Dhaka Courier

To let the ballot do the talking

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Getting in the spirit: National cricket team captain Mashrafe bin Mortaza purchasing AL nomination papers. (UNB photo)

In the end, the votes alone will count. In a flurry of activity, the Election Commission first announced, then deferred the date for the 11th national election to December 30 from the earlier set date of December 23. All in the space of four days. In doing so (the deferment) it was said to have given in to some opposition alliances’ demands, which threatened to overshadow the sense of occasion to the original announcement, which, lest we forget, was pretty momentous in itself.

Even in the post-1991 era, widely associated with the advent of democracy, Bangladeshis have been forced to endure two elections that fell abjectly short of resonating the will of the people. The principal way in which they fell short was in the failure to attract the people’s participation - without which any electoral exercise becomes pretty meaningless. Both dates have become immortalized in the country’s political lore, destined to live on in infamy. They bear repeating, only to the extent that the first - February 15, 1996 - was thankfully obliterated quickly enough. With the EC’s announcement of the election schedule, revised and all (and notwithstanding any further revisions) the country now stands to finally put behind it the second - January 5, 2014.

Make no mistake, even for those who benefited (some exorbitantly so) from the exercise that produced the 10th Jatiya Sangshad, the whole thing hung like an albatross around the neck. Countless are the times that the ruling Awami League’s stalwarts, all the way up to the prime minister herself, have been caught wishing it were different. Yet the signal failure of the BNP, their arch-rivals and the only worthy opposition in the country, in mobilising a grassroots level mass-movement that could drive home the point that such elections wouldn’t do, over the course of the last 5 years, means that the result not only stood, but also that the parliament it produced has served out its full term.

It also means that the AL has given itself the opportunity to correct the wrong on its own terms. One of the great things about democracy is its redemptive power, and for all the talk of a difficult reckoning, the smart money should be on the ruling party winning the favour of the people, as long as the election is a free and fair one, irrespective of the result. Over the last ten years, and particularly the second half of that period, it has been notable how Bangladeshis have exhibited a great interest in elections abroad, from Canada to Bihar. On each occasion, it is their yearning to have their own say at the polling booth again, like they did in 1991, in 1996 (second time around, in June), in 2001 and 2008, that shone through. And so there is scope for underestimating the sheer import of the date announced by the EC: as things stand now, December 30, 2018 is a date for the people of Bangladesh to re-establish their dominion, over the nation they have wrought. For better or for worse.

To be sure, much remains uncertain. Grave concerns abound over the electoral mechanism’s ability to fix itself, following years of disrepair. The principal agency tasked with ensuring that, the Election Commission, has not exactly inspired confidence since taking office in February, 2017. The opposing parties, that have organised themselves into a slew of alliances, harbour grave doubts concerning the intentions of the AL and its allies. It can be frustrating when your only way out of a predicament is to sign up for a game where the rules are set by someone else - that too someone you expressly distrust. That, after all, is the real poison that has been eating away at the fabric of Bangladesh politics for aeons now. The 13th amendment to the constitution, that provided for elections under a caretaker administration, was of course envisioned as a fix for that. The way things have played out, it is on its way to being discarded as a relic. Yet still only on its way we say, as opposed to done away with already, barring that one outstanding requirement: an election under a partisan government that the people can truly accept as free and fair.

That is the great challenge for the AL come December 30. And equally, its great opportunity. The challenge will fall to its base elements, that any government that has ruled for 10 years will inevitably gather. The opportunity though must be relished by the higher ideals it is so fond of extolling as part of a grand narrative, wherein it sees itself as the good shepherd, or perhaps more appropriate in their case, the rightful majhi at the nation’s helm, steering the nation toward a bright future, that is ever-brighter.

Over the last 10 years, it has painted that future by-and-large in the hue of development.  It is true that under their stewardship, the country has scaled new heights, certainly in terms of its economy - which has swelled from $102 billion in 2009 to over $250 billion today. Yet it is also true that the country was registering strong growth in the years preceding the AL’s decade-long run as well (touching 7.1 percent in 2007 under a caretaker administration), so it is difficult to attribute sole ownership to them. In any case, a number of polls have reflected the people value democracy and having a say in their own affairs far too much to be swayed by economics alone.

That is why, whether or not the AL know it yet, their greatest prize actually may lie in seeing through their grand vision for the nation to fruition: central to this vision is the belief that the country and its people can be trusted to govern themselves, and do so fairly. Given that the vast majority of democracies are capable of this, so too must be Bangladesh. There could never be any other justification for abolishing the caretaker government provision. Come December 30th, it is the AL’s opportunity to complete the picture, through the conduct of a transparent, even festive, obviously free-and-fair, and above all participatory election - one that cannot help but reflect the people’s will, with no need for any neutral supervision. Otherwise it all comes comes a cropper. Let us believe in our better angels. And meet at the polling station!

