Monday, October 09, 2006

The New Arithmetic: 1+1= -53

This is the "director's cut" of my article that has appeared in today's Daily Star. The printed version is available if you click on the title of this post. Happy reading

Basic principle of democracy is the right to choose. Our vote is an indication of who we want to represent us in the Parliament and hence in the decision process that govern our life. The biggest learning that I have taken out of Mr. Nazim Kamran Choudhury’s recent article [Prothom Alo & The Daily Star 6th October 2006] is that the vote base of all our major (and not so major) political parties have eroded to an extent that “undecided” voters account for up to 53% of the electorate. This figure is apparently reflected in many such opinion polls. For the first time in Bangladesh’s young democratic life we are heading into a poll that in theory is going to be decided in the polling booths.

It does not take a political pundit to analyse the rational behind this phenomena. We the voters have lost all faith in our politicians. The current leadership, which have been, pretty much ruling the roost for the last four decades have allowed their parties to become bankrupt of political ideology. To a common voter neither party offers any clear-cut choice. Hence while BNP has lost this support base so has the Awami League. The AL, though not in power, has seen their vote base almost half from 40% to mere 23%. So when majority Bangladesh’s electorate step into the polling booth next the choice will be between for lesser of the two evils.

As Mr. Choudhury predicts, AL might come out on the top with a very clear mandate indeed. One however fears that they will translate this victory as an indication of support for their politics. Far from it. The result will only be a clarion call of people’s anger with the incumbent’s notoriously inept handling of governance and the economy. The voters are not saying that AL will be better masters, rather that BNP will not.

I am an advertising practitioner. In my job it is paramount for us to find out the unique positioning for my product, making it stand out to the consumer. I cannot think of any brand that has been successful in marketing itself by saying “you have no other choice but to use me!” AL seems hell bent in doing just that. Since being sent to Jatiya Sangsad with an increased vote base in 2001, they have not played role of a constructive opposition. If we are to look at their policy in the last 5 years, it has been mostly based on removing a democratically elected government through street protests. Can anyone tell me what has their policy stand been on Education, IT, Tax Ombudsman, Environment, FDI, or anything other than mis-guided notion that BNP party has no legitimacy to rule? In a parliamentary democracy the role of the opposition is to be that of a government in waiting. Their shadow cabinet’s main job is to critique (as opposed to only criticise) the Treasury bench. They are to match policy to policy, statement to statement, and paper to paper the Government on all fronts. AL has failed in that job. Now I am not at all saying the Government has been remotely capable of handling their responsibilities. But come election how do I judge which box to put my seal on?

Ideologically, conventional wisdom says that AL is left of centre in their political belief. And that BNP is right leaning. However if you are to analyse that manifesto of the two parties, it will be difficult to decipher any difference between the two. If you are to look at the speeches of the leadership of the two parties when they are not spilling venom against their bitter rivals, you will see an uncanny similarity in their thought process. It seems that we have entered into an Igloo Ice Cream Parlour and all the choice we have is vanilla or vanilla.

AL today has been given a historic chance. Given the fact that 10 million more people will come into suffrage by next elections, AL’s mistakes of mid-70s is no longer a deciding factor in voting for (or against) them. The slate has been wiped clean. If AL can show maturity, if they can show that they actually have sound political motives, if they can show they have the positive roll to play in our future, the mandate that they get when the election results are announced will give them the foundation to rule the nation into the foreseeable future.

There is as always another way of looking at the “new arithmetic” that Mr. Choudhury wrote about. In advertising we always look out for a consumer need-gap that can be filled. Many brands have been extremely successful exploiting this demand by tailoring their message to suit this need. Our political arena offers such an opportunity. We have lost faith with the two brand leaders. We do not believe in their message. Look at it this way; say if the leading brand of shirt is no different from the second brand, and if both the shirt brands are talking about fashion while their buyers want comfort. Then is it not the perfect time for a third brand to come in and say “we are the most comfortable brand?” What I am getting to is that the field is wide open for a third party to emerge to fill the void left by our current political parties.

