Let’s be honest and declare what we all know: that we really don’t care what happens/ happened in the Gazipur elections. That is unless we are party activists whether of AL or the BNP. If so, we would care since it a ticket to power and the attendant perks.
But the majority of the people are not. Chances are the election itself will slide into invisibility soon after the winner is declared. It really even doesn’t matter who wins or loses at this point of time as the political party fates will be decided when the big one is held. Had the political process been established in Bangladesh, it would. Local and municipal elections matter in most places but had been gradually becoming more show than substance which fails to draw much interest attention.
A brief background of the malady of indifference
The malady that has made the situation like this began long back. It lies in the failure of political institutions to take root in the landscape. What the reasons are historical but little has been done to arrest the situation since our birth. As power plays have dominated politics, we are now in a situation where politics let alone elections don’t matter to most. Our history of participatory governance has not happened making the road to power a non-political matter. And because people are absent from the process it’s only natural that people would not be interested in what doesn’t concern them.
The foundational years saw major body blows to the conventional system which included one-party rule followed by martial law. No matter what its partisans say they can’t be considered as political progress. One party rule was not popular, military rule was not popular period. But more importantly they were destructive of the system from which Bangladesh failed to repair or recover. Thus the path to a simpler goal of participatory elections and processing power through consent never gained momentum.
Over time, the degradation of both political and constitutional bodies have contributed to a situation where ruling power groups see advantage in the electoral process but not in public participation. Hence, in a political culture where parties see no advantage in voters having a say will naturally jettison the least important element in the equation- the ordinary people.
Our survey on elections, democracy and poverty alleviation
In 2006, we did a survey study on the perception of elections by the voters and if they thought elections would lead to a better life. This was done on behalf of donors who were funding election observing. The major issue was to see if people saw a link between political and economic development. After a national sample survey we found 5 major points:
1. People didn’t think that elections could lead to poverty alleviation or their economic development
2. People felt that the candidates all were from the same class who were well connected and powerful.
3. They had plenty of money as elections required money. How that money was earned was always a question.
4. They expected the winners to become richer in future as power meant more money making.
5. There was not much difference between candidates and they expected that the winner would be looking after their own kind as to survive in politics they needed to support from their own groups. Upon asked why they then voted at all if they felt they would gain so little from elections, their answer was that for a few days, the candidates cared about them though they tended to neglect them after the elections were over.
When asked how they would explain the big rallies and voting on election day, the respondents said that it was like a holiday with lots of fun and food, noise and colour and so on. “It was like an Eid mela,” said one. One goes to an Eid mela to have fun not change the state of their life. Although the sponsor refused to release the report it exists and led to fund reconsideration for the election observer groups broadly though later it was rescinded.
This perceptional difference between the voters and the partisans is about power. To the parties, it matters as a meal ticket but to the voters it doesn’t matter for precisely the same reason. The beneficiaries of the electoral system are not the voter but the candidate. Given this equation, it’s difficult to get people involved in a process of which they are not part of. Which is why Gazipur didn’t matter or other elections may matter less and less.