'Electoral economy' goes undetected

Published: December 05, 2018 21:54:46 | Updated: December 07, 2018 22:13:37

The eagerly-awaited national election is just weeks away. The fervour over the campaigns and the accompanying excitement has already reached a crescendo. In cases, worries are leading to cliffhangers. Many of the MP-hopefuls are on the tenterhooks, with the polls day approaching fast. But the general mood is one of festivity. Campaigns featuring voter-wooing rallies and processions, posters and banners, massive floats demonstrating party symbols and focusing on the contesting candidates will begin from the next week. Like on the previous occasions, these activities highlight a poll-time feature of significance: a fast emerging sector in the national economy related to electoral spending. Like the lately growing Eid and Pahela Baishakh economies, this one also deserves to be placed in the national context --- though paltry in size. However, all this depends on the prevalence of an atmosphere conducive to a participatory election.

National elections in this country have been a festivity of sorts since its citizens began enjoying franchise. Even the pre-independence period, especially the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s, was no exception. The then East Pakistan-wide enthusiasm generated by the presidential election campaigns represented by Fatima Jinnah's symbol 'paddy bunch' and her rival General Ayub Khan's 'rose' is still fresh in the memory of many. It was echoed in the nationally decisive election of 1970, when Awami League's 'boat', along with NAP-Mozaffar's 'hut' and the smaller parties' symbols flooded the country. Campaigns included cross-country meetings and colourful processions, posters, banners, 'mikings' etc during the pre-poll days in that year. It had set a new trend of electioneering in the land. Since that period, elections in Bangladesh have virtually been bouts of campaign-related spending. Besides the new-style poll campaign, the 1970 election, and the following ones, witnessed the birth of the new economic culture --- spending sizeable amounts of money on campaigns.

The Election Commissions (ECs) in the country have customarily had in place a rule limiting spending in campaigns. The 2018 EC has fixed Tk 10 per voter for campaign spending by candidates. In a notice it has said candidates cannot spend more than Tk 2.5 million, regardless of the number of voters in a constituency. In the light of past instances, the restrictive measures in lots of cases were found not being honoured by the candidates of major parties. Detection of the non-compliance and threatened punitive actions bore no fruits, making excessively overspendings a norm for the elections. The scenario is different in the developed countries like the USA. In the US elections, individual donations as well as fund-raising dinners help the Congressional hopefuls meet their campaign expenditure. The presidential candidates are eligible to public funds, i.e. those from the federal government. These electoral rules are stringent, to say the least.

In comparison, the scenario is lackadaisical and filled with discrepancies in this country. With this lacunae becoming persistent, electoral campaign spending nowadays has turned a veritably free-for-all affair. Thus in a fully participatory national election, the campaign-related razzmatazz has become integral to the poll. As a corollary, expensive publicity juggernauts are seen in place with money generously flowing into campaigns. Apart from the 24-hour operation of printing presses, renting and buying of megaphones, hiring of vehicles and publicity professionals to pre-poll feasts --- lots of innovative strategies are seen during the run-up to the campaign deadline. The flurry of these campaign activities, in effect, carries the signs of the growth of a new-type informal economy. It could also be defined as 'electoral economy'.

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