So who will bell this cat? Let us look at our usual suspects:

Jatiya Party and General Ershad: JP’s vote bank has according to Mr. Choudhury’s survey reduced from 7 to only 4%. They have become a regional party without the political capital to become a phoenix.

Jamaat: JI too has been reduced to oblivion. Mr. Choudhury predicts but one seat in the next elections to them. It seems the party is caught between a rock and a hard place. Their fundamentalist vote bank is abandoning them for the far right Islamist movements like JMB et. al. While at the same time they are failing to attract the mass voters because of this extreme image that they have.

Bikalpa Dhara / Gono Forum: Bikalpa Dhara showed initial promise. In their first set of posters that they printed, had both Sheikh Mujib and Ziaur Rahman on the same page. But since then it has been downhill. They have not been successful in making themselves noticed outside the diplomatic belt of Gulshan and Baridhara (and of course Munshiganj). Gono Forum, which was to AL, what Bikalpa Dhara is to BNP, has failed to even win a single seat they have so far contested for. In 1996 election, their leader, the much-respected Dr. Kamal Hossain lost his deposit from an “intellectually enlightened” constituency like Dhanmondi. And now to top of all this they have strategically aligned themselves to the AL and hence in the eyes of the voter have blended in with their more stronger partner.

Oli Ahmed: Does anyone still doubt if Col. Oli will bolt from the BNP once the caretaker government takes oath? It is believed that he will take with him a sizeable number of dissident BNP leaders. Mostly they will be the old guards who have lost all their standing under the rising influence of the young turks of the Hawa Bhaban. Col. Oli and his merry men have the distinct possibility of becoming the defacto opposition in the next parliament, with it the power to influence policy in the new era. But for this to happen, they have to play their cards just right. A lot depends on how many seats they can get for themselves through a tactical alliance with the AL.

Civil Society and/or the Army: One scenario that no-doubt will be playing in many political conversation in the next few weeks will be what might happen if the on-going talks between BNP-AL fail. Let us explore a possibility. Say, both AL and BNP refuse to budge from its position on Justice K.M. Hassan. Surely law and order will break down forcing the President facing a constitutional crisis to call on the Armed forces to restore order. The Army are reading the same polls as we are. The people are exasperated with the politicians and will not mind for some authoritarian spring-cleaning. The men in green might call for a national unity government, manned with civil society leadership and look at a longer time horizon till the next elections. The international community will make the required grumblings about the need to return to democratic rule but in essence, looking at popular support behind the new government, not do much to add power to their “official” stand.

The “New” BNP: Let us say we are now in middle of first quarter of 2007. Elections in Bangladesh have taken place and as predicted by Mr. Choudhury, BNP has between 60 and 70 seats in Jatiya Sangsad. Most of its leadership having either lost the elections or having defected, is in disarray. The new AL government moves with vengeance to prosecute the reported corruption of the current young leadership. The party will be ripe for the taking. If Begum Zia has even a fraction of political acumen, she will allow new “clean” leadership to replace the stooges of dubious moral standing being currently promoted by her son. Many from the pro-business caucus find BNP more attuned to their needs than AL and may flock to a re-emerging BNP. Once purged of corrupt self-serving overlords the party can get back to re-energising their base. Rajiv Gandhi successfully did something similar with the Bofor’s Scandal hit Congress party in India after their disgraceful loss to VP Singh.

The “New” AL: Like in BNP, AL too has seen a power struggle between the young and old guards. I am not a betting man. Otherwise my money would be on Saber Hossain Choudhury and him bringing in the Chattra and Jubo League under his belt. And use this as a base to fire up the new entrants to our voter rolls. Let us hope good sense prevails and from the midst of the negativity that is everywhere now, they become the harbinger of positive politics.

Generation 71: The average age in Bangladesh is 21. Vast majority of our population were born post 1971. Sheikh Mujib, Generals Zia and Ershad and all their politics do not mean much to us. While they have their rightful place in our history, we look at our leaders to bridge us to the future and not be lost in our past. Many of us are well educated with degrees from the best institutes of learning from across the world. We see a dream of a strong Bangladesh. We see the hope of a successful Bangladesh. We believe in the promise of a prosperous Bangladesh. I will not be surprised if we soon say enough is bloody enough, it is now our turn to rule. You only need to talk to anyone under the age of 40 today to see that not only does this generation of leaders march to a different beat; they have decided to take altogether a different route to Bangladesh’s future.

