Lessons from the 2024 National Election (Part-2)

The second would be to delve into the meaning of election. There is a public perception that the word ‘election’ stands for a competition among candidates holding opposite political positions or views. This is not true. As described in The Law Dictionary, the legal definition of election is “The act of choosing or selecting one or more from a greater number of persons, things, courses, or rights” or “The selection of one man from among several candidates to discharge certain duties in a state, corporation, or society.”[1] In this context, a political party has the right to participate as much as it can boycott, provided it is not engaged in coercive acts to force or deter the voters from participating in the election. This also allows individuals to stand in elections outside the formal nomination of political parties, which incidentally took place in the 12th Parliamentary Election. I will return to this issue shortly.

The final one would be to delve into the meaning of people’s representation. In capitalist societies in contemporary times, whether developed or developing, or fully democratic or hybrid, seeking nomination and getting elected has become costly. In the United States, for instance, the majority of lawmakers in Congress are millionaires, including two or three billionaires.[2] In Bangladesh, too, as disclosed in the recent election, the bulk of the candidates have moveable or liquid assets of Taka one crore (or 10 million) and more (Figure 3). No less telling in this figure is that more than 57 percent of the candidates are businesspeople, and only 2.86 percent are politicians by profession! Put differently, the house representing the people has become a millionaire’s club in the United States and Bangladesh in dollars and taka, respectively. If that is the case, why are we calling it democracy? Shouldn’t we call it plutocracy – a system ruled or controlled by people of great wealth or income? But then, it would run contrary to the country’s constitution, achieved through the sacrifice of millions of people.

Women queue up to vote during the Parliamentary elections in Bangladesh

Demystifying the conceptualization of ‘democracy,’ ‘election,’ and ‘representation,’ as outlined above, can create space for innovation and democratic futures for the citizens of Bangladesh. But then, I have no ready-made prescriptions for strengthening Bangladesh’s democracy or overcoming the country’s political instability. In this context, one thing needs to be made clear. Bangladesh has never had political stability since its birth in 1971. What it had for the first time since 2009 was regime stability, which allowed the government to carry out several durable social, economic, and mega-developmental projects. Not surprisingly, it succeeded in making a positive impression on the country globally for initiating a ‘developmental model’ or ‘South Asian miracle’! Whether protracted regime stability would contribute to political stability remains an open question or an issue to be witnessed. Therefore, one need not worry about political instability. On the contrary, if the regime stability can hold, there is a unique possibility of not only making its development the envy of many but also addressing the politics of mega-identities and cementing it in favor of emancipatory forces.

Mega-identities of opposing political platforms are here to stay; one cannot wish them away overnight. Nor can such mega-identities dissolve independently or obliterate them from the members’ minds by enacting rules and regulations or by coercive means. In this context, three things remain pertinent. One, mega-identities often create compulsions for ideological compromises to confront the opposing identity. This sometimes erodes the character of identity politics, resulting in fissures within the camps, with one faction becoming more rigid and conformist than the other. Two, there is a question of leadership race in mega-identities, with the newer generation becoming more desperate, competitive, and ‘holier than the pope’ than the older generation. This practically puts a stop to bipartisanship and political compromises between the mega-identities. And this is more the case when the mega-identities are opposed to each other, as in Bangladesh’s case. Third, the desired resolution of mega-identity politics can come only from a long-term educational and cultural intervention. This is precisely why the education and cultural ministries can play critical roles in establishing a unifying identity for the country by creatively using their respective consenting power.

 

Figure 3: 12th National Election: Candidates’ Wealth Source: Staff Correspondent, “Record rise in candidates’ wealth,” The Daily Star, 27 December 2023.

The new cabinet has been formed, and the honorable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has wisely kept the cultural ministry to herself. I wonder whether this was done temporarily until a suitable person is found. But given her knowledge and sensitivity to issues related to Bangladesh culture, the Prime Minister can undoubtedly make a difference in reproducing and deepening the mega-identity based on the spirit of 1971. The cultural discourse of the country, with its civilizational roots stretching back for thousands of years, needs to be mainstreamed if we are to confront and neutralize communal and sectarian identities.

