Interpreting Bhola-3 verdict

By Jyoti Rahman.

Published in BDnews24 on 22 April 2010.

Like all by-elections, Bhola allows new opportunities for the opposition as well as the ruling party to prove their case. But this piece argues that there is also the risk of over-interpretation.

Voters in Bhola-3 constituency will choose a new MP on April 24.  Awami League’s Major Jasimuddin won the seat in December 2008, but his candidacy was later found illegal — hence the fresh election. Nurunnabi Chowdhury is the new AL candidate.  Major Hafizuddin Ahmed has the BNP ticket. He won here in 1991, 1996, and 2001.

In the absence of regularly updated credible opinion polls, this election is being seen as a guide to the emerging political trend. However, there is a risk of over-interpreting the result by both sides.

Let’s start with past results (Table 1).  Major Hafiz won as an independent in 1991.  His nearest rival was from the Awami League, while Nazrul Islam, another independent, came third. In 1996, Hafiz ran as a BNP candidate and won convincingly against Nazrul Islam, now running on an AL ticket.  In 2001, Hafiz won by an even bigger margin against the AL’s heavy‑weight candidate Tofail Ahmed.

table

While Hafiz was washed away in the Awami political tsunami of December 2008, he only needs a swing of 3.5 percentage points to reclaim the seat. There are four reasons why this appears to be very much possible.

First, in a densely populated poverty-stricken country like Bangladesh, the incumbent always starts out with a disadvantage.

Second, it seems that Hafiz’s vote share has had a floor of about 45 percent, while the best that AL could muster was slightly over the 50 percent mark.

Third, Hafiz has been much stronger in this seat than BNP (with or without alllies) has been nationally. For example, in 2001, the four-party alliance bagged about 46 percent votes nationally, while it received about 38 percent votes in 2008. Hafiz did better in Bhola-3 on both occasions. This is presumably why he was taken back to the party despite being one of the prime movers of the ‘reformist’ BNP during the emergency.

Fourth, one could expect an energised campaign by BNP in this rather marginal seat (swings of 5 points is pretty common in Bangladesh).

Against the above, the biggest factor favouring AL is that it can throw a lot of electoral sweeteners in the form of ‘development expenditure’ at the voters. In our winner-takes-all institutional setting, electing an opposition MP means risking marginal development funds. While this could cause Bhola-3 voters to stick with AL, it should be noted that electors in Noakhali and Bogra did return BNP candidates in delayed elections and by-elections in early 2009.

The constituency’s remoteness may also count in AL’s favour. Remote, rural areas tend to swing less than urban areas.

All factors considered, BNP may well reclaim the seat. However, both parties should resist the temptation to see the poll as a referendum on the government’s performance.

For the AL, seeing the election thus will put it in a lose-lose position. The slightest hint of improper actions will mean the election will be marred by allegations of irregularity and intimidation, drawing unfortunate comparisons with the infamous Magura by-election of 1994 or Tejgaon by-election of a decade later. A BNP win will, on the other hand, fuel the sense that the momentum is shifting towards the opposition and put the government into the defensive as it heads towards a very difficult summer and the following mayoral elections in metropolitan centres.

The ruling party’s best bet would be to leave the fate of the election to the efforts of the local unit of the party and not put much importance on the result. That way, a surprise victory can be trumpeted as a vindication while a defeat will demonstrate the government’s maturity and tolerance — a win win position. Plus, should he win, Major Hafiz — one of the prime dissidents during the emergency — will become a senior member of BNP’s parliamentary party: this cannot be comfortable for the BNP chief.

What will a victory mean for the BNP?

The greatest impact will be on morale. It will remind the party and its supporters that it can again win elections. This will be important in the lead up to the DCC elections.

But there is a danger that BNP too will get carried away. To return to power in 2014, BNP faces two paramount tasks: create a new, cohesive leadership; and put forward an ideological agenda that will tell voters why they should vote for BNP. It appears that the party is trying to address the leadership issue, though the reported reliance on its discredited and exiled senior vice chairman raises doubts about the sincerity and success of any new leadership. Worryingly still, other than the occasional anti-Indian rhetoric that has long passed it ‘use-by’ date, it has made no efforts towards constructing a new agenda.

In this context, a win in Bhola-3 on the back of Major Hafiz’s personal popularity should not be seen as an endorsement of BNP.

More than just the winner, perhaps it will be the winning margin that will point to the government’s popularity (or lack thereof). Considering the past results, an AL victory by a wide margin will stretch credibility. However, even if the AL candidate loses, should he crack 40 percent, then given its past performance, the result could very well be taken as continued voter satisfaction.

And if AL retains the seat fair-and-square, then it will lead strong credence to the view that December 2008 marked a profound change in our politics, with a solid Awami plurality on the back of the post-1970s generation’s support for its politics.

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