Published in the Forum on January 2009
The Awami League has won the National Election 2008 by a stunning landslide for many solid reasons including some indefensible faults of its opponent. In a pre-election analysis Jyoti Rahman and I identified five decisive factors which were likely to determine the results of this election.1
In the absence of a credible exit-poll, this article revaluates those determinants and correlates them with the final election results to see exactly what happened on December 29, 2008.
These are the five reasons, all of them reinforcing, which together created the conducive environment for AL’s massive win.
In western democracies, election result always goes against the incumbent when 50 percent of the voters think that the country is not on the right trajectory. Evidently, Bangladesh is no different either.
As we mentioned in the pre-election analysis, 50 seats won by the BNP in 1991 went to AL in 1996, and 89 seats won by AL in 1996 went to BNP in 2001, showing a strong anti-incumbency trend in these constituencies.
We predicted that the party better situated to portray itself as the most anti-incumbent will gain these swing seats. The BNP leadership tried their best to portray themselves as the main opposition by fiercely criticising the caretaker government during the election campaign. Ironically, it rather backfired on them for a couple of reasons.
According to the Daily Star-Nielsen pre-election survey, 41 per cent of respondents thought that the major issues for the new government would be the price inflation, whereas another 14 percent though it would be corruption. This means that these are the same two issues that influenced the voters when they cast their ballot. To elect the best party to handle these two issues, the voters definitely judged each party’s respective performance in previous terms.
First, it was hard for the voters to distinguish BNP and the caretaker government on issues of commodity price and energy crisis. Both management failure and global price hike haunted the two regimes, whereas AL showed a remarkable success during its tenure by keeping the inflation rate under control and adding substantive new electricity to the national grid. Hence, criticism against the caretaker government for price and energy by default went against BNP, too, and AL won the anti-incumbency vote.
Second, the criticism against CTG’s anti-corruption drive could not be materialised either. While there were many valid allegations against the process of CTG’s anti-corruption drive, the voters were able to separate that from their own observation and assessment of the BNP’s unprecedented corruption.
The positive impact of Four-Party Alliance was clearly evident in the 1996 national election. This prompted AL to form a Grand Alliance with the 14-parties and Jatiyo Party in 2008. Witnessing the pre-election momentum of anti-war criminal and anti-autocrat sentiments, we, however, predicted that the alliance factor would adversely affect this election. Let’s analyse the respective performances of Jamaat-e-Islami and Jatiyo Party to see how the alliance factor played in the end.
While it is impossible to separate out the JI or JP votes from the total alliance votes for individual analysis, we can, however, use some proxy statistics to gain some insights.
In the pre-election analysis we mentioned that there are two types of JP voters — first, who support JP for its leadership, and second the anti-AL voters who largely voted for JP in 1996 out of an anti-incumbency feeling against the then BNP.
Interestingly AL won 14 of the 16 seats where both AL and JP fought head to head. JP also lost its ground as its share of total vote decreased. This suggests that, may be for the first time, a sizable number of previously anti-AL voters preferred AL this time over JP and BNP.
In fact, JP did not appear to help out the AL-led Grand Alliance’s staggering win. It however did not also harm the Grand Alliance much either. Rather, the last moment tension between AL and JP over the seat allocations and presidency issue (which Ershad raised again and again during the election campaign) appears to have helped AL dodge anti-autocrat sentiment.
In contrast, an decisive verdict was given against JI which witnessed a decline in its parliamentary position from 17 seats in 2001 to only 2 seats in 2008. This is all the more shocking keeping in mind that JI contested in 9 more seats in 2008 than in 2001. The reported increase of JI’s vote-share by a miniscule 0.2 per cent between 2001 and 2008 is attributed to the fact that it contested in more seats this time and does not show an actual gain. In 25 constituencies where JI contested both in 2001 and in 2008, its share of vote as percentage of registered voters also dropped.
The nation-wide campaign against the war criminals essentially contributed to this strategic and symbolic defeat. Hence, voter antipathy to war criminals made a huge negative impact on BNP’s overall performance and the alliance factor become an alliance trouble for them.
In addition, the splitting of BNP which started during its own regime (e.g. Bikalpo Dhara) reduced the strength of its alliance. During the last two years internal and external forces tried to break up both the political parties to create space for an alternative platform. It appears that AL’s highest leadership could better defend the party’s unity, while BNP got divided twice more. BNP suffered the negative consequences of such division at least in 29 constituencies. In contrast, the rebel candidates could not alter Al’s momentum in the election.
