For someone who gets a lot of flak, the comments of the Chief Election Commissioner this week, following a trip to Nepal to observe that country's upper house elections, are worth reiterating. "I do not believe that a fair election will be possible by showing off power on the streets," CEC Habibul Awal said, referring to the political leaders who have been engaged in a game of one-upmanship in recent weeks, saying that there will be a test of strength on the streets. We know that the two largest parties' secretaries-general have been aiming all kinds of attacks at each in the wake of the BNP's ongoing program of divisional rallies, that is set to conclude in the capital on December 10.
What the rallies have done is shaken the ruling Awami League out of an inevitable comfort zone following 13 years in power, and forced it to test out its own strength in terms of popularity among the people. As a sort of response to the BNP flexing its muscles, the AL has recently organised some rallies of its own. Indeed, on the day of the CEC's return, the prime minister was in Jashore, where she was addressing her first public rally in almost three years.
The AL chief, very much her party's electoral trump card, will address another rally at the Polo Ground in Chittagong on December 4 and at the Sheikh Kamal Cricket Stadium in Cox's Bazar on December 7, when she is expected to deliver more campaign messages and directives in the build up to what is shaping up to be one of the most important elections in the country's history - the 12th parliamentary election set for the fag end of 2023. These are expected to be important displays of strength on the part of the ruling party, to counter the narrative spun by the BNP of popular support for its demands pertaining to the elections - specifically, that they be held under the aegis of a neutral, caretaker government - based on the large attendances witnessed in their seven rallies so far.
But instead of focusing on the 'strength in numbers' or 'might is right' principle that can be, and usually is in this part of the world, the driving factor in field-level politics, the CEC urged all the parties involved to participate, and compete maintaining the rules and regulations pertaining to the elections. He tried to urge what he called 'healthy competition' among all the political parties.
Of course the worst thing about this focus on gaining and maintaining domination of the streets, is that it has deprived us of political competition based on a Battle of Ideas, of competing visions for the state between different political factions. It is interesting that even in neighbouring India, it is our bordering West Bengal state, with which we share so much in common, where political violence tends to overwhelm all other forms of competition. It tells us that this unhealthy politics stems from deep roots in our history, stretching back to the pre-independence period. Widespread violence during the Bengal partition in 1905 followed by revolutionary movements under the banners of Anushilan Samiti and Jugantar are well known. After the British eventually left, the chequered history of democracy including the period under Pakistani rule and the stop-start experiences in independent Bangladesh have meant a healthy democratic culture of politics has never been allowed to flourish here. Is it too late to start down that road now? Let us hope not.
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