Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Will Elections Happen? Its just one month to E-day!

I am not a betting man but if I were, my money would have been on the ‘not bloody likely’ camp. Well at least not on the designated 18th December ’08 date. - And before everyone jumps on me, I am not at anytime suggesting that this is a good thing. Just that given how things look, it is highly unlikely.

Standing at just one month to E-day one surely needs to ask the question "Why?"

Well let's see who benefits and who doesn't. And then try to work out who will want the elections and who will pull out all the stops to ensure it doesn't go through.

Here are the usual suspects:

The Caretaker Government (CTG): I think without a shadow of a doubt they want this election. I have a feeling that they have now just given up their "experimentation" of trying to re-engineer Bangladesh's political landscape. One botched attempt after and another showed to all and sundry that the powers that be do not have the political suaveness that would have allowed them to pull it through. Their political naivety ensured that today two years down the road, we are exactly where we were. What a wasted opportunity.

The Army: Conventional wisdom is that they (or atleast the top ranks) still call the shots and have always been keen to see polls and hand over at the earliest. Given the current situation and the several changes in the top echelon of the Armed Forces (side-lining many of the original players!) they have lost the plot. The leaders there do not see any benefit of sticking around longer. If they did, there were plenty of scenarios through which they could have delayed the dates significantly. General Moeen has pledge to the world that he wants the poll by the end of the year and as a man of his words, he will want it to happen. But, and a big but, it will be wrong to think of them as one cohesive unit. I am sure there will be elements within, specially amongst the rank and file who will think the reasons given for the takeover of 1/11 have not been fulfilled and will want to see it through to the end.

The EC: Of course they want it. They never were one who got into the political maneuverings that were hallmark over the last two years. I think they were honest in their purpose and went on a straight line towards their mandate of holding the polls at the end of the year. Yes they did put in reforms, but that was with the intention of making the process smooth. And do remember, unlike the CTG, the Election Commissioners do stick around after the polls.

The AL: They are sure of their victory. The only question that might be in their heads is, by what margin. The Bangla saying “gaachay kaathal gophey tell” (the equivalent English idiom being “counting ones chickens before they hatch”) is very apt for them. Top AL leaders have already started taking their position as the government in waiting. I say a bit premature and a lot overestimated but a victory all the same.

The BNP: This bunch knows that the chance of them coming to power are, at best, slim. They are unorganized, under funded, under manned and in a total disarray with political infighting in almost all districts. A lot of their leaders are in jail and many are on the run. With their bank accounts under watch, it will be very difficult for them to come up with a war chest that will allow them to win. The fact that they still haven’t finalized (some say even started on) their candidate list is a telling sign of what they think is the likelihood of the polls happening on schedule. Matter of fact the Begum in the first jonoshobha (public meeting) has gone on record saying that she, and hence BNP, does not believe the polls will be free or fair. She even presented a list of seven demands which if not met will result in them boycotting the elections. We all know that without the BNP (or for that matter AL) the elections will be meaning less.

The Jamaat: these boys are the sharpest, most organized group in the nation. Over the last two years while others crumbled, Jamaat used the time to re-group and strengthen their base. Being out of power allowed them to tighten the herd around a common enemy. At the same time they have been successful in stopping the loss to other hard(er)-line Islamist parties. Do they want the polls then? No! They have no chance of winning out-right. They know that. And they also know their alliance partners are not strong enough to win either. They know an AL victory will mean a witch-hunt against their leadership. War crimes, corruption, under-wrap business practices will all be fodder for the AL dominated Parliament. They don’t want that. So not having an election means that while they are not in power, neither is the AL. Lesser of the evils is an easy choice for them.

The Others: Jatiya Party, Bilkapa Dhara and the likes, know that wanting the polls is the best bet they have got. Firstly they appear democratic and have “face” in front of the foreign ambassadors. (Come on after all no one but our overseas friends give these parties any importance) But secondly (and more importantly) they know what they say or do will not change anything an iota. Election is after all good for them. Especially if the BNP does not contest and elections do go ahead, then they pick up a lot of the otherwise BNP seats. They can even hope to attract a large chunk of the BNP potential candidates who will look at self-interest before that of party directives. If they can swing say 85-100 seats that wouldn’t go to AL they become a voice with some legitimacy. On the other hand if the BNP does go to polls I am sure they will join the AL lead alliance into a Mohajote (Grand Alliance). Again contesting the 100 or so seats that AL never wins. Using AL’s small but loyal vote base in these constituencies and by picking popular locally strong candidates, they should be able to wrestle a large chunk of the BNP seats. Elections are win-win for them.

