Monday, December 25, 2023

The Election of the Absurd*

Bangladesh’s governing party officials are threatening voters with the loss of state benefits if they don’t show up at the polling centres in the country’s uncontested election.


On 7th January, 2024, an “election” of sorts will take place in Bangladesh.

Perhaps it is best not described as an “election” but as a theatrical play or even charade which seeks to portray the people of Bangladesh as being able to make a real choice and that is one of choosing the Awami League as the legitimate party of government.

With no opposition in attendance, it remains unclear whether those participating in this theatre of the absurd are actually beguiled by the charade. Its preposterousness is certainly in full view of the audience – and it has already received some very bad reviews by many inside and outside the country. Most plays so comprehensively panned would have closed its box office some time ago, but not this one. The director of this charade very much wants to keep her job, and as memory of the theatrical spectacle fades, the play’s economic backers feel that their investment will pay off in no time. And whilst after such a charade, one would never expect that the reputation and career of a director whose play was so uniformly slammed could revive, this one has previously put on two other similarly ridiculed dramas (in 2014 and 2018) yet managed to continue with her reputation (and power) pretty much intact. And she is betting that it will happen this time too.

The above may be a bit of fun, but you would be surprised how close this is to what is going on in Bangladesh right now.


Since the Awami League (AL) government took power in 2008, and used its overwhelming parliamentary majority to remove the provisions within the constitution that had required an election-time non-partisan caretaker government, the two subsequent elections in 2014 and 2018 have been, let’s say, “highly questionable”.


In 2014, the opposition parties, spearheaded by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), boycotted the election fearing that without a caretaker government system in place, it would be rigged. And in 2018, in an election in which it did participate, voting was indeed systematically rigged, proving the opposition’s earlier fears of 2014 correct.


So what was the opposition BNP to do this time round? It was caught between a rock and a hard place – either to take part and lose by government rigging, or to boycott and lose through non-participation. In this no-win situation, it decided to repeat its 2014 strategy, presumably because by doing so there remained some possibility that the government would budge and introduce changes that would allow a free and fair election to take place.


We now know where this has got us. A boycott followed by the "election" of the absurd.


It has long been my view that it was in the AL government’s interest for the Bangladesh opposition party to boycott the forthcoming national election rather than to participate. This is not because the government feared that the opposition BNP would win a contested election – there should be no doubt that the Awami League would never allow the BNP to win, and would if it could, always rig any contested election (as indeed the BNP would do the same if it were in government, see 1996 and 2006) – but because when opposition parties do not take part in elections, governments are subject to much less criticism and opprobrium and, more significantly, do not have to go through the effort and the hard-yards of actually having to rig it.


So, in recent months, as the BNP pushed its demands, the government never had any real reason to concede. It suited the Awami League down to the ground for the BNP to boycott.


Intriguingly, the government’s harsh and country-wide crackdown on the BNP (following violence during the opposition's October 28th, 2023 rally) effectively took out of the opposition party’s hands the decision whether to participate or not. In the past six weeks, the police have arrested and jailed as many as 20,000 leaders and activists – including large numbers of its national and local leadership resulting in many more thousands going into hiding to avoid arrest. So, even if the BNP had been thinking of changing tack and taking part in the elections, the crackdown would have prevented it from doing so. A cynic might claim that the crackdown was designed to make sure that a non-contested election took place!


So to the surreal theatre that is now described as the country’s election.


With no opposition, the government needs to achieve several things. First, it needs to create the appearance of a contested election.


This is of course hard to do when no opposition parties are taking part. However, the Awami League government is very keen not to repeat what happened in 2014, when in over 150 of the 300 parliamentary seats, an AL alliance candidate stood uncontested, effectively ensuring that the party had won the “election” before it had even taken place.


The government had hoped to avoid this recurrence by peeling off enough disgruntled (or otherwise incentivised) BNP politicians away from the party who would then stand at the election representing newly created “opposition” parties. But apart from in a few cases, this strategy failed.


As a result, the Awami League has been forced to encourage Awami League politicians who were not chosen by the party to be official candidates to stand as “dummy” independent candidates against the party’s official candidates. “Dummy” is not my term, but a term used by the Awami League politicians themselves – reportedly also by the prime minister – in setting out the strategy to its own politicians.