Many possibilities. But two things as we see today are certain. Firstly the eventual master of our destiny will be the one who speak and believe in the language of hope. Secondly the politics of the next six months are going to be crucial in deciding what the long-term future of each of the political party is going to be. We are indeed looking at a new arithmetic. Let us now hope our leaders can add.


Shameem Ahsan said...

I think it’s high time for Generation 71 to lead Bangladesh in its challenging journey towards being a developed nation by the year 2025.

How many times we have told that Bangladesh will always remain a third world country? How many times we have put our most treasured dream (of Bangladesh as a developed nation) aside and sought refuge in filmy excuses and blamed our politicians for all our sufferings?

We deserve much better. Our dreams are ours for a very good reason and they deserve to be given life. The future of Bangladesh is uncertain and that means we can it make as beautiful as we can.

Now is the time to apply what we have learned from past experience, and to make Bangladesh an even brighter place. Now is the time to do something about not just the symptoms, but the fundamental causes of our difficulties.

William Jennings Bryan has rightly said “Destiny is not a matter of chance; it is a matter of choice. It is not something to be waited for; but rather something to be achieved.” Let us all do whatever needs to be done to give life to our precious dream.

Tanvir said...

personally I m too tired to watch the shuffle of political power between AL and BNP. I certainly hope something new, some new leader and true patriot , to take the charge of this country's destiny. let's hope for the best.

Anonymous said...

Please read this interesting piece from:International CrisisGroup on:

BNP. The BNP knows that even if it gets the same vote
as in 2001 it cannot win on its own. Alliances and seatsharing deals are central to its efforts to keep a favourable balance of power. Apart from maintaining its current coalition, it has pulled off a minor coup by persuading General Ershad to bring his Jatiya party into the alliance.

The BNP also wants to use the election to groom the next generation for leadership. It has some reasons to feel confident: it has managed the economy reasonably enough, kept its core support base (such as the urban middle classes and army) roughly on board and has won popularity with RAB.
However, doing well in the elections will be a challenge.It probably fears support has declined, partly as a result of anti-incumbent sentiment and partly as a backlash against specific policies. The fact that some of the greatest sources of public displeasure, such as poor electricity supply and
lack of basic facilities, can be traced directly to corrupt and shoddy procurement may eat into its middle class and business community support base.190 Analysts suggest it is also worried about a loss of popularity: “Tareq [Rahman;Khaleda Zia’s son and the BNP’s election coordinator] commissioned three polls last year. Each one showed them facing serious losses. So they’ll surely put the machinery in place to rig the elections”.

Addressing these challenges may encourage a manipulative approach on procedural issues. Attempting to rig the polls may appear an attractive option if it feels genuinely threatened. However, it needs to achieve all of its goals without: (i) being seen internationally as coddling terrorism; (ii) appearing blatantly to steal the election; (iii) having the military intervene directly; (iv) giving too many seats to the Jamaat or other “kingmaker” parties; and (v) creating so much economic insecurity that foreign investors get scared. These add up to a serious constraint and may restrict it to seeking marginal advantage by, for example, playing for time in negotiations over the caretaker government (especially if legislative changes are needed)
and bargaining hard over seat allocations right up to
October (perhaps using public antipathy to terrorism as leverage over Jamaat).

AL. The AL is confident that it remains the most popular single party and can benefit from the anti-incumbent mood. However, it is increasingly nervous about electoral manipulation and feels it has no alternative but to take to the streets. Many leaders believe that a replay of 1996 is possible: that a boycott could lead to a fairer election it could win. There are, however, quiet fears that pushing onfrontation to the brink might encourage an otherwise
reluctant military to step in.

The AL will continue to argue that the BNP has not only failed in its counter-terrorism efforts but is part of the problem. It will increase attempts to cherry-pick new party members and coalition partners, including disaffected BNP members. But it has suffered one loss already: it might have had the most to gain from an alliance with Ershad’s Jatiya party but the BNP has beaten them to it.

