By Ziauddin Choudhury
The elections of January 2014 brought about a maverick chapter in our democracy.
Preceded by nearly 100 days of strikes, road blockades, arson, and unsurpassed political mayhem, the elections had the lowest voter turnout on record (officially 38%, but 22% from international watchers).
More than half of the parliamentary seats were uncontested because the main opposition, BNP, boycotted the elections, leading to a ruling party domination by default and absolute majority in the parliament.
The opposition declared the elections a sham, international observers decried the authenticity of the elections, but the government prevailed, and a new government was sworn in railroading through the denunciation and condemnation.
The January 5 elections were held at a great cost to the economy and people at large. According to a report in the Australian press (quoting Bangladesh Human Rights group Ain O Salish Kendra) a total of 507 people were killed in violence in Bangladesh in 2013. The cost to the economy from strikes and blockades amounted to Tk11,000 crore the same year according to the World Bank.
For a long time, the trauma of violence and political virulence between the contending parties would remain around to haunt the nation.
The successful conclusion of the elections despite the fire and fury of the time was more due to the stoicism of the common people and their collective decision to stay away from voting — the low turnout proved that — than due to the ability of the government to conduct the elections.
The hostility and bloodshed over nearly a year before the elections had stunned people to numbness.
They had seen nothing like this in the decades before. The opposition wanted to acquire power by forcing the government to agree to their demands, and the ruling party wanted to retain power.
Ironically, all of the violence and mayhem were carried out in the name of democracy.
While the main opposition, along with an array of smaller opposition parties such as Jatiya Party led by General Ershad, boycotted the elections (although Ershad later reneged on his pledge not to participate), the government went ahead stubbornly with the elections.
According to statistics reported internationally, a total of 39 people died in the weekend of the elections either from violence or by police fire, and 150 election centres were burned by the opposition.
The opposition boycott yielded a bonanza for the ruling party which won 232 out of 300 seats in the parliament.
This was an unprecedented election in the history of the country as more than half of the seats were uncontested. For the first time we had a “democratically” elected parliament where more than half the electorate did not vote for their representatives.
The government that took over that day was not a successor government but a continuation of the previous government except that it went through a costly process of elections that were more a virtual reality than really real.
A major obstacle to holding a participatory and inclusive election again appears to be the BNP demand for an independent caretaker government to hold the elections — a demand that raises a red flag
People had already concluded that the elections were not for them, but between two parties and their acolytes who have anything but people in their mind. It was a play between two players for power where people were hostages.
Four years have passed since the extraordinary elections of 2014, and we are hearing the bells of another election in less than a year.
Although, in the initial months, there were speculations of a second round of elections to allay international criticism, the government successfully deflected these pressures primarily because there was not much internal pressure to hold another set of elections.
People were not ecstatic about having another series of violent encounters between government and the opposition. The external outcry for fresh inclusive elections also faded mainly because our big neighbour had actually endorsed the elections with its silence on this score.
As we approach a possible round of parliamentary elections in less than a year, we wonder if our political leaders and political parties learned any lesson from the violence of 2013 and the Pyrrhic victory of January 5, 2014.
What should be clear to anyone with hindsight and foresight are three things: One, people abhor violence and force in the exercise of their democratic rights to vote. Two, democracy is all about freedom of choice and freedom of expression. Three, these are essential conditions for holding any election.
Holding the elections in a democratic manner is the responsibility of the government; but the opposition has an equal responsibility to honour its obligations to observe democratic norms when asking for these elections.
These include not resorting to hostility to express its differences with the government or incite people to violence to attain its demands.
A major obstacle to holding a participatory and inclusive election again appears to be the BNP demand for an independent caretaker government to hold the elections — a demand that raises a red flag before the government. Our wishful thinking of an inclusive election may again fall on its face if the opposition sticks to its demand steadfastly.
There are many ways to resolve conflicts between political parties and leaders if the common goal is to hold elections peacefully and democratically.
But stubbornness or unwillingness to accommodate each other is not one of them. We have seen the terrible cost of such stubbornness in 2013-14. We do not want a reprisal of the past.
Let us hope that our leaders and the political parties learnt from 2014 and would be guided by not repeating the missteps of the past. Let 2018 bring a new awakening for them and for us as a nation.
Dhaka Tribune, January 6, 2018