Second, the Awami League needs the pretence of an opposition party and has (yet again) chosen its ally, the Jatiya Party to take this role. However, it seems that the Jatiya Party were in two minds about taking part in the election and reportedly needed a visit from DGFI, the country's feared military intelligence agency, to stiffen the party’s backbone. Only then, reportedly, did it finally agree to take part. This has echoes of 2014 when, before that election, the then leader of the Jatiya Party, General Ershad, was picked up from his home by security services and detained in a military hospital to make sure his party took part in the election.


However, how does the Awami League ensure that the Jatiya Party wins some seats in the election? In what is a very odd/surreal/absurd concession to what is supposedly an “opposition” party, the governing Awami League has withdrawn its own official candidates in 26 seats so that the “opposition” Jatiya party has a free run.


Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, the party needs a relatively high turnout to give the impression that the citizens of Bangladesh believe this to be a legitimate election. It also needs a large section of these people to vote for the Awami League, giving them a way to argue that the party has a mandate.


What does the Awami League need the turnout to be? When the Awami League boycotted the February 1996 election, there was a 28% turnout, and in 2014, when the BNP boycotted the election, there was officially a 39% turnout (though others put it much lower) . The Awami League would like at least to match the “official” 2014 turnout figures.


The Awami League does have a significant electoral base within the country, but it remains very unclear how sizable that is – and the party itself is also far from sure. Also, the Awami League knows that many Awami League supporters might not want to vote when the election is uncontested.


And this is where I finally get to the most important part of this article. No doubt, the governing party can fiddle with the vote tallies so it can announce a decent turnout – much easier to do where no opposition activists or observers are present to cry foul – but the AL wants there to be long queues of people voting. “You see,” they want to be able to say. “Look at all these people voting. This is a truly participatory election.”


The Awami League seems now to have a plan for this. And it involves threatening millions of people with loss of their entitlement to financial benefits if they do not go to the voting centres on January 7th.


According to the ministry of finance, in 2022/23, around 12.8 million people receive social benefits. In addition, 19 million people now receive stipends to support enrolment of primary and secondary school children. It can be a very political process to get on these lists and Upazilla chairman – practically all 473 of them belong to the Awami League - play a key role.

Where is the evidence of this? Videos of meetings from Upazilla chairman, to local Awami League leaders, and to members of Awami League's national advisory council. 

In one video of a meeting, the Faridpur Union Chairman says:


“If individuals receiving social welfare benefits from this government do not go to [centers] to vote in the [January]

7th elections, then this [Union] Parishad will try its utmost to deprive them of those benefits.”


In another video, Ramesh Chandra Sen, a member of Awami League's advisory council and a member of parliament from Thakurgaon-1 made similar threats at a public meeting:


“The floating voters of BNP must cast their votes. If you do not participate in voting, and if you are beneficiaries of various government programmes, then your names will be removed from the list. I stand by my words. I have added names, and I'll remove them. If you go to the polling centres, the centre committee members, including the president and general secretary, will be present, and they will take note of your attendance. Everyone will be accounted for, and actions will be taken accordingly if you choose not to vote.”


And again, the Awami League president in Lakshmirchar union in Jamalpur said at another public meeting:


“I want to address those who are enjoying the government allowances through the UP chairman and members. The chairman is going to call you at the primary school ground soon. You all will have to come. And if you do not turn up, you will be identified with the help of video footage and your allowance cards will be cancelled after the vote. I am saying this in the presence of the chairman himself.”


The Awami League is getting its message out, not just at public meetings, but no doubt through word of mouth: “If you do not go to the voting centres, you risk losing your financial benefits.”


Including those who get education stipends, this amounts to around 30 million people.


It is important to remember that the people who get these benefits or should get these benefits are amongst the most vulnerable people in society, depending on this financial support, and one can see how such threats could hit home. Threatening people with loss of benefits unless they vote is a Machiavellian, and no doubt illegal, technique to get long lines outside voting centres.


The whole process of this election is embarrassing for the AL and for the country itself, but the party does not care as long as it stays in power. The new government will easily withstand criticism from the Western democratic world, which going by previous elections, will be relatively low key, and will not result in any significant negative repercussions. Moreover the party has the strong support of India (as well as that of Russian and China) who have made their support for this "election" drama very public.


It will soon be business as usual – and yet another victory for secular authoritarianism.


*First published in Netra News - for international audiences - for Bangladesh

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