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The myth of the anti-incumbency factor

  • Published at 10:53 am July 1st, 2018
  • Last updated at 01:07 pm July 3rd, 2018
A popular leaderREUTERS

Continuity, not anti-incumbency, will lead us to development

One of the most prevalent and long-standing notions of Bangladeshi politics is that of the “anti-incumbency” factor in politics. In simple terms, this idea propagates that every five years or more, the people of Bangladesh prefer to vote out of power whichever party heads the government in the hopes of changing or shaking up the political order. 

Having its roots in other more advanced political systems, especially in the developed countries of North America and Europe, the notion has been suggested as being equally applicable to countries with vastly different socio-economic situations and political cultures.     

Such a uniform application of the notion, however, fails to take into account the different stories of many other countries, where the people have opted for continuity of governments headed by the same parties in order to maintain the thrust of development. 

In fact, even in the US, two terms for a president is the norm rather than the exception. With regards to Bangladesh specifically, this notion fails to take into account the evidence at hand, and the political realities of the last decade.

In particular, I feel that experts and self-styled pundits are erring towards portraying this “anti-incumbency” sentiment as being a dominant one in our current political situation for three main reasons.

First, all credible public opinion surveys from the last two years suggest that, statistically, the Awami League as a party and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as a leader are clearly more popular than rivals BNP and its leaders Khaleda Zia and Tarique Rahman. The polls also show a steady progression of the number of people who think the country is headed in the right direction under the current government.

The public opinion surveys by the Independent-RDC of March 2017, the International Republication Institute (IRI) from April 2017, and Democracy International (DI) from October 2016 all show that the approval ratings of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and AL are substantially higher than that of BNP and Khaleda Zia, and most people in Bangladesh are optimistic about the direction of the country.    

In the Independent-RDC polls, 72.3% of respondents expressed a “good” opinion about Sheikh Hasina running the country. In contrast, only 26.6% of respondents held a good opinion about Khaleda Zia. The same polls showed that 56.9% of respondents had a “good” opinion about AL, compared to only 18.5% for BNP. 

When asked who they would vote for if elections were held on that day, 36.1% of respondents said they would vote for the AL, compared to 3.5% for BNP.

In the poll by DI, 70% of the respondents stated that the country is headed in the right direction, which marked a 12% rise from DI’s earlier poll conducted in the previous year. When asked whom they would vote for, if elections were held on that day, 38% respondents said they would vote for AL, compared to only 5% for BNP.

The IRI poll from April 2017 shows that 75% of Bangladeshis hold the opinion that the country is headed in the right direction. The same poll showed that the public hold a very high approval rating for PM Sheikh Hasina with 83%, which shows a steady progression from 77% and 80% revealed in IRI’s earlier polls from November 2015 and February 2016.     

Second, most of the major and recent local government elections and parliamentary by-elections from the last two years show that not only are candidates fielded by the AL winning, but the party’s share of votes has increased too, in almost all these elections. 

The two most recent elections were held in Gazipur and Khulna city corporations, where AL candidates won big. While some irregularities were reported in said elections, observers agree that they were not statistically significant enough to have changed the outcomes. 

In December 2016, AL candidate Selina Hayat Ivy sailed in the Narayanganj City Corporation election with a difference of around 80,000 votes with her rival candidate from BNP, in an election that was branded as completely peaceful, free and fair. While the AL did lose in the Rangpur City Corporation election to Jatiya Party, it still managed to win most councillor seats. 

AL also won big with a 50,000 vote difference in the parliamentary by-election in Nasirnagar, Brahmanbaria, in an election where no irregularities or violence were reported or alleged. 

Although the AL candidate lost in the other by-election in Sundarganj, Gaibandha to the Jatiya Party nominee, the margin of loss was significantly lower with a difference of only 10,000 votes. 

Analysis by media and experts reveal that the dominant factors for AL’s wins included party unity at the local level, strong organizational backing, and of course, nominating the right candidates who resonated with voters, especially youth voters. 

This can be coupled with AL’s emphasis on development and popularity of leader Sheikh Hasina and AL over Khaleda Zia, Tarique Rahman, and the BNP. This brings us to my third and final reason for repudiating the “anti-incumbency” notion.      

People are increasingly attaching more positive traits with the party in power than negative ones, as demonstrated by scientific research. In the series of Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) conducted by IRI in the summer of 2017 and released in April 2018, some very interesting points emerge from the voices of grassroots which merit our consideration.

According to the report on FGDs, most participants expressed a positive view of the AL and its leader, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, strongly associating her and the party with the country’s independence movement and current development. 

The FGDs suggest that AL’s incumbent government is in a strong political position entering the 2018 election cycle because of its development achievements and the popularity of its leader.

On the other hand, most participants viewed the BNP and its leader Khaleda Zia and Jamaat-e-Islami negatively.

The FGDs revealed that BNP and Jamaat are being viewed negatively because of their association with “violence, intransigence, and religious extremism.” 

The FGDs also showed a rejection of Tarique Rahman by most participants from across Bangladesh because of his involvement in corruption and nepotism. 

It is quite plausible that the conviction of Khaleda Zia for corruption and Tarique Rahman’s assumption of responsibilities as BNP’s acting chief may have intensified the public emotions and further deteriorated BNP’s negative public perception, as demonstrated in the last two big wins by the AL in the mayoral elections. 

It is also not far-fetched to assume that, given the choice between the very popular Sheikh Hasina and the very unpopular Tarique Rahman, people are not finding it difficult at all to make up their minds. 

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and AL leaders have, on multiple occasions, emphasized on the point of continuity of a government for the accomplishment of major development aspirations, given that Bangladesh has traditionally seen breaks and even abandonment of development projects with the change of governments.  

It appears that this message is now resonating well with the electorate, who are well aware of the Singapore and Malaysia models where continuity has resulted in tremendous socio-economic development.    

Therefore, I conclude that “continuity” and not “anti-incumbency” appears to be the order of the day in the politics of Bangladesh. 

Shah Ali Farhad is a lawyer, researcher, and political activist. 

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