send, any observers) 

The Bangladesh government will now get its ducks in a row - and we will hear similar utterances about the credibility of the elections from the local partisan election observers (who were permitted to monitor the elections by the Election Commission), from the Indian government, and other political allies inside and outside the country.

The opposition has, understandably, rejected the election and has demanded a new one. It is, however, almost impossible to see how this could happen (at least in the short term) unless there was some kind of large-scale people's movement - which is itself highly improbable (opposition activists are now in hiding to escape arrest and are in no position to lead any street movement) and, were it to happen, would be ruthlessly repressed.

So where does that leave the government. There is no doubt the government will survive - as it does have a significant support base - but its widespread and systematic election/vote rigging has arguably created a far greater crisis of legitimacy than it faced even after the uncontested 2014 election. 

The reason why the last elections were uncontested was because the opposition parties did not trust the Awami League government, whilst it held the levers of power, to hold a free and fair election. The opposition demanded that the election be run under the control of a neutral care-taker election-time government under which all elections since 1996 had been held.

The AL government, however, argued that a special election time government was not necessary as it was quite capable of holding free and fair elections. The opposition refused to accept this and so boycotted the election. As a result over 150 parliamentary seats were uncontested, and the remaining ones were uncompetitive.

One of the reasons why the political opposition  did not take part in these 2014 elections was to avoid providing legitimacy to a rigged process which they would have lost - at the time the BNP was ahead in the opinion polls. The BNP thought that if it did not take part, it could more easily attack the government for being illegitimate. 

To some extent the opposition was right. For some time after the 'elections', the government did have a significant legitimacy problem - however as time went on, the Awami League government managed to win over the international community, and was successful at repressing the domestic opposition. In addition, the government put forward the cogent argument that it could not be described as 'illegitimate' when it was opposition which refused to take part in the elections.

This time round, the opposition agreed take part in the election, despite significant reservations. In effect, it agreed to test out the government's notion that it would hold free and fair elections even though it was in power. 

And the government flunked this test, resoundingly. 

The government cannot now criticise the opposition for not taking part - and instead can only argue that the elections were free and fair. There will be a battle between two narratives - and of course with the government in almost total control of the TV news media, and partial control of the print media - it will trumpet these arguments hard.

However, arguably, the government has gone too far in its rigging to make its arguments convincing. Apart from everything else, the very fact that the opposition won only seven seats will itself be seen as evidence of rigging.

The Awami League government has dug a huge hole for itself from which it will emerge only with difficultly. The drip drip arguments about the lack of legitimacy in Bangladesh will take its toll, and whilst, the future of the country is not easy to predict, it may well lead in due course to more concerted demands, particularly from young people, for new free and fair elections that will be hard for the government to deny.

Other "2018 Elections" articles

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