Are we asking the right questions?

Asif Saleh

Published by the New Age on 22 Dec 2008.

Thailand’s Thaksin won a permanent vote base by courting the most underprivileged voters for the first time in Thai history. Without the middlemen, he directly reached out to them and made policies that favoured them. In today’s Bangladesh, this group is still not courted by any of the parties.

The last two years have been some of the most dramatic in Bangladesh’s short history. Fundamental tinkering of our fragile democracy has caused some lasting damage. However, if you look at the TV talking heads on the talk shows, you would think this election is no different than any previous one. There is incessant talk of election excitement and VIP candidate fights. It’s now fashionable to talk about ‘joggo’ candidates without defining what makes a candidate ‘joggo’. Fancy vote cars are running around in Bangladesh interviewing voters who never reveal their voting preference. Once the election is over, surely, the media and the public will get busy with who would be in the cabinet and who would be chopped. There will be talk about alliances, vote margins, star defeats and sms messages and letters. But the real issues that came out in the open in the past two years and need to be debated will again remain unresolved only to haunt us in the future.
Newspaper editors who just months ago were inviting General Moeen to declare himself the president of the country are now glorifying democracy under the two main parties that takes us to the path of ‘emancipation’. I stare at the television in disbelief as I see the editor, who shamelessly planted news items supplied by intelligence to discredit the politicians in his newspaper, questioning why industrialist Azam Chowdhury filed a case against Sheikh Hasina in the first place. Scarier than these people are the journalists who let these statements go unchallenged. Is this a case of collective amnesia or an art of repositioning in front of a silent majority?

How else would you explain Gen Moeen’s parting ‘interview’ where he boldly declared how great the military was for not declaring martial law in the country in spite of diplomats asking him to take over. In this one single interview, he admits what we knew all along – this was a diplomat driven, military controlled government. In one single breath he took credit for good governance while refusing to admit that military was running the show. Indeed, he rightly once said that Bangladeshis are kind at heart with a great penchant for forgiving and forgetting. They will forgive and forget him as well in no time for setting such a bad precedent that will pave the way for future interventions. They will forget how his mishandling has set back our political reforms process by years. Just like they have forgiven his predecessor General Ershad, the born again anti-corruption crusader. Or have they? Are the media asking the right questions or reminding the people what he had done in the past?
Of course, no one in these elections is talking about this elephant in the room. How would future generals with ambitions be dealt with? In all likelihood, this issue will never get talked about by the media or by the political parties only for this issue to resurface and haunt us again and again in the coming years. Similarly, we won’t talk about our identity, the role of religion in our society, the role of the media, the status of minorities in Bangladesh or even the kind of Bangladesh we want to see in ten years’ time. When you talk about a vision, that vision is engulfed with multinational jobs and talk of a ‘digital Bangladesh’. But missing from the vision is the pluralistic society we want to see in Bangladesh, how much bigotry we are willing to tolerate, how we are contemplating tackling the greatest crisis of global warming that is displacing millions of people in the coming years, or the future of the crumbling and partisan media. Missing from the discussion is the ever increasing socio-economic gap. What we are discussing, however, is the trial of war criminals: the safe, annual issue that gives good mileage, ones that don’t ever need to be followed up with action.
There is a lot of talk about the first time voters, however. How would they vote? The first time voters I know are very excited about a ‘no’ vote. But this can be a disaster if used without proper organisation? A no vote is a negative vote that needs to be organised by equal resources and mobilisation like that of candidates. Eight years ago in the US presidential elections, a lot of left-leaning voters said that it didn’t matter whether Gore or Bush got elected because they both stood for the same ideals. They voted for Ralph Nader instead which cost Gore the elections. Eight years later, we know that electing Gore would have made a difference, and a big one as well. The reality is that Bangladesh will see some very close elections this year and results in a few may decide which party goes to power. In that context, a ‘no’ vote is a waste unless more than 50 per cent vote ‘no’ forcing a re-election. Based on that can we afford an experiment with it in such an important election? If the candidates of the two major parties are bad, then I suggest we vote for an alternate candidate on the list. Ask yourself about your vision for Bangladesh and which party, judging by past records, would be able to implement that vision to the closest. Use the ‘no’ vote as your absolute last option. Please.
There are many among first-time voters who are unaware of the ‘no’ vote option. What is their thinking? Which way they go will decide the election swing. In all likelihood, their vote is going to be very much localised. They will not vote on issues but on gut instincts. They will vote based on their own security and risk analysis. Thailand’s Thaksin won a permanent vote base by courting the most underprivileged voters for the first time in Thai history. Without the middlemen, he directly reached out to them and made policies that favoured them. In today’s Bangladesh, this group is still not courted by any of the parties.
Only seven days left before the elections and there is not a single opinion poll available in Bangladesh yet. A leading news paper that did a poll with a lot of fanfare, did not ask the all important question ‘Which party will you vote for?’ This is perhaps also the biggest irony of this election. We have forgotten to ask the most important and obvious questions to the political parties.

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