In this quest, electoral reforms can simultaneously play a role. Considering our discussion, it is not difficult to see that significant reforms are required to make people’s representation accurate and meaningful. As indicated earlier, the Westminster system of holding national elections will not work. Bangladesh’s electoral system must evolve from historical experience, demographic composition, and political compulsions. In this context, the following may be considered:

Firstly, the number of parliamentary seats ought to be increased from 300 to 600 to make representation of the voters meaningful. In the 12th Parliamentary Election, the number of voters included 55,325,292 males plus 54,280,542 females plus 353 transgender people, a total of 109,606,187. This implies that each Member of Parliament (MP) represents 365,353 voters, which is impossible for the MP even to shake hands, let alone represent them. Doubling the parliamentary seats will reduce the voter representation to 182,676 per MP. The UK Parliament, for instance, has 427 seats when there are 650 MPs. Historically, the number of seats in the UK Parliament (House of Commons) has risen from 615 in 1922. The number is based on the number of registered voters, between 60,000 to 70,000 for each MP. This is a relatively ideal number for representation, but one could begin by bringing it down to 182,676 per MP for Bangladesh. I’m aware that the doubling of seats will favour the big parties more than the small ones, as the former would only be in the position of running the election from all 600 seats. This would be difficult for the smaller parties. However, the reform is geared toward shifting the election from a race between political parties to a race between the vote-seekers and the voters, how much the former can attract and work for the latter.

Ballot boxes stored at school before being distributed to the voting centers

Secondly, a two-tier election system can be introduced, potentially stopping the much-maligned nomination business. One could take lessons from the 12th Parliamentary Election on this. In the face of a major opposition party boycotting the national election, the ruling Awami League, despite formally nominating a person to stand in the election as the party’s candidate, allowed other aspirants to seek nomination and participate in the election and did not reprimand them for violating party’s decision. However, such multiple candidacies from one party would not have worked under normal circumstances because it would have divided the votes and favoured the candidate from the opposition party if it were to participate and nominate only one candidate. This is where a two-tier election system, like the Turkish or French presidential elections, can make a difference. In the first round, any individual, within or outside a political party, can stand for the election. However, only the first two with the most votes in the first round will be eligible for the second and final rounds.

This certainly has the potential to stop the nomination business. But then, how will political parties fund their activities? Although practiced by all political parties participating in elections, the nomination business remains unlawful and is geared toward displacing genuine politicians with businesspeople or those with loads of money. But then, why such business? Too many candidates seek nominations from registered political parties against a limited number of seats. Since there is no state allocation of funds for the registered political parties, the nomination business is the quickest and easiest way of raising funds for the party. But this time in the 12th Parliamentary Election, almost as “unintended consequences,” to use a Popperian phrase, multiple candidacies from the same party, particularly the AL, allowed independent candidates to seek nomination without handing over a hefty amount, as it is alleged, to the political party. Amid free-floating candidacies in the first round of the national election, state allocation of funds for political parties could be introduced based on the number of parliamentary seats. This would go a long way in transforming the current dismal state of democracy or what has been referred to earlier as a plutocracy.

Bangladeshi polling officials count ballots shortly after voting ended at polling station

Finally, there ought to be specific criteria for nomination related to the spirit of 1971, including recognition of the 1971 genocide and adherence to the fundamental principles of the Bangladesh Constitution. The Election Commission could also look into the history of the nomination seeker, mainly written statements or publications, and whether these match the specific criteria for nomination. No grounds ought to be given to those who question the historical foundation and the sacrifice of the people for an independent, sovereign, and democratic Bangladesh.

Nothing less than a paradigm shift will stop the politics of mega-identities and the intolerance and violence arising from them in national elections in Bangladesh. Let us keep our dreams alive!

[1] See https://thelawdictionary.org/election/. Accessed on 15 January 2024.

[2] Karl Evers-Hillstrom, “Majority of lawmakers in the 116th Congress are millionaires,” Open Secrets, 23 April 2020. See also, Marcus Lu, “ Charted: The Richest Politicians in the U.S.,” Visual Capitalist, 9 December 2023.

Written by-

Dr. Imtiaz Ahmed
Professor of International Relations University of Dhaka

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