Field notes: Ground hotting up

Nov 14

A fierce clash broke out between police and BNP leaders and activists in front of the party’s Nayapaltan Central office here on Wednesday, leaving an unspecified number of people injured. Witnesses said BNP standing committee member Mirza Abbas along with his several hundred supporters  marched towards their party office around 12:40pm and started staging a showdown there, halting traffic on the road in an apparent show of strength.

Police tried to remove the BNP men from a portion of the road so that vehicles can pass through, but failed to do so. At one stage, they locked into an altercation with the BNP leaders and activists and started charging batons to maintain the law and order. BNP leaders and activists also started hurling brickbats at the cops, triggering a fierce clash between the two sides. A chase-and-counter-chase scenario prevailed till late afternoon. Police also lobbed teargas to disperse the BNP activists.

BNP leaders and activists also took position again in front of their office while party senior leaders were asking them to exercise restraint and not to respond to any provocation.

BNP assistant office secretary Taipul Islam Tipu told  our sister newsagency UNB that the clash broke out around 12:50 pm as the police were trying to obstruct their leaders and activists from gathering in front of their office. Traffic in the areas came to a complete halt following the clash.

As in the previous two days, thousands of BNP leaders and activists gathered in front of their office in the morning while many others started joining them in small processions until the clash began as the party continued the sale of its nomination forms for the third consecutive days today among those who want to contest the 11th parliamentary elections with its tickets.

Carrying posters, banners, festoons, placards and portraits of party chairperson Khaleda Zia, acting chairman Tarique Rahman and nomination aspirants, the party activists were celebrating the nomination sale.

On November 12, the party formally started the sale of nomination with the purchase of three nomination papers for its jailed chairperson Khaleda Zia. BNP sold 1,326 nomination papers on the first day while 1,896 ones on the second day.

November 12

The Commission published a gazette notification rescheduling the general election.

Different political parties and alliances, particularly Dr Kamal Hossain-led Jatiya Oikyafront and Dr AQM Badruddoza Chowdhury-led Juktafront, had been pushing for delaying the election as they said the election schedule was announced hurriedly.

Earlier in the day, Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) KM Nurul Huda at the EVM fair in the city announced that the parliamentary elections will be held on December 30 (Sunday).

According to the new reschedule, the deadline for submission of nomination papers is November 28, while that of scrutinizing nomination papers is December 2 and the last date for withdrawal of candidature is December 9.

As per the previous schedule announced on November 8 last, the deadline for submission of nomination papers was November 19, while the scrutiny date of nomination papers was November 22 and the last date for withdrawal of candidature was November 29.

On November 3, the Jatiya Oikyafront sent a letter to the Election Commission requesting it not to announce the next general election schedule until the political dialogue was over.

The CEC on November 6 said there was no possibility to delay announcement of election schedule. He, however, said the announcement date could be revised if all political parties agreed to do so.

During the second round of talks with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her 14-party alliance leaders on November 7, the BNP-led Jatiya Oikyafront called for arranging the 11th national election either at the end of February or in March next dissolving the 10th parliament.

The Oikyafront had been demanding the deferment of the election since the announcement of the election schedules on November 8.

Immediately after the announcement of previous schedule, Dr AQM Badruddoza Chowdhury-led Juktafront in a statement also asked the Election Commission to defer the polls by one week.

BNP, on behalf of 20-party alliance and Jatiya Oikyafront, formally sent a letter to the Election Commission on Sunday last seeking deferment of the polls by one month.

On the same day, Awami League general secretary Obaidul Quader said his party will have no objection if the election schedule is deferred but this should have to be done logically.

Later, on Sunday, the CEC said they would take the decision on Monday whether the schedule for the 11th parliamentary elections will be deferred or not.

The EC give in the demand of Oikyafront partially and that of Juktafront completely rescheduling the election.

The Election Commission is constitutionally obliged to complete the national election by January 28 next.

November 9

The ruling Awami League started selling the party’s nomination papers for the 11th parliamentary, one day after Chief Election Commissioner KM Nurul Huda announced the election would be held on December 23 (since revised to December 30).

AL General Secretary Obaidul Quader inaugurated the sale of nomination forms at AL president’s Dhanmondi political office at around 10am with the purchase of a nomination paper on behalf of the party President Sheikh Hasina, our staff correspondent reports quoting AL leaders.

Quader bought a nomination form for Sheikh Hasina, the leaders said. A day before the announcement of the election schedule, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina wrapped up week-long talks between the ruling Awami League-led 14-party combine and at least 80 parties under the banners of different alliances.

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