Popular apathy towards elections a sign of institutional shortcomings in Bangladesh?

Fracturing political institutions like the Election Commission, Parliament and the Judiciary are also responsible for the popular apathy and political decay in Bangladesh, writes Akmal Hossain for South Asia Monitor

Akmal Hossain Feb 15, 2020
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An election is among the basic postulates of democracy, providing legitimacy to rulers to govern their respective countries. Military dictators, for example, who acquired state power through bloody or bloodless military coups since the beginning of the decolonization process between the 1950s and 1980s, particularly, adopted at least two measures to legitimise themselves and their regimes. First, they arranged an election and secondly, they formed a political party. From General Ayub Khan in Pakistan to General Zia ur Rahman to General H M Ershad in Bangladesh, all followed this formula to become legitimate rulers.

Recent elections to city corporations in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, on February 1, 2020, saw a voter turnout of barely 15-17%, according to the Prothom Alo newspaper, while the election authorities said it was less than 30%.

Perhaps the low turnout reflects apathy towards local city corporation elections. Though political violence was comparatively lower than previous national or local elections, many people were uncomfortable and unfamiliar with electronic voting machines (EVM) and the presence of the ruling party members in most polling stations and booths. Many voters even returned home without casting their votes.

People are repeatedly asking why people did not cast their votes in recent elections. The simple answer is that it is not easy, because of separate ideological setups, socio-economic backgrounds and so on. Some people argue that due to economic prosperity and improved living standards, people are no more interested in politics. They are now concerned about economic well-being instead of politics.

Atiqul Islam, the newly elected mayor of Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) remarked: “The country is moving forward. Like developed countries, people are losing interest in casting their vote.” Obaidul Qader, general secretary of the Awami League (AL), the country’s current ruling party, voiced a similar sentiment.

Other analysts argue that the fabricated political culture and violence, vote-rigging and lack of trust in the Election Commission, that has failed to retain its credibility among people because of perceptions of bias and favouritism and reluctance to enforce electoral norms and laws equally for all, is responsible. The lack of a level playing field has created distrust about the entire election system.

Globalization has seen an evolution in the concept of global liberal democracy - the word has many meanings. After the fall of communism in the early 1990s, the democratization process that Political Scientist S P Huntington called the "third wave of democratization" had started. Ample evidence is available to indicate that the democratic journey of Bangladesh was the consequence of the 1990s global democratization process.

Larry Diamond, eminent democracy theorist, states that "democratic recession" begins in 2006. Since then, democracy and its values are retreating across the world and Bangladesh, run by a military caretaker government, was part of that curve.

If economic prosperity is responsible for generating apathy towards politics and elections, then why has this not taken place in the USA and other developed countries? In the 2016 US presidential election, for example, the voter turnout was more than fifty percent.

According to an NPR report, 56% of Americans earning less than $30,000 a year did not cast their votes. Among those who earn between $30,000 and $74,999 a year, that figure was 38%. Fewer highly educated Americans did not vote, 37%, against 51% of high school-educated voters who did not cast their votes in the 2016 election. Among developed countries like Sweden and Belgium, the voter turnout rate is 80%. This evidence indicates that more educated and well-off people have sympathy for politics than the have-nots.

Income inequality which is growing in Bangladesh is another reason for unhappiness toward politics. Fracturing political institutions like the Election Commission, Parliament and the Judiciary are also responsible for the political decay in Bangladesh.

Moreover, a lack of understanding about the importance of politics and lack of knowledge about our rights and duties to the state and nation are also responsible for rising apathy. An informed citizen knows about his or her responsibilities and rights towards the state. So, he or she can never forget to cast their vote.

Finally, the need is to strengthen political institutions instead of focusing on only economic prosperity. Alexis De Tourville visits the USA and praises its strong and vibrant institutions and civil society, while in the UK, mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance keep their democracy strong and protected from subversion. Such a development is required in Bangladesh; otherwise our development will remain fragmented and fragile.

(The writer is a post-graduate student of political science and independent researcher at University of Dhaka, Bangladesh)