Are we running in circles?
We are deeply disappointed that what we feared has ultimately prevailed—an election timetable announced by the Election Commission (EC) in the glaring absence of a consensus among the major political parties over polls-time government. As the Awami League and its allies brought out celebratory processions all over the country, BNP and allies rejected the schedule, while the Left Democratic Alliance as well as the Gonotontro Moncho also denounced what they believe would be a sham of an election. Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Kazi Habibul Awal may well hope that the upcoming polls will be "free and fair, impartial, participatory… credible and praised at home and abroad," but we would be living in a fool's paradise if we believed that such a scenario is possible under these strained circumstances.
Following the controversial elections of 2014—in AL won 153 seats uncontested—and in 2018—in which widespread irregularities and ballot stuffing took place—there have been repeated calls at home as well as from outside to hold a credible election. The government, unfortunately, seems to believe that holding an election under any circumstances is a "win" for the ruling party, wilfully ignoring that another discredited election will do irreparable damage to its own image and destroy whatever remains of our democratic institutions and aspirations. In the lead-up to the election, when it should have demonstrated its commitment to the democratic process, including upholding the opposition's constitutional right to freedom of assembly, the Awami League chose the path of retribution, arresting over 10,000 BNP activists and leaders, many on false or trumped-up charges. These actions, alongside the incendiary rhetoric from the top leaders of the party, have foreclosed any possibility of a dialogue.
BNP, on the other hand, has also remained stubborn in its refusal to even attend a dialogue unless its one-point demand for the resignation of the government is met. Such an uncompromising stance, however legitimate the party may have felt its demand was, has not borne fruit and instead led it to a point of no return. At least 117 vehicles have been burnt all over the country from October 28 till November 15—during its blockade programme—and even if it claims to have played no part in the arson attacks and violence, it must ultimately realise the trap it is setting for itself by going down its chosen path. As a party that professes to speak for the people, it also should not ignore the loss of lives and livelihoods of people during the worst economic downturn the country has faced in decades.
Even the CEC himself, in his televised speech to the nation, has admitted that if conflict and violence take place due to differences, instability can be created, which will have a negative impact on the election process. He must also realise that calling upon voters to go to the polling stations with "enthusiasm, courage, and confidence" during such a political climate is mere rhetoric. The CEC has once again urged for dialogue among the major political parties—a call which we wholeheartedly endorse.
However, the EC cannot simply put the blame on the parties for not attending dialogues without playing an active role in ensuring a level playing field for all. Thus far, the EC has maintained that its hands are tied regarding the mass arrests of the opposition until the announcement of the schedule. Can we now finally expect it to play its due role? If it wants the confidence of the major political parties, especially the opposition, the EC, whose track record is questionable at best, must do the hard work itself. After two consecutive controversial elections of 2014 and 2018, Bangladesh simply cannot afford another discredited election.