By all estimates, the ruling party looks set for a third term
The Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina has always been a formidable political force in Bangladesh. Since the restoration of democracy in the 90s, the party has consistently increased its overall votes in every election, including those where it did not get to form government.
The AL secured 30.08% of the total votes in the 1991 election where it was the party in opposition, then formed government in 1996 having secured 37.44% of the total votes, was in opposition from 2001 having won 40.13% overall votes, and then won by a landslide in 2008 having secured 48.04% of the total votes.
The party has been continuously in power for the last 10 years. Many have cited this as a handicap for AL considering the fact that there may be an “anti-incumbency” factor operating among the electorate. I previously wrote about this misconception in my op-ed titled: “The myth of the anti-incumbency factor” (Dhaka Tribune, July 1, 2018). The substance of the previous article still stands strong today.
Continuity of the current government and its policies clearly seems to have more popular support rather than any mass calls for change in the status quo. All the latest research and opinion polls correspond with research and polls from the last five years in pointing to the relative popularity of AL led by Sheikh Hasina over its main rival BNP led by Khaleda Zia and Tarique Rahman.
According to a recent report by the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the AL is likely to be returned to power with majority of parliamentary seats in the upcoming election, banking on solid economic growth, socio-economic development, and popularity of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
The latest nationwide opinion polls carried out by Washington-based Democracy International (DI) also shows clear popularity of the AL and Sheikh Hasina over their rivals. The polls reveal that 70% of the people of Bangladesh feel that the country is headed in the right direction. 85% and 86% of the respondents respectively stated that they have trust in Sheikh Hasina and also like her personally.
Support for AL is 53% compared to only 15% support for BNP, denoting a 38% difference of support for the two parties. When compared with DI’s own polls from May 2015, it transpires that in the last three years, support for AL has increased while that for BNP has declined, by 13% and 15% respectively.
The difference of support between the parties becomes more stark if one takes into consideration that even if all undecided (15%) and all “refused to say” (18%) were to vote against AL and/or vote for BNP, that would still take the total to 48%, 5% lower than AL’s 53%.
Some of the reasons behind the widespread support for the AL are inherent in the responses to other questions in the DI polls. People have a sense of trust and optimism about the current leadership. Apart from the majority thinking that the country is headed in the right direction, 69% feel that their own economic situation has improved over the past five years.
About the factors behind their optimism, respondents cited such reasons as improved infrastructure, education, economy, development, etc.
Not surprisingly, a majority of the respondents expressed confidence in the AL to better deal with the issues important to the people than BNP, such as infrastructure development, better health care, quality education, managing the economy, fighting corruption.
As regards the electoral prospects and support for AL, the EIU forecast and DI’s polls correspond with another recent opinion poll carried out by the independent local organization Research Development Centre (RDC).
With 51,000 respondents questioned in 51 constituencies, the AL took the lead in all 51 places. Overall, the average support for the AL is 66% compared to 19.9% for BNP, with 8.6% remaining undecided. The difference in support between the AL and BNP ranged from 12.2% to 75%, with more than 50% margin of difference in 28 constituencies surveyed, indicating the levels of popular support for the AL over BNP.
Available research therefore suggests that Bangladesh’s rapid progress in all major economic, social, and human development indicators over the last 10 years is the principal factor behind the popularity of the AL. It is seen to be a party led by a strong leader like Sheikh Hasina, whose leadership in recent years has been seen to transcend national boundaries, for instance her globally commended role in sheltering the Rohingyas.
On the other hand, the opposition led by BNP is seen to be organizationally weak, lacking coherent policies and devoid of good leadership. In the absence of Khaleda Zia for corruption convictions, BNP is being led by a fugitive from law hiding away in London.
The verdicts for murder, corruption, and money laundering coupled with a general disrepute for nepotism and cronyism from the last BNP government of 2001-06 has made Tarique Rahman an extremely weak alternative to Sheikh Hasina.
The organizational disunity and weakness of BNP has also been recently re-exposed when their own party activists attacked their offices in Paltan and Gulshan, disillusioned by what they claimed was the “commercial sale” of nominations. Their desperation is also visible from the recent attacks on AL leaders and supporters since officials campaign began, resulting in at least three deaths across the nation.
One other factor, which was also mentioned in the EIU analysis, is that there is a lack of an effective opposition election campaign on part of BNP or the Jatiya Oikya Front it leads. So far, they have focused solely on why they think people should not vote for AL, rather than provide any solid reasons for people to vote for them.
Where they have stated their policies, they have been mostly superficial not backed by any explanation as to how they plan to go about the task of achieving whatever it is that they are promising. For instance, their pledge to provide unemployment allowance is not supported by any rational financing plans for such an ambitious promise.
This can be compared with AL’s campaign which has brought together an effective and attractive mix of online and offline elements coupled with PR which has a pleasant mix of political spokespersons and non-political surrogates. The clear messages of continuity of development and security are also clear to, and resonating with, the people.
Ultimately, the people of Bangladesh would decide who would lead the country for the next five years on December 30. By all estimates, the AL looks set to win a third straight term sailing on the message of continuity of development and strength of Sheikh Hasina’s leadership. But the challenge in the meantime would be to maintain law and order so that the voters can exercise their franchise in peace.
Shah Ali Farhad is a lawyer, researcher, and political activist. He is a Senior Analyst at the Centre for Research and Information (CRI).