Every day Abdul Mannan wakes up early in the morning to sweep the pavement before his makeshift tea-stall in the city’s Panthapath area. Be it a warm summer’s day or a foggy wintry morning, life, for this 50-year-old has remained a long sombre struggle. Sweeping done, Mannan will click open the shutter-- made of scrapped iron, gunnysack and sheets of polythene-- and place himself inside the five-square-feet shop, which also houses containers-full of sugar and tea, and a rusted stove.
The tea-seller, a supporter of the BNP, believes it is his duty to vote for the sheaf of paddy symbol, no matter who the candidate is. In the last general elections, Mannan voted for someone, whom he had never seen; save for the routine photographs that the candidate put in his campaign posters. "I did not know Mahbub sahib (the candidate, who later got elected to the parliament) at all; but I believed in the ideology of Shahid Zia, and that was why I could not help voting for the BNP."
The main opposition Awami League, too, has got a significant number of blind voters who do not consider a particular candidate’s eligibility, but are loyal to the party. This trend, however disturbing it is, has repeated itself in the last three elections that have taken place since the restoration of democracy in 1991.
Apart from this mindset, the electoral system is plagued by the use of black money and muscle power. "Transparency is a prerequisite for a free and fair election; it is a necessity that the prime minister and the leader of the opposition publish lists of the money, wealth and properties they possess," says Dr Borhanuddin Khan Jahangir, professor of Political Science at Dhaka University.
"The fact of the matter is," says Amjad Hossain, a schoolteacher, "most of our politicians have numerous sources of income that are black by any standard, and are beyond the grasp of the EC or any other institution."
Professor Jahangir agrees: "In different developing democracies elections have become a platform for buying and selling general people. And for this reason elections cannot be held in a free atmosphere." He believes that unless black money is driven out of politics, no one can expect a minimum level playing field where "good and honest candidates" can thrive.
"Neither the EC nor the statesmen has been able to save the elections from becoming a bazaar, where every voter carries a price tag," Professor Jahangir laments.
In fact, in May 2005, the Appellate Division of the High Court (HC) passed a judgement, directing the Election Commission (EC) to gather personal and financial information about the prospective candidates. This includes the candidates’ educational qualification, past criminal record and the sources of their dependants’ income. This historic rule also requires the EC to reveal to the public other facts such as bank loans that the candidates took from different commercial banks; and in the case of previously elected ones, details of the commitments they made in the previous elections and how they have fulfilled them.
This directive, however, has not been fully implemented. "It is a pity that in the last two by-elections that were followed the Election Commissions did not comply with this historic HC order," says Dr Debapriya Bhattachariya, executive director of Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), which recently organised a Citizens’ Dialogue on National Election 2007: The Civil Society Initiative in Accountable Development Efforts. He thinks it is ironic that the EC does not consider the directive compulsory and "no matter what the level of economic and administrative freedom is given to the commission, it will not be able to run independently if it lacks free thinkers in its hierarchy".
Professor Jahangir’s observations are even more scathing. "The rich people in this country are armed, powerful and ruthless. These were not seen in politics even during the colonial era-- their world evolves around the money they have swindled from people; the ‘cadres’ and hoodlums, and, the police, on behalf of the state, guard them," he says.
He thinks when these people get nominations from different political parties, every daydream we have about democracy turns into an obstinate nightmare. Obliquely referring to some ruling party high-ups, Professor Jahangir says, "The money that has been accumulated through corruption, looting and ‘25 percent dealings’ is going to be invested in the next general elections".
In the last three general elections all the BNP and AL candidates crossed the stipulated 5-lakh-taka ceiling for campaign purposes. "The biggest of all jokes," says Amjad, "is that all the major parties have flouted this regulation, and no one has so far been punished."
In fact, most of the BNP-AL candidates spend no less than TK 5 crore to win votes, which makes electioneering far beyond the means of any honest worthy politician. This trend coupled with insatiable hunger for power and money of most of the elected MPs have corrupted a system that has already succumbed to corruption.
The system of caretaker government has been established in the run up to the general elections in 1996 by a reluctant BNP government. It tried to ward off the opposition demand to incorporate the idea to the constitution by terming it as "absurd". But when it gained popularity among the masses, the then government dissolved the parliament, held a farcical general election and later amended the constitution in favour of a provision for a caretaker government.
In most of the cases, the outgoing governments plant party loyalists in the administration to reap benefits during the elections. "Take this government," says Professor Jahangir, "Khaleda Zia’s government has made the Police its own group of handymen and has spread its clout in the armed forces." He thinks that corruption and nepotism create an environment where the Powerful can always buy off the police and local administration; in the grassroots level, the army fails to maintain neutrality and the district administrators surrender to greed, turning the parliament into a mere rubber stamp.
An inordinate amount of skepticism shrouds the EC’s activities. The Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) MA Aziz’s recent decision to make a new voters list has drawn widespread criticism from his own office. Two sitting Commissioners objected to this decision; the CEC, in his turn, ignored the opposition to his views. The government, on the other hand, came with a flag of rescue-- lately it appointed two new Commissioners so that the beleaguered CEC enjoys a majority in the EC meetings.
In some deplorable instances, BNP members were employed as enumerators, who put voters on their list at their whim. "I am not a voter, they did not come to my house," says Professor Jahangir, who has been teaching for around three decades.
But at the end of the day it is the people who can change the course of the events, no matter how the party in power tries to manipulate the course of the elections, thinks Amjad Hossain.
Issues like price hike of essentials or the rise of religious militancy is going to challenge the established paradigm. "This time round no one should take my vote for granted," says Abdul Mannan, who is planning to switch to old-newspaper vending; "It is because of the rising price of sugar," he smiles embarassedly, "Sugar stings". Angst and delights of general voters like Mannan are going to be decisive in the next elections. Only time can tell if the BNP and AL will be able to fool with their poor voters again; the old tricks may not always work.
April 4, 2006.