New and Young Voters
Although everyone anticipated the affect of new voters in this national election, the phenomenal impact of this factor can’t be emphasised enough. In a previous piece we contextualised the meaning of 32 per cent first time voters, mostly young, with the close winning margins of previous national elections. In 1991, 1996, and 2001 national elections, results of 142, 158 and 125 seats (out of 300) were determined by less than 10 percent winning margins respectively. This means that any party which mobilised and influenced even half of this young cohort could gain most of these challenging seats.
How AL convinced the young voters, which BNP failed to do apparently? According to the pre-election Daily Star-Nielsen survey, 87 per cent of respondents felt that politics had to be reformed and 37 per cent believed that corruption had weakened democracy. Anti-war criminal sentiment also played a pivotal role, thanks to the successful campaign of Sector Commanders Forum.
Anticipating the winds of change, AL rejected many of its corrupt leaders and nominated a cohort of young candidates against many senior BNP candidates. BNP on the other hand could not even reject many detested candidates in Dhaka city where voters are most exposed to the media and are believed to be conscious.
AL’s election manifesto was also a notable departure from the traditional ambiguous wish lists of old, and made tangible promises for the young generation (including employment generation and Digital Bangladesh), something BNP failed to follow. While AL made specific short to medium term targets for most of the development issues, BNP only played rhetoric.
The AL campaign was also more techno-oriented, where the campaign used video conferences, text messaging, website, email, etc to outreach the voters. BNP on the other hand could not even produce their manifesto in a second language.
As a result, AL’s share of total popular vote increased from 40.02 percent in 2001 to 49.02 percent in 2008, while BNP lost its popular vote by the same margin (41.40 percent in 2001 to 32.74 percent in 2008). One can safely theorise that AL out-performed BNP among first-time voters by a wide margin.
The much discussed issue of No Vote turned out to be a footnote in the post-election analysis as other than in Rangamati, the share of No Vote was very insignificant in most constituencies. There was an apprehension that No Vote would help the worst of the two bad candidates. In western democracies such alternative candidate usually helps split the progressive vote bank who otherwise would have voted for the less-corrupt and thus ultimately helps the worst candidate win.
While a wide-spread campaign was launched for No Vote, a last moment fear of a “Ralph Nader-effect” restrained many voters from voting No. In addition, requirement of a 50 percent No Vote to recall an election and ambiguity about whether the same candidates will again contest in the recalled election at the end made the No Vote concept unpopular. To a certain extent, AL’s nomination of some fresh candidates influenced the voters to move away from No Vote and go for the AL.
To better reflect the current population pattern, the Election Commission has redrawn the boundaries of 133 constituencies, which had a major impact on this year’s election campaign. An analysis of polling centre level data of three previous elections shows that the support of any particular party or candidate is usually not spread equally over the constituency and rather is concentrated in few regional pockets known as vote banks.
The redistricting segregated the traditional vote banks and local political networks in these 133 constituencies. Consequently, the electoral re-demarcation made the election campaigns of the established candidates harder as they had to set up new networks in many areas whereas in other areas their supporters had to work under different leaders.
This altered the general hypothesis of new and old candidates. Supposedly, an old candidate poses a strong network compared to a new rival, while a new candidate has the benefit of a cleaner image compared to an established candidate. After the redistricting, cleaner image of the candidates became more effective than the segregated networks of well established candidates. Hence, the party nominated more fresh candidates, i.e. AL, won the game in these constituencies.
Redistricting also redistributed and normalised the winning margins of previous election and made the electorates more competitive. Hence, all the reasons mentioned above which went against BNP and created an anti-incumbency vote bank became more decisive in these 133 electoral seats.
Mostly these are the major factors that determined the results of the National Election 2008. One thing certain from this election result is that people wanted to reject extremism. Balance of a centre-left and centre-right is always good for democracy. The extreme-left has long been absent from Bangladesh’s political landscape and this time people rejected the extreme-right. If BNP can restore its centre-right wings by assembling its moderate leaders, the future can well be BNP’s too.
1. See Why they won, Syeed Ahamed and Jyoti Rahman, The Daily Star, December 30, 2008.