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Over the past decade, ruling Awami League has managed to push the political opposition to one side by controlling all the national and local elections. This trend has continued in the ongoing pouashava (municipal) elections too.

But this has hardly been a matter of relief to Awami League (AL) as its supporters and the supporters of its ‘rebel’ candidates have been clashing over campaigns and control of the polling centres.

They have even been clashing in the post-election period. Having to tackle rivals within their own party, many have been questioning the election system.

Victory for the AL candidates in any election is no longer big news. More important is how the victory came about. This is nothing to be too pleased about, say sources within AL.

The party’s nominated candidates are targeting the party’s ‘rebel’ candidates and the rebel candidates hit back. In-fighting has reached such a height that even certain AL men are remarking that if the elections were free and fair, the party candidates would “hardly have time to flee.”

That is why many of the AL candidates are seeing their victory as a personal win or an opportunity to gain control of the concerned area. They feel that the party is not benefitting much from the massive wins.

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The pourashava polls are being held in four phases this time due to the prevalence of coronavirus. In the first phase on 28 December, elections were held in 24 pourashavas. In the second phase, elections were held in 60 pourashavas on Saturday. AL mayoral candidates won in 64 pourashavas of the two phases of the polls. The party’s ‘rebels’ won in eight pourashavas. BNP managed to win eight mayoral posts, including two taken by BNP’s ‘rebel’ candidates.

A central leader of AL, on condition of anonymity, told Prothom Alo, “If anyone asks me how many of AL have been elected as municipal mayors, I will not be able to say offhand. But the words of Abdul Quader Mirza, mayoral candidate of Basurhat, Noakhali, still ring in my ears. He had said, "Prime minister Sheikh Hasina has managed to ensure people’s right to food, but not their right to vote."

The leader said that AL was very sensitive about any criticism of the election system. There had been a lot of criticism against the government and the party over the past decade, but no one within the party had questioned the elections. However, now Abdul Quader Mirza did so in Noakhali.

Several AL leaders who were in charge of the pourashava polls said that when the Jatiya Sangsad (national parliament) elections took place, the party came out in all force. But there was no tangible strategy from the centre when it came to the local government elections. From the nomination to the winning – much of this depended on the candidate’s money and influence. The number of wealthy and powerful persons had increased within the party. As a result, the party’s leaders and activists were the ones involved in the clashes, taking over the polling centres and openly forcing people to vote.

The law enforcement had a tough time in deciding its role when the conflicting sides are both of the ruling party

Awami League’s presidium member and agriculture minister Muhammad Abdur Razzaque, speaking to Prothom Alo, said an election is a war. The candidates say all sorts of things to win. But any activity that will harm the party, will not be tolerated. Party chief Sheikh Hasina is very stern about this matter. He said that there were all sorts of tangles involved in the local government elections. In the past there has been widespread violence during these elections. Awami League does not want to be tarnished with such a liability.

AL and clashes

There were not many clashes in the first phase of the pourashava polls. Three persons died in the second phase of these elections. Two Awami League men had been killed in Shailakupa, Jhenidah, and an independent candidate in Sirajganj lost his life even after winning the election. It has been alleged that AL men were behind his death.

The Chattogram City Corporation elections are to be held on 27 January. Centering this election, there was an exchange of fire on Tuesday night between supporters of the AL-backed councilor candidate for the city’s Pathantuli ward and those of the ‘rebel’ candidate. One person was killed in the fight. So far AL’s name has been involved in all the killings during these pourashava polls.

There were quite a few incidents of violence leading up to the second phase of the pourashava polls and also on the day of the polls. The pourashavas which saw such violence were Arani in Rajshahi, Barguna, Narsingdi, Shailakupa in Jhenidah, Sirajganj and Faridpur.

AL had rebel candidates in 16 pourashavas during the second phase of these municipal elections. It was in these pourashavas that there were higher incidents of violence. But even in areas where there were not rebel candidates, there were attacks and counter attacks between the supporters of the MPs and those of the upazila chairmen, as well as clashes within the local leadership. No one considers BNP or candidates of any other party as the rival anymore. It is in-fighting that has become hard to control. And the law enforcement had a tough time in deciding its role when the conflicting sides are both of the ruling party. There are fears that this situation will continue during the next two phases of the pourashava elections.

Abdul Quader Mirza said that prime minister Sheikh Hasina had managed to establish people’s right to food, but the right to vote was yet to be established
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Speaking to Prothom Alo, a central leader of AL said that people think that the party benefits from having many elected people’s representatives at the grassroots. But during the coronavirus pandemic, these people’s representatives couldn’t be wholly relied upon to distribute relief. It was the police and the local administration who played the key role in this regard.

On the contrary, there were allegations that the people’s representatives had misappropriated relief. And most of these were AL men. What is the use of electing these people if they only bring disrepute to the party, he asked.

AL presidium member Kazi Zafrullah, speaking to Prothom Alo, said with the party being in power for a stretch of 12 years, there has developed a propensity among some to control everything, to get embroiled in violence and to create controversy for the party. But the party is looking into all this. Personal interests will not be allowed to override the party.

Election system questioned

Mayoral candidate of Basurhat pourashava in Noakhali, Abdul Quader Mirza, organised a road blockade there on 3 January, in demand of free and fair municipal polls. He is the younger brother of AL general secretary Obaidul Quader. He sternly criticised his family and local Awami League. He kept up his tirade until the election, creating a stir nationwide. He won the election on Saturday with a massive margin of votes.

After the road blockade, Abdul Quader Mirza said that prime minister Sheikh Hasina had managed to establish people’s right to food, but the right to vote was yet to be established. Obliquely referring to the local MP, he said if the elections were free and fair, other than in a few constituencies, the AL candidates would not even get the time to flee. His statements have gone viral on people’s mobile phones.

On Saturday after the second phase of the pourashava polls, two senior AL leaders discussed Abdul Quader Mirza’s criticism with this correspondent. They said there may be two strategies behind his words. One, votes increase if you speak against the government and the party. This seems evident in the landslide victory he secured. And the Basurhat election was free of the apprehensions he had voiced concerning a free election. Two, he had actually thought the election would not be free and fair and so wanted to put pressure on the administration and the party. Whatever his strategy may have been, it proved to be successful. But in doing so, he has raised questions about both the party and the election system.

Secretary of Citizens for Good Governance (Shushaner Jonno Nagorik -SHUJAN), Badiul Alam Majumdar, told Prothom Alo that the government and the election commission together have destroyed the election system.

Awami League now has the power to do both good and bad. He said that the leaders and activists of the ruling party were of the opinion that they could do anything. As there was no opposition, they were wielding their power among themselves. No one seemed to be bothered that this was making both the party and the election system controversial.

*This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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