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Volume:7, Number:42
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IDLE MIND
SYED BADRUL AHSAN
by SYED BADRUL AHSAN

Surprises at the Voting Booth

Elections often throw up surprises, especially in our times. In this past week, the French have shown how ready they are to eject their mainstream political parties from the scene and go for a new set of people to shape their future. Whether the future of France is now in the hands of Emmanuel Macron or Marine Le Pen depends on the decision Frenchmen and Frenchwomen make at the second round of the presidential election in May. But make no mistake about the surprise that has been sprung on the world.

Indeed, these past many months have left people flabbergasted to no end. You have the reality show star Donald Trump, in that improbable way, now occupying the White House. That place, in terms of logic and history, properly belonged to Hillary Clinton. But that has not happened. Thanks to a whole lot of things, not least a Russian manipulation of the vote, that have been going on. In the Trump case, you could say that the surprise has been more in the nature of shock.

And surprise swiftly turned into shock in 1945 when Britons decided that the man who had led them to victory against the Nazis, Winston Churchill, needed to be sent out to pasture. They chose Clement Attlee as their new leader. Good old Winston did come back five years later, but the 1945 surprise has lingered in the history books. And see how American voters went for a surprise in 1948? The unpopular US president Harry Truman was doomed, so the pollsters said day after day in the buildup to the presidential election. The next president, everyone averred, was New York governor Thomas Dewey, who went to bed on Election Night convinced he would be presidentelect the next morning. He woke up to discover that Truman had been the tortoise to his hare.

In our part of the world, our very volatile South Asia, electoral surprises have been quite a few. Who would have thought Indira Gandhi and her Congress would lose office, and so miserably at that, to the cranky old men led by Morarji Desai in 1977? But Gandhi did lose, which suggested plainly that Indian voters had come of age. But if that holds true, how do you explain the rise of Narendra Modi? There was the taint of the 2002 Gujarat riots on him; western governments had imposed visa bans on him. And yet he stormed to power at the ballot box in 2014. And he keeps winning elections nearly everywhere. Surprise or shock? Or, is it disbelief?

At the 1991 election in Bangladesh, it was a given that Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League were riding back to power after years in the political wilderness. The leading lights of the party gave every indication of being an imminent government. The electorate decided otherwise. They handed victory to an absolutely unprepared and flustered Khaleda Zia. Surprise somewhat had also been there at the 1970 election in united Pakistan. The Awami League under Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was widely expected to win, but what had not been thought of was the sheer scale of the victory the electorate gave the party. In West Pakistan, the preelection assessment was that the rightists --- the many factions of the Muslim League, the Jamaat-e-Islami and other religious parties --- would end up getting, between them, a majority of the seats apportioned for the region. But Z.A. Bhutto’s People’s Party surprised everyone, with its eighty-eight seats out of a total of a hundred and thirty eight.

Electoral surprises can often be an antidote to ennui, which sometimes settles over politics. You can think here of the victory a few years ago of Maithripala Sirisena over the rather autocratic Mahinda Rajapakse in Sri Lanka. The country needed a change, but no one was sure Rajapakse would lose after his much trumpeted battlefield victory against the LTTE. In the event, Sri Lanka’s voters did to Rajapakse what Britons had done to Churchill in 1945.

Sometimes the results thrown up by the ballot box often leave people more bewildered than surprised. At last year’s EU referendum in Britain, no one expected the Remainers led by Prime Minister David Cameron to lose. But upstarts like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove and the very irritating Nigel Farage went out on a limb to ensure a triumph for the Leavers. The consequences have been horrific. Theresa May has no clue how to take her country out of the European Union now that a small majority of voters have decided, without much serious thought, to opt out of the alliance.

Decades ago, a voters’ surprise lay in store for president Charles de Gaulle in France. He called a minor constitutional referendum in April 1969, and for good measure told Frenchmen that if he lost he would resign. Almost everyone in France – and this was only months after the chaos that had descended on the country in May 1968 --- went to work to defeat De Gaulle. He lost, promptly resigned, and retired to his country home.

The moral out of all this? Voter predictability does not much work these days. Is that a surprise?

Syed Badrul Ahsan is the Associate Editor of Asian Age

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