Friday, Dec 02, 2022


Hasina may not be the sitting Prime Minister, nor a lodger of the Gonobhaban any more, but the pestering anti-incumbency is far from diffused.


Arguably, the typical ire against the ruling groups and leaders should not hurt Hasina and the Awami League (AL) as they have already stepped down from power. Who will then face the brunt of the emerging anti-incumbency? 

Justice Latifur Rahman, a former Chief Justice, heads only a non-partisan stop-gap cabinet; he will only conduct a fair and impartial election to hand over power to the winning party or coalition of parties. Neither he nor his associates in the interim cabinet are contestants in coming national poll. So the umbrage may go ballistic without a clear target to hit goes the counter argument. Is that really the case?

Muddy Picture

On the eve of an election, it is an uphill task for Hasina to herd the AL supporters together -- the factional poison is surfacing, and creating a poor image for the party. But as the voting gets closer, the intra-party disputes would be put aside to face the BNP-led alliance. 

The visibly upbeat AL still commands an array of resources including money, foot soldiers, and more importantly a nearly acquiescent media. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is a periodic victim of its own internal strife, but, unlike 1996, it is now without the incumbency baggage. Its leader Khaleda Zia (Khaleda) believes that the "AL terrorism and the devastated economy" have made people look at her party as the only "viable" alternative.

The mainstream parties disappoint many, and several surveys indicate that none of them would pull a landslide victory; some fear a hung parliament after the election; some speculate on the increasing bargaining power of the smaller parties after the published voting results. 

Considering the Dhaka newspaper reports, the AL is not confident of retaining all those seats where it had won in 1996 -- particularly the former cabinet members and the lawmakers are vulnerable in several districts. Much of the dwindling support can be attributed to the prevailing lawlessness and ineffective governance in the last five years.

As of this writing, the BBC reports that the police have arrested nearly 60, 000 suspected criminals since the Caretaker Government started its campaign in mid July. But Hasina and those who support the AL blame the opposition-nourished Mastans (goons) for destabilizing the country only to give a bad name to the AL. 

On her return from Mecca last week, Hasina charged that her political rivals had killed 138 AL leaders and workers in the last one month. The passion against the deteriorating public safety normally falls upon those who are currently in power or on those who held the reins of power not long ago. 

Nevertheless there is no guarantee that the anti-regime lamentation would instinctively turn into a "vote bank" against the wielders of authority up to July 13. The anti-incumbency may occupy the centrestage, but it would very much depend on the opposition's ability to utilize its assets scattered across the political landscape.

The 'Godfather' Handicap

'Godfather' is the most frequently used English word in Bangladesh. It stands for politically connected individuals who control organized crime, terrorize the innocent and demolish their challengers. Sometimes, the locally prominent politicians with a reputation for maintaining gangs of goons get the nomenclature. Joinal Hazari is one such name in Feni, a district town -- his notoriety came to light when he terrorized journalists reporting on his activities.

One front page story about Joinal Hazari in Feni or Shamim Osman in Narayanganj (both former AL lawmakers) and their alleged unlawful activities is worth much more than a thousand political speeches. A mere suspicion about a former Minister's or a Sangshad member's son or a close relative smuggling guns, or committing murder, robbery, extortion and forcible occupation of properties shoots like indictments against those who were in power lately.

The AL supporters argue that besides Joinal Hazari, there are other Godfathers in Feni  and in other towns in Bangladesh who do not belong to the AL. But "blame it on the predecessor and your adversary" rhetoric does not work well against the head wind of public anger in an election season. Hasina has publicly rebuked the non-party caretakers for harassing the former AL legislator; the AL leaders have threatened that they might boycott election in Feni if the government does not withdraw the warrant of arrest against Hazari.

Accusations, perceived or real, the anti-terrorists combing operations under the curfew, even without tangible results attract attention -- they fuel frustration against those who just stepped down from authority. The collective and individual remembrance of who did what in the last few years is still very fresh, and not expected to fade away before the October election. Ironically, the very names of such characters as Hazari etc that the AL still proudly champions are the opposition's greatest political weapons to project the character and failures of the not so distant regime.

The Babu Bias

The AL, in the last days of its power in 2001, deployed numerous "friendly" civil servants to sensitive positions, which the BNP-led alliance fears might sway the election. To create  a better climate for a fair election, the Caretaker Government has transferred many civil servants from the positions they held immediately before the tenure of the AL cabinet expired in July.

The AL's reflexive resistance to transfer of officers for a clean poll is creating more doubts about a free and peaceful election -- Hasina is also alienating those elements of the Bangladeshi middle class that still cherishe a non-political civil service.

The newspapers periodically gave accounts of patronage-driven hiring of civil servants. Even the Public Service Commission did not escape criticism in the last two years; individuals have expressed qualms both in the recruitment as well as promotion process. Come elections, and it is time for people to extrapolate even their small grievances. Before they vote, they will surely look at the gamut of such anti-government displeasure of the last five years.

Personalised Power

Hasina's cronyism, defiance of democratic accountability, and more importantly her flaunted disdain for political dissenters is the footprint of personalized power. Once in office, Hasina's highest priority was to punish her father's (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, also known as the Bangabandhu) killers. 

Many are asking: was it only the burning desire for revenge that drove her to power? Hasina gave a convincing impression in the last 5 years that she and her AL believed that they were the only rightful inheritors of power in Bangladesh, and her challengers were either impostors or the "anti-liberation" forces. 

From the beginning of her regime in 1996, Hasina has tried to ram down patriotism as defined by the AL as the real thing -- which has resulted in an "us" versus "them" dichotomy that is dominating the electoral scene.

Numerous public buildings, academic institutions, bridges and roads had their names changed after Hasina's father or her deceased family members. Soon after Hasina was out of power in July, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's pictures were wrecked despite the AL government making a law against such dishonoring of his image. 

On several occasions, daily newspapers reported allocations of favours to Hasina's relatives -- there have been demands to suspend all questionable allotments of government plots for housing.

Hasina wanted to stay in the Gonobhaban (the official residence of the Bangladesh Prime Minister), indefinitely beyond her tenure -- she justified herself by a law for her security and a cabinet decision granting her the Gonobhaban. Not surprisingly, she faced mounting criticism not only from the known opponents, but also from the loyalists who feared that the broadly resented "occupation" of that state residence might bring electoral peril to the AL, before she finally out. 

Hasina may not be the sitting Prime Minister, nor a lodger of the Gonobhaban any more, but the pestering anti-incumbency is far from diffused. She had a sustained majority in the Sangshad, and there was little interruption to the AL government that she led. She never hesitated to exercise her authority. The opposition-driven hartals did not force her out of office although there was periodic anti-government roiling. 

Most observers believe that the evident lawlessness, unsuccessful administration and stagnant economy during Hasina's premiership are largely self-inflicted.

Hasina fears a "subtle conspiracy" against her in the coming election of 2001, and in 1996, she feared "subtle rigging" in the voting; her arch rival Khaleda has also responded with similar rhetoric. No doubt, an "anti-incumbency" pall is hanging over Hasina and the AL. 

Is the opposition ready to make use of that disapproving mood? An equally challenging question for Hasina: how will she fight that outrage other than just castigating the opposition, and lately the Caretaker Government?

M. Rashiduzzaman teaches Political Science at Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey, USA

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