On December 30 — voting day in the Bangladesh general election — The Dhaka Tribune has carried an article by political blogger Jyoti Rahman, which is quite sympathetic to the Jatiya Okiya Front, the relatively recent anti-Awami League alliance that has become a political force to reckon with in the country. “Harassed, threatened, beaten, bloodied, shot, arrested, family members arrested — yet, Jatiya Oikya Front is still spreading its message. Their grit alone deserves to be taken seriously. And Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir’s inspiring words are backed up by specific commitments that will return the republic to its people.”
Rahman argues in his article that in Bangladesh, politics tends to place individuals above institutions. After substantiating this through examples from the 1980s onwards — from HM Ershad to the Khaleda Zia-Sheikh Hasina “duopoly” — Rahman claims that: “For the first time in our political history, the focus is not on the individual. Mr Alamgir or Dr Kamal Hossain aren’t claiming to be the Messiah. Nor are they shouting hathao Hasina. They appreciate that simply changing the individual occupant of Ganabhaban won’t create a people’s republic in Bangladesh. They are asking people to vote their conscience, and if the voters give them the chance to govern, they have concrete promises that will go a long way towards institutionalising democracy.”
For Rahman, the centralising tendencies of the Westminster system are the great bane of Bangladesh politics, and the Jatiya Okiya Front holds the promise to change that. Their promises on human rights and the economy are also positively received by the article. But the most important point, for Rahman, is this: “There is a common refrain among the chattering classes in Bangladesh — both sides are bad, we have a choice between frying pan and fire, why bother. Jatiya Oikya Front shows how the fire can be turned down. They understand James Madison’s insight that governing institutions should be set up assuming that the devil might come to power, for if angels would need no rules to govern well.”
The December 30 editorial in The Dhaka Tribune urges the people of Bangladesh to go out and vote, while The Daily Star, on the same day focuses on the Election Commission and the need for a free and fair election. This election is, in essence, the first true measure of the peoples’ mandate in over a decade. The main opposition, the BNP, had boycotted the last election, giving the ruling Awami league a virtual walk over.
According to The Dhaka Tribune, “This election, then, should not be a one-sided affair, but one that is credible, free, and fair. But for that to happen, the people of Bangladesh need to go out to the polling stations by the numbers and cast their vote; and while the changes wish to see in the country may not happen overnight, voter participation is what will lay down the foundations that hold up our democratic ideals in the future. If voter confidence has been shaken in the past, full faith must now be restored to the electoral process, and for that to happen, we must not give in to the forces of indifference and apathy.”
The Daily Star, on the other hand, is less pious. After echoing the importance of this election, it points to the incidence of violence during the campaign and the controversies over the opposition parties being given seemingly less space to campaign. “The role of the Election Commission,” the editorial says, “has been, to put it mildly, questionable. It hasn’t taken any meaningful measures to address the concerns over a level playing field, or a lack thereof. The police, the role of which is crucial in ensuring fairness in the election, has not acted even-handedly either in dealing with the parties.”
The editorial also flags the “noticeably small number of domestic poll observers—one-eighth compared to the 2001 election—even as the number of polling stations has increased, and the increased restrictions on the media mean that the reporting of the conduct of the polls would be difficult.” In addition to the Election Commission, The Daily Star also places the onus of a free and fair election on the ruling party and government: “This election is going to be the first one presided by a partisan government, with the parliament remaining undissolved, and participated by all major parties. It is, therefore, an opportunity for the ruling party to prove that an election can be free and fair even under such a dispensation. If it can do this, the party will go down in history as the one that put to an end the notion that a partisan government can never hold a credible election in Bangladesh.”