The Others II: Then there are another bunch of small political parties, mostly Frankenstein’s monsters (though that would be giving them too much credit) created over the last two years. They don’t want to go to polls. Even after all the help in the world they will not be able to score on an empty goalpost. For them Elections mean that their fa├žade will come off. The airtime on talk shows that they enjoy now will disappear. For them the upside is that the elections don’t happen and they end up wiggling themselves on to a National Unity Government of sorts.

The Foreign Friends: I will be surprised if they are even awake. Most of the players during those days after 1/11 are long gone. Replaced in most cases by career bureaucrats. Their knee jerk reaction is that Elections equal democracy. Hence there should be a transfer of power by end of the year. Anything else they will not be able to justify back home. But then who is bothered in Washington, London, New York or Brussels? The World Financial Crisis, two Wars, domestic power struggles mean that Bangladesh is off the radar. Other than to say “Elections equal democracy” I don’t think they will do much. Exception to this is our closest neighbours – the Indians. Over the last two years they have seen a series of terrorist bombings, which they have blamed on Islamist terrorists trained and supplied from Bangladesh. If political uncertainty continues no one is around to crack down on these fundamentalists. On the other hand they would be quite right to believe that an AL government will be open to clamping down on these groups.

The Business Community: Uncertainty is never good for business. Only thing worse is the CTG. Without a plan or an understanding of how business operates this Government has hurt business. Matter of fact it has brought the economy to its knees, gasping for breath. The business community knows at more of the same means an inevitable collapse. For them anyone else is better. The new government doesn’t have to be clean, nor do they have to have a large mandate, as long as they leave business to it’s own devices, they will be happy.

The Media: Well either way I believe their business sense says they will win. But being our conscious, they are more than the bottom lines for their owners. The media in Bangladesh is usually free, fair and not shy to speak their mind. It will be difficult to generalize their attitude. One group lead by a less than prominent English daily and few of the political mouthpieces has openly and vocally criticised the CTG. They will want the elections (barring I guess the BNP papers!). Then there will be a group who will say they want the elections but certain obligations need to be met before hand. In any case I do not see the majority supporting any elections where either of the big political parties boycott.

The General Public: Stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea! The euphoria of 1/11 is long gone. To them CTG and the last two years means nothing other than spiraling costs, loss of jobs and an uncertain future. Worst is that the last two years of wasted opportunity means that the appetite for political change is gone. I am afraid they will want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. By rightly blaming this CTG’s ineptness they will wrongly say reforms don’t work. They will as always be optimistic in their hope that political leadership has reformed and will deliver them to the promised land. At the very least, they believe that the excesses of previous political will be stemmed or will take a while to restart. People want elections but they are not excited about it. Amongst Dhaka’s talking class there seems to be this resignation to the fact elections will not happen, or even if it does, nothing will change. Even people in the know within both parties are confessing to this off the record. And amongst the masses out in the districts, there isn’t any palpable enthusiasm about the upcoming elections. The excitements of a political race are missing. The promised devolution of power hasn’t happened and the CTG has already compromised by delaying the Upazilla elections after the National polls. This is on top of the fact that the elation of having MP candidates sent up from grassroots has turned out to be a farce. Only thing that both AL and BNP seems to agree on is that leaders despite being convicted, charged or on the run should be allowed to contest. Is there such a lack of leadership in the grassroots that in a country of 160 million we can’t find 600 people who don’t have a criminal record?

The Me: I am basically a believer in democracy. But in those days of October 2006, I was amongst many who found themselves in a bit of a quandary. We didn’t want elections. And that was because we didn’t equate democracy to an election. We knew we needed to take a hard look at our constitutional framework, political systems and institutional structures before we could truly call ourselves a working democracy. We embarked with zeal and enthusiasm down a path that we had hoped would bring us a stronger, more inclusive, more tolerant and, simply, a better society. We not only stumbled and hit roadblocks, we soon realized we didn’t have the map in the first place and the guide we chose never knew the path himself nor was keen to learn. Now we stand somewhere in the jungle, knowing that Shangri-La is out there but don’t know how to get there. Night is upon us. And there are hungry wild creatures nearby. And our traveling companions are cannibals!

To come back to my original question, will elections happen on 18th December 2008? Well in the above bishlaychon it seems that all stakeholders of significance but BNP-Jamaat Alliance wants the poll. But in our confrontational I-am-always-right politics, the sword (hartal and bhangchur) is mightier than the pen (tipshoi). The greater good of the nation is only a minor obstacle to ones self preservation. If the BNP (or on the flip side AL earlier) does not want something, it doesn't happen. Hence the answer to the million dollar question is a resounding a "No!" Care to wager on that?