UNDERSTANDING THE PUBLIC PULSE
Given the public pulse, the BNP will have no choice but to go for a constructive engagement with the government instead of an agitation movement
Last year, Bangladesh witnessed unprecedented violence and disorder in the lead up to the January 2014 elections. Though political confrontation is nothing new in Bangladesh, violence took the form of terrorism with random but premeditated bomb explosions, derailment of railway tracks and arson attacks carried out by the opposition.
Over 507 people were killed, 22,407 injured and dozens burned to death amid political violence. The victims included political rivals, security forces personnel and general population. In many cases, innocent bystanders, such as rickshaw pullers, were killed in bomb explosions.
The people were able to finally heave a sigh of relief following the January 5 elections. After a brief period of post-election violence, the country has experienced considerable peace and calm in the political arena.
The government, in its second term, has given a thrust to infrastructure development and economic growth, while keeping the law and order situation more or less under control. The Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC) led by the prime minister has approved dozens of development projects, ranging from rural electricity to metro rail.
In this backdrop, Dhaka Tribune’s opinion poll on politics and governance has been the talk of the town on Monday. This is the first major opinion poll conducted by an independent newspaper to understand the public pulse and sentiment in the last six months.
The results show a significant turnaround compared to similar polls undertaken by the same newspaper in January and February 2014.
Awami League (AL)/Government:
- 75.3% are satisfied with the AL government’s performance in the last six months
- 69.4% believe the country is heading in the right direction
- 53% want the current government to complete its term
- 60% believe the government’s economic performance has been successful
- 63.8% are more or less satisfied with the government’s law and order performance
- 63.3% people identified infrastructure, electricity or economic development as a major success of the government
- As for challenges, 21.5% identified law and order, 16.2% price hike and 13.8% retrieving democracy
Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP):
- 51.8% people are dissatisfied with the BNP
- 55.5% people believe BNP should leave Jamaat
- 77.9% people are opposed to any anti-government agitation by the opposition
- 71.5% people want a dialogue between AL and BNP
Making sense: ‘Feel good’
There is no doubt that the latest opinion poll indicates a major shift in public pulse over the last six months. 69.4% of respondents believe the country is heading in the right direction and 53% of voters want the current government to complete its term in the latest poll, compared to 71% stating the country is moving in the wrong direction and 72% seeking fresh elections in the January and February 2014 respectively. The opinion poll indicates a significant “feel-good” mood in the country.
How do we make sense of the latest opinion poll results?
Stability, growth and development
Foremost, the overwhelmingly positive approval ratings for the government show that voters have
by and large prioritises stability, growth and development. The majority of people want to simply get on with their lives and the government has so far been successful in providing a favourable economic climate for business, investment and livelihoods.
It is evident the voters also recognise there has been a considerable improvement in the law and order situation compared to last year.
Though the January 5 election was boycotted by the main opposition coalition, the opinion poll indicates majority of voters consider it legal and valid. The lack of participation by the BNP-Jamaat alliance have not undermined the legitimacy of the government in the eyes of most people, unlikely the perception of the civil society.
The fact is, the political, social and economic character of our country has changed over the years. Though our people are politically conscious, there is no appetite for violence in the name of political activism. The first priority is development
It is evident from the opinion poll that majority of voters are in favour of constitutional continuity and the present government to complete its term till 2019, firmly rejecting any form of agitation violence by the opposition. Quite simply, people want to see a continuation of peace and stability instead of a return to unrest and bloodshed witnessed last year.
Dialogue vs election
The opinion poll indicates majority of voters prefer a dialogue between the AL and BNP instead of a new election at this stage. This is not surprising as the political impasse and confrontation between the AL and BNP have less to do with general elections and more to do with the overall zero-sum political culture over the last two decades.
There is no reason to believe that a fresh election will lead to better outcomes for the nation, in fact it may be argued that it may plunge the country into another unpredictable cycle of violence, instability and retribution undermining development.
AL: Avoiding complacency
The AL has reason to be contented with the overall opinion poll results, but there is no room for complacency. It appears majority of voters realise they are not spoilt for choices and the status-quo may be the best option available to them. Given the two-party system in the country, the government is benefiting from the lack of public confidence in the opposition at this stage.
However, the opinion poll indicates a fraction of voters remain concerned with law and order, corruption and price hike in the country. Though a relatively small group currently holds these concerns, AL must be responsive and proactive in addressing them to prevent potential escalation of discontent in the future.
The government must strive to ensure good governance for the remainder four and half years of its term.
BNP: Rethinking jamaat
The opinion poll indicates the BNP in its current form with Jamaat as an alliance partner is not a credible alternative for majority of voters. There is strong public rejection of the BNP’s partnership with Jamaat, a fringe party discredited for its links to war crimes, violence and terrorism. This is one of the major factors contributing to the widespread dissatisfaction with the BNP revealed in the opinion poll.
However, the BNP remains the main opposition party despite its lack of representation in the Parliament. The party needs to play a responsible role by rethinking its alliance with Jamaat and other Islamist groups linked to Hefazat-e-Islam. The future of the party will depend on its ability to start afresh as a centre-right party untainted by radical groups.
Given the public pulse, the BNP will have no choice but to go for a constructive engagement with the government instead of an agitation movement rejected by the people in order to ensure a fully participatory generally election in 2019.
The ‘Civil’ gap
The opinion poll reveals a wide gap between the perceptions of the civil society vs the common people of the country. It appears that a section of the civil society, particularly its Dhaka-based elite component, is increasingly out of touch and far removed from the ground realities affecting the public.
The prime concerns of voters are not necessarily shaped by lofty log frames discussed in five star hotel circuits, but the need of a favourable economic climate and law and order situation in order to improve their day-to-day lives. In this respect, the opinion poll reveals the government has delivered so far.
The ‘Mahathir model?’
After two terms each of the AL and BNP governments with the 1/11 interval over the last two decades, majority of voters are more pragmatic and realistic in terms of their expectations from the government.
The turnaround in the government’s approval ratings indicate Bangladesh may move moving towards the Malaysian Dr Mahathir developmental model of peace, stability and continuity for national progress.
At this juncture of history, majority of people want to see development as the top priority. If the AL can articulate Bangladesh’s Vision 2021 and Perspective 2041 as overarching national developmental programs like Malaysia’s Vision 2020, public support for the government may strengthen further.
The last word
The ball is in the AL court as far as the short-term and medium-term political future of the country is concerned. However, there is no room for complacency as the overall swing in the pendulum in the last six months shows the unpredictable nature of public sentiment. It is the undecided or floating voters beyond the core vote banks of the respective parties that make the difference.
If the AL can continue to deliver a strong economy supported by improved law and order, infrastructure development and at least a reasonable level of anti-corruption crackdown, it will be able to sustain the “feel good” mood and complete its term with sustained public support.
The government stands to benefit the most by taking the first step to initiate a broad national dialogue for political reforms to ensure peace and stability prevails in order to pursue its development agenda.
The AL has a unique opportunity to pursue a long-term reform, growth and development program amidst political continuity and consensus in its second consecutive term, unprecedented in our history of parliamentary democracy.
Will there be a paradigm shift for the AL from the “lesser of two evils” to the “better choice?” Only time will tell.
SEPTEMBER 03, 2014