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Dhaka Tribune

A by-election, a candidate assaulted, absent voters

Sometimes a road less travelled is less travelled for a reason

Update : 20 Jul 2023, 12:38 PM

It is rare for a candidate at an election to be set upon by a mob, beaten to the ground and hardly anyone coming to his rescue. When Hero Alom was manhandled at a polling centre in the Dhaka-17 constituency on Monday, it was a slap on all our faces here in Bangladesh. The slap need not have come, given that it was a by-election which was taking place, given that this by-election was a test case for the Election Commission as it prepares to organize the next general election later this year or early the next. 

In so many words, the brutality that was exercised on Hero Alom, a man with no organization but only his doggedness to support him, an individual who has been mocked for everything that he does not have -- looks, stature, political links, and indeed for the quixotic nature of his repeated attempts to seize the limelight -- should have put us all to shame. Perhaps it has, perhaps it has not. Alom is part of that segment of society, the lower-middle class harbouring big dreams, which accounts for the vast majority of the population of this land.

There have not been many who have been appreciative of his brand of politics, if it was politics at all. There are many who have questioned his audacity in seeking a parliamentary seat from a so-called “elitist” zone in the nation's capital, for Alom has never been part of the elite and perhaps never will be. But there is, among those of us who believe in untrammelled democracy, the idea that pluralism is that system in political governance which makes no class distinctions, which abjures all attempts to thwart an exercise of the vote. It was this idea that led us into persuading ourselves that Alom would have the freedom to carry out his campaign for Dhaka-17 without any impediments coming his way.

Unfortunately for Alom and for those of us, including the many among us who may not have subscribed to Alom's understanding of politics or the plans he had or did not have for the constituency were he to get elected, the impediments did come in his way. Days prior to the vote, his visit to a slum was marred by an assault on him by women, some of whom physically swooped on him. In a bizarre manner, videos subsequently emerged of people accusing Alom of having assaulted them during that attempted campaign swing. Imagine the picture: here was Alom, physically small and lean and thin, lunging at so many people and assaulting them when it was really a mob that was set upon him! 

Hero Alom has been the target of that prosperous social fringe asking such inane questions as to whether his academic limitations would enhance the prestige of parliament were he to get elected. Ignored was the fact that educational qualifications have not always been the criteria for politics to be based on. This was yet one more instance of the “elitism” we are saddled with in many areas of society today. Alom, in truth, never had a fair chance. His campaign was not permitted to take off. He was often projected as an agent of the larger political opposition out to embarrass the ruling party. He was not seen addressing any major rally ahead of the vote. Wherever he turned up with a small band of his followers, it was with a display of incredible courage that he did.

All said and done, those images of Hero Alom being chased by a mob, being beaten by it, to a point where he needed to check in at a hospital have now added to the welter of questions which have regularly arisen about the nature of our elections. None of these images should make anyone in this country happy, be they fans of the ruling party or the opposition. It was only a by-election, but it has raised once more questions about our politics in the international arena. We did not need to have this coming; we did not need to have this new slur hurled at a people whose belief in the principle of politics being an unfettered demonstration of democracy has never wavered. 

We have never been comfortable with foreign governments and international organizations educating us on how elections ought to be conducted. We had always believed that our own institutions responsible for ensuring that voting was conducted in a manner that followed a global rules-based system of democratic politics would be strong enough to help us ward off any outside moves to interfere with our lives. But when a simple by-election raises questions of a complex sort, we have no defence when the United Nations, the US State Department and others seek to have their opinions made known to us. 

Hero Alom, the man who was laughed at and laughed off by many because of his bad rendition of Rabindrasangeet, for his not so enlightening roles in drama, for all his eccentricities, is today a subject of discussion beyond Bangladesh. The men who went after him physically on July 17 have ensured that Hero Alom's heroism makes headlines around the world. They gave him that platform.

July 17, 2023 will not be remembered in future because the ruling party nominee won that seat in parliament. It will be remembered as that moment in Bangladesh's political history when a candidate for that seat was not allowed the opportunity to campaign according to rules or to concede defeat gracefully but was humiliated physically by a mob unable to accept his participation in the election with equanimity. And there is that other point, one which raises a worrying question. 

How does an election acquire credibility when no more than 11% of voters cast their ballots, when as many as 89% stay away from the polling centres? Democracy is a tough exercise. It has no space for dictators, as in Africa and elsewhere, romping home with 99% of the vote. Neither does it endorse an election where fewer than 50% of voters exercise their right to franchise. 

Bangladesh's Election Commission needs to do some serious rethinking on the issue. That a threshold of 50% must be reached before an election can be called credible should set minds thinking at the commission. Moreover, there ought to be the specification that a winning candidate must garner at least 50% of the vote in order to be declared triumphant at an election. Where no candidate gains 50% in the first round of voting (and this could be owing to the presence of a large number of candidates), a second round involving the two highest vote winners should follow.

Bangladesh's people went to war 52 years ago because their electoral mandate at the 1970 election was repudiated in March 1971. They won that war, with three million of their compatriots murdered by the enemy. Today, decades on, the collective national voice speaks without ambiguity: The road to democracy is not easy, but it need not be made even more difficult through having losing or putatively losing candidates at elections suffer physical abuse at the hands of mobs no one seems able to put a leash on. 

Let us not go down that road.


Syed Badrul Ahsan is Consultant Editor, Dhaka Tribune.

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