AL supporters insist their party has always been closer to the people. They worry that the army doesn’t support them,192 but the party is still fundamentally unwilling to change how it does business and will struggle to build a positive platform. Trying to manage a large and unwieldy
fourteen-party coalition will not help.

Jamaat. The first priority for Jamaat is to ride out the storm of the militant arrests. The leaders know they are unlikely to increase their overall percentage of the vote significantly but they will still try to leverage advantages in bargaining with the BNP. The two parties still need each other, although the fallout from the March 2006 arrests may weaken the Jamaat’s hand when it comes to seat allocations.193 The BNP may reassess the value it
places on Jamaat’s support, especially now that it has
General Ershad on board. Even before this a diplomat
said: “I’m not convinced the BNP need the Jamaat as
much as they think they do”.194 Voters may also be turned off: “Jamaat doesn’t have much support here. When I speak to my neighbours, I think there may be some older men in the households who visit the mosque and mayvote Jamaat – but they seem likely to reduce their vote now. It’s the core cadre and those who are paid that will remain – Jamaat will lose floating voters”.
However, Jamaat may be able to turn the crackdown on
militants to its advantage, portraying itself as the
“responsible” face of conservative Islam. In any case it will continue to spread roots institutionally across Bangladesh: its strength is more than simply its ability to generate votes. And it will be keeping its eye firmly on the longer-term goal of gradually consolidating its influence by using other parties to its own advantage. “The Jamaat will be back down to seven seats if the BNP dump them.
So they’re very unlikely to leave the alliance, even if it drags them into a long association with messy government”.

Violence around the elections could come from the Islamist underground or from mainstream politics. A local AL activist worried about the militants: “The situation may deteriorate in the coming months. The terrorists will be used in the election run-up”.197 A more neutral observer supported some of these fears: “Active Jamaat and other Islamist cadres are very dangerous, they could do anything.
If the next elections are fair they won’t even get into the villages. But if they’re not fair it could be brutal. They have arms and could use them”.198 However, militant violence would only make sense if groups wished to harm the prospects of the Islamist parties and the BNP alliance.
“I’m not sure we’re going to see many attacks in the run-up to the election”, said a Western diplomat. “It’s too damaging – at least, if Jamaat really is linked to them”.

Unrest is more likely to originate in mainstream politics,especially if large street protests are met with heavyhanded security action. Bangladesh has plenty of precedents for such unrest and recent months have shown that just as the AL is still capable of mobilising large crowds, so are the police still happy to respond with lathi cane charges and
other tough action. The situation would certainly become more tense if the AL moved toward a boycott. Still, even this is not a definite trigger: “If there’s an acceptable caretaker government, there won’t be violence. Or even an unacceptable one – as long as neither party has power once the caretaker is in place. But after the elections is a
different question”.

The political elite on both sides of the BNP/AL divide
have too much invested in the current system to want it to collapse entirely. As a diplomat puts it, “it’s still too early to judge whether the political process could come off the rails altogether. Yes, all the signs are bad but the AL and BNP can’t afford it. They would be the big losers if the military had to step in or if you got a government of national unity, which brought the small parties to the fore”.
While both sides will no doubt use brinkmanship, it is
unlikely either would like to see the process fall apart.

The danger is more that their mutual antagonism may
provide the space for others who have no love for democracy or stake in the existing system to whip up violence. Finally, even if the elections have no procedural flaws, there is no guarantee the political process will have embraced all of its onstituents. “Even if electoral issues such as the election commission and caretaker government are fixed, this could leave out two constituencies:
religious/ethnic [minority] communities and women”, a
human rights activist emphasises. “There has already been an erosion of women’s mobility in the public and private sphere. And some sections of communities are being bypassed entirely, for example by being cut off the electoral roll”.202 Minority leaders worry that their problems will continue regardless of whatever deal may be reached to satisfy the major parties. “The election increases the heartbeat of minorities”, warns a Hindu activist.
“They will be prevented from going to court, will be
threatened, will be told not to vote…and if they do, it will be assumed they voted for the opposition. All of this –even torture – will not be disclosed in the media”.