Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Awami League Win: Flawless Victory

My predictions scored 1/3. At 33%, that's a fail. :P

The Victory

The Awami League won not by a landslide, but by an avalanche. They now control 87% of parliament at 263 seats out of 299.

This is unprecedented. In 2001, where allegations of some voter fraud were substantiated by local and international observers, the Awami League did not lose by this big a margin.

In 1996, the BNP did not lose by this big a margin.

The only other party in Bangladesh's history to undergo such a dramatic reversal of fortunes was the party of H.M. Ershad, the Jatiya Party (People's Party). He was a former dictator and president discredited for rampant corruption, and the Jatiya Party today is a shadow of its former self, relegated to its stronghold in North Bengal.

I genuinely hope a similar fate does not await the BNP; without a functioning opposition, a democratic government cannot be expected to function.

Is This Good or Bad?

The standard answer to a question like that is: a bit of both.

It's bad because we all know power corrupts. And in the world's most corrupt country, power corrupts absolutely. Without a functioning opposition, the Awami League will think it has a carte blanche, and attempt to do whatever it pleases.

You'll notice that in press briefings, Sheikh Hasina (or Khaleda Zia for that matter) is very limited in her praise for the elecotorate, the people who actually voted for her.

There is a disconnect in South Asian politics between the governed and the government. Those who come into power feel as though it was their right all along, and that this has simply been "restored" to them.

A bad side-effect, perhaps, of dynastic politics.

So yes, this is bad. The Awami League won a bit too much.

But it's really not all that bad, within the context of just the election.

This is a "known bug" within democracy. Yes, the common will can't always be depended upon to take the nuanced, correct route. People don't go protesting in the streets shouting "BE REASONABLE!"

But in bad economic times and incompetent governance, this is the rule, not the exception. In the US elections of 1928, Herbert Hoover and the Republicans came into power with 84% of the popular vote, a landslide. 4 years and a Great Depression later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat, won 88% of the vote.

Barack Obama won by a small margin in absolute terms, but he defeated John McCain very handily as US elections go. In bad times, people make large political moves toward "change", whether it be substantiated change or merely rhetorical change.

One should look at this huge shift in Bangladeshi politics less as a slight upon the institution, and more as a massive reprobation against the BNP-Jamaat.

Votes are binary, you either vote for someone or you don't. It doesn't measure the fact that according to a pre-election poll by the Pew Research Center, more than 70% of the electorate in Bangladesh is completely jaded by politics and have resigned themselves to more of the same no matter who comes into power. The high voter turnout is not a credit to the campaigns that were run by the Awami League or the BNP, but a credit to the enduring spirit of democracy among the people of Bangladesh.

Many people voted for the Awami League not because they liked them, but because they hated the BNP more.

Let's not forget, of the 4 years Bangladesh appeared as the most corrupt country in the world, the last year of Awami League rule in 2001 was the first, and set the precedent. The BNP-Jamaat merely ran with the baton for an additional few years until Nigeria and Afghanistan caught up.


They contested in 32 constituencies and won only 2 of them. Their party leader, Motiur Rahman Nizami lost his own constituency.

Quite frankly, I didn't expect this. I was under the impression that the Jamaat-e-Islaami had an entrenched voter base that would vote for them no matter what, and this now seems untrue. Well, you live and you learn.

It seems what most people really want is food in their stomachs and a roof over their heads. The failed anti-corruption drive of 2007 by the interim government discovered huge amounts of foreign aid stashed away in party leaders' homes, and this must have left a lasting impression in people's minds; it was, after all, stealing from the poor. Accompanied with massive inflation that, admittedly, they weren't responsible for, this must have been a concern.

What I found most amusing was that in Khulna-5, the Jamaat-e-Islaami candidate Miah Golam Parwar was running against the Awami League's Hindu candidate, Narayan Chandra Chanda. He was running a negative fear campaign, telling people to choose to vote between "the Quran and Narayan," no doubt using the rhyme to good end.

He lost by 35 thousand votes in a Muslim-majority area.

Fiery sermons and bigotry are the hallmarks of the Jamaat-e-Islaami in Bangladesh. These people colluded with criminal elements in the Pakistani army during 1971 war, and aided and abetted in atrocities against people they considered subhuman (the Hindus) or invalidly Muslim.

I'm ashamed that their party bears the name of my faith. Intolerant and hateful, they should be spurned and turned away, and I'm left wondering now how they even won 2 seats.

Well, that's democracy for you!

Give Credit Where Credit is Due

The quasi-military caretaker government (CTG) failed miserably at its anti-corruption drive. After separating the judiciary from the executive in 2007 (after the BNP promised it for 5 years without delivering), they pressured the judiciary into releasing all the candidates on bail in 2008, staying their cases so that they can contest in the elections.

They only caught a handful of bigwigs of corruption, and corruption is as much an institution in third-world Bangladesh today as it was in January 2007 when the CTG came into power.

The few that they jailed may serve as a deterrent for future politicians, but in reality, they are so few that it's more attributable toward random bad luck than people getting their just deserts. It's still uncertain which precedent will have a more lasting effect.

That being said, the CTG promised elections in calendar 2008. And they delivered.

This election campaign has been one of the least disruptive campaigns in the history of the country. Walls were not defaced with posters, banners and leaflets were suspended on ropes across the street giving it a festive feel.

The practice of "Mic'ing" (pronounced Mike'ing, where rickshaw-wallahs retrofitted with loudspeakers ride around town with a gruff voice blaring at high volume and high speed for people to vote a certain way) was limited to certain hours of the day so as not to disrupt or distract trade or commerce.

Campaign gatherings were limited to certain gathering points so as not to block traffic, and the street prosessions politely gave way to oncoming traffic.

The photo essay of the BBC shows an election atmosphere much like that of Eid, a festival, with people talking to each other while standing in line and sharing laughs.

Roughly 15% of the population is urban. Of these, most are from the villages, where they probably registered to vote. At 80% turnout, that means many people from the village actually travelled home to vote.

The enthusiasm and well-executed nature of this election is unprecedented. That's an achievement of the CTG, and something to be proud of.

Despite their massive failures in the anti-corruption drive and their "Minus Two" policy, this achievement alone is enough to redeem them.

Lets not forget, the very political parties that got voted into power in these elections couldn't make this happen.

The Future

I'm deeply concerned that the free and fair elections of 2008 will be the last piece of good news that's going to come out of Bangladesh for at least the next 5 years.

I'm not a betting man, but even if I was, all bets would be off. I'm hopeful and optimistic, but I'm going to prepare for the worst. The Awami League did a bad job between 1996 and 2001, and I have seen little to no indication that they'll change for the better.

The onus right now, though, is actually on the BNP. As most foreign media outlets put it, it really doesn't matter who wins, since policy-wise, both these parties are pretty much identical. What matters more is who loses, because it's the sore losers who agitate and paralyse the country.

But a man's got to hope.


About Me

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I write essays in my spare time on things that are important to me. The ones that I feel are any good, or make any sense, I put them up here. :)