|2008 Elections: Why Are Voters Not Enthusiastic?|
|By Badrul Islam|
|Thursday, 01 November 2007|
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Bangladesh’s caretaker government has promised a return to democracy before the end of 2008. It has taken some steps in that direction that have been appreciated at home and abroad. The Election Commission (EC) and the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) have been restructured. Media reports state that ten percent of the work on preparing a voter list has been completed, with the rest on schedule. The government has also declared that local elections will be held prior to national elections.
Given that holding elections is the major mandate of this government, one would hope that citizens would be highly enthusiastic about the promised elections in 2008. But voters have been feeling nonchalant. I have interviewed many voters over the last month to try to understand what they want, and found that there are four main reasons for their apathy.
Reasons for current apathy
First, on the issue of voter registration, voters feel that the EC needs to clarify: (a) whether it will publish the completed Voter List for public scrutiny, (b) how an eligible voter, if left out, can still get registered, and (c) the eligibility and registration process for the non-resident Bangladeshis abroad.
Second, on the issue of the EC’s dialogue with political parties, voters feel that the EC needs to clarify what its course of action would be if (a) the dialogue with the politicians is not fruitful or is half-fruitful, (b) both the two major parties surprise the EC by insisting that their party chiefs (not yet convicted) be released for a while and be allowed to join the discussion. My interviewees have wondered if the EC Members are prepared to overcome such hurdles.
Thirdly, the ACC has filed cases against many senior politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats affiliated with politics, on various charges of alleged corruption and criminal activities. As many of these cases are mired in controversy, voters are eagerly waiting to know the ultimate outcome of this drive. Two very different political environments will exist in the country depending on either the ‘conviction’ or ‘innocence’ of the two party chairpersons.
Fourth, none of the political parties could in unison decide on: (a) the terms of internal reforms, (b) democratic procedures for selecting their candidates and presenting them to the voters and (c) their party agenda for the development of Bangladesh. The parties rightly allege that they cannot solve these problems with a state of emergency in force, since political activity and fundamental rights remain banned.
The example of Turkey
As a society increasingly divided between mainstream politics and the alternatives, Bangladesh can draw some important lessons from Turkey’s recent turmoil.
In April 2007, thousands of secularists protested loudly against the plans of Recep Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, to run for president, saying that it would be a victory for Islamism. Erdogan eventually decided to not run, but nominated Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul instead. The military and the secular opposition tried to block the nomination because Gul’s wife wears a headscarf, which to the ‘secular fundamentalists’ symbolized a danger to the country’s public values.
The ruling Islam-oriented Justice and Development (AK) Party refuted this claim and also denied that it wants to turn Turkey into an Iranian style theocracy. In the election campaign, the party highlighted its record of “strong economic growth, rising living standards and falling inflation.” Eventually AK Party the parliamentary elections in July, and then Abdullah Gul won the presidential elections in August as the AK candidate.
It was not AK party’s Islamic ties that gave it victory, but its emphasis on improving the lives of key constituencies, such as workers, civil servants, and retirees. Those who campaigned mainly on the basis of ideals, like Kemal Ataturk’s version of secularism, could organize strong rallies and had the backing of the military, but did not move the voters as much on election day. Of course the military could have intervened, declared an emergency, and then tried to shape politics—but that did not happen.
Ignite the spark
Turkey was a case of both conflict and enthusiasm. There are two lessons for Bangladesh. First, both politicians and the current caretaker authority should realize that elections are the only means nowadays to overcome a political crisis. A caretaker authority should not be stretched too far into policies and issues that should be resolved by legitimately elected political parties. Only parties know how to campaign close to voters’ doors and spark their enthusiasm through contest. The longer this is held off, the worse off we will be.
Second, winning or losing in elections will not be possible on ideals. Every election in Bangladesh uses talk of the liberation war and the so-called pro- and anti-liberation forces, and dwells on mistakes made a long time ago. This type of approach is a way to avoid dealing with current and future realities. Winning and losing will depend on an agenda that raises the hopes of citizens for an enriched and secured life. The new generation of voters will be swayed more by candidates who have the experience to formulate policies in education, health, agriculture, or other specific areas close to their lives.
So ultimately, the responsibility to ignite voters’ interest lies in both the current government and the conduct of the political parties. But the first step has to come from the government. Voters cannot be interested when politics is banned and their basic rights are suspended. Having divisive issues is not an excuse to keep politics suspended. As the Turkish example shows, divisive issues can even be good for voter interest, as long as they are solved through fair elections.
The 2008 elections for Bangladesh will be as important as the 1991 elections, if not more. They will need the legitimacy that strong voter response (not just turnout, but enthusiasm) can provide. Successful elections depend on strong voter response, and we hope the present caretaker government will fulfill its moral commitment by creating supportive conditions that would encourage voters.