On the face of it everything looks set for the upcoming general election. The quinquennial event, which is sometimes a put-on to remind us that we are living under a democratic dispensation, is likely to be held at the end of December. But that notwithstanding, all manner of questions continues to pervade the minds of the vast majority that are truly interested in a free, fair and participatory election.
Nobody doubts that there will be an election in spite of the several conditions the BNP has laid out and the mixed signals coming from various quarters within the party. The question is what sorts. We wonder whether the dichotomy that one saw during the 2014 polls, when the elections were held without dissolution of the parliament, would be resolved. How can there be polls for seats that are not vacant? There is also uncertainty as to the type of politics one is likely to witness after the elections dates are announced. And this worry stems from the nature of politics or the lack of it that we witnessed in the last five years.
For the BNP there is no alternative but to participate in the polls. With the gradual constriction of political space in the last five years, and shorn of all political status, with its sole claim to being the largest opposition party outside the parliament to flaunt, the party has willy-nilly become somewhat irrelevant. And for it, refraining from the election this time will risk it becoming a political non-entity altogether. This fact has ultimately dawned on the top brass of the party, at least on Khaleda Zia, who in January of this year had made her intentions about participating in the next general election very clear: that BNP will contest the seats in the parliament come hell or high water. But the absentee landlord of the party sitting in London, who for all practical purposes has rendered himself inconsequential in Bangladesh politics, continues to wield power and dictate decisions. One is confused as to what his stance is, with two different diametrically opposite versions appearing in the press on his stance on the next election. It would be a folly to stick to the long held position—no election without Khaleda Zia. Any tactic factored on Khaleda's fate is bound to be not only counterproductive for the party, but will also deal a severe blow to our democracy. It is only those who cannot see through the government's ploy to ensure that Khaleda Zia is out of all future political reckoning, who make BNP participation in the next election conditional on the release of Khaleda Zia.
It cannot be lost on the BNP that they fell into the AL trap, built on the strategy to keep the BNP away from the last elections. All the necessary conditions were created to ensure that the BNP took the bait, which it did, hook, line and sinker. It cannot miss even the very casual observer that the timings and the cresting of Khaled Zia's trial process, which picked up speed in the election year, may not be coincidental. Thus boycotting election would make matters smoother for the AL. There are other political parties of little credibility who are willing to take on the role of “domesticated” opposition, as they did in 2014.
But another trial, whose verdict is due early next month, is sure to have a very severe impact, I feel, on the election as far as BNP is concerned—that for the August 21 grenade attack. BNP's handling of the case has created grounds to infer that the party had much to hide from the public. And it will have much to answer for its rather crude attempt to kill the case.
As far as politics is concerned, that AL considers BNP a substantial threat politically even after it being in the political wilderness the last five years is evident from the actions and reactions of the ruling party. Not only was the BNP deprived of its basic rights to conduct political activities during the last five years, the large-scale arrests of its grassroots activists in the run-up to the election, charging people with BNP connections on ludicrously trumped up charges, so that the party is left without local leaders, leave little doubt that a level playing field in the next election will be a far cry for the opposition parties.
But the ruling party's lack of tolerance for opposition is not confined to the BNP only. Even the newly formed coalition was not allowed to take oath at the Shaheed Minar. AL has steadfastly refused to countenance any opposition voice, be it the students' or primary teachers' or general public forums', seeking to ventilate their grievances. Such a stance of party claiming to be a vanguard of democracy and people's rights is perplexing.
But another disconcerting aspect is that our national election has once again been externalised. BNP has thought it fit, reportedly, to seek UN role in the next election, an abhorrent proposition if true. And it is likely to visit the EU headquarters next month. While we are used to seeing our friends demonstrating interest in our elections, it is a pity that at times the political parties have solicited their role in elections. And a few have, obliged by exerting direct influence.
Elections there will be come December 2018—what kind is the million dollar question. A re-enactment of January 5, 2014 held under the inimitable Raquibuddin Ahmed and his band of election commissioners is not something anyone would like to see imposed on the voters. The AL, who has run the country interrupted for ten years, and whose achievements in many fields are worthy of mention, would do well to allow the democratic institutions to function without interference, put an interim arrangement of government after the schedule is announced, and let the people choose freely. Otherwise a re-enactment of 2014 may be validated in the court of law eventually, but will not pass muster in the court of public opinion. And that is what gives a government the moral authority to govern.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan ndc, psc (Retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.