Five city polls bring different challenges for AL, BNP and EC

Prothom Alo illustrtion

The forthcoming elections to five city corporations have left ruling Awami League, opposition BNP and Election Commission in a quandary. All these three sides think that these elections can have an impact on the next general election. Any wrong step in the city elections can be costly for them. As a result, all three sides have different challenges centering the city polls.

What strategies BNP takes in these city polls or how Awami League or Election Commission behave would be closely observed in and outside the country. There is lots of apprehension in different quarters as to what direction politics in the country take in the lead up to the next general election.

The challenge for BNP, which has been continuing its movement demanding the national election be held under a neutral government, is somewhat complex. There is a discussion inside the party on whether there would be any polarization in the party or whether the government would take any strategy over BNP’s participation in the city polls.

Challenge for BNP even if it boycotts polls

As part of the ongoing movement, BNP remains firm on its stance of not participating in any election under the regime. The party would not join the city polls from this point of view. But there is pressure from grassroots activists to the central leadership of the party in the question of participating in the polls.

It seems that Sylhet city mayor and BNP leader Ariful Haque Chowdhury might participate in the election. He even went to London to discuss the matter with the party's acting chairperson. BNP leader Nazrul Islam Manju has openly expressed his interest to contest in Khulna city polls. Gazipur BNP leader Hasan Uddin Sarker has been saying that the ruling party candidate would not be let win without a fight. If these leaders really take part in the polls and BNP become forced to support them unofficially, then the party’s stance of not participating in the polls under this government would be in question. On the contrary, if BNP remains adamant in its stance, the government might take advantage of the willingness of the BNP leaders to contest in the polls and hold ‘Ukil Sattar Model’ elections like in Brahmanbaria-2 by-polls. There is an apprehension among BNP leadership that the government, if successful, might use the same strategy in the next general election.

At a time when BNP is talking about taking their movement to the next level leading up to the national election, if leaders like Ariful Haque Chowdhury and Nazrul Islam contest in the City Corporation election, it would raise questions about the party’s unity and solidarity. Many election observers also feel that there are many external challenges for BNP as well.

Fair Election Monitoring Alliance (FEMA) president Munira Khatun told Prothom Alo, “If BNP doesn’t take part in the City Corporation elections and it ends up being a well held election, it would put the party in an awkward position. Because the government would try to use it to show the people of the country and the international community that good elections are being held under this government.”

BNP has already made it clear that they won’t take part in the elections as a party. However, BNP hasn’t clarified what its stance would be if some party members become independent candidates to contest in the election.

The BNP leadership feels the government will try to entrap BNP in the City Corporation election ahead of the national election. The party’s secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir has continuously said they won’t fall into this trap.

He told Prothom Alo he sees no challenge for his party ahead of the City Corporation election. They only have one challenge in front of them, which is a free and fair national election under a non-partisan government. They will remain undeterred to their goal.

Ruling party and election commission face test

The City Corporation election has placed the ruling Awami League face to face with a difficult test. There are questions over the country’s election system. It’s not just the opposition parties who are asking the questions, the general people are also losing faith in the election. The lack of voter interest in the recent local government elections and by-election was apparent.

Moreover, the opposition party is carrying on its movement for a national election under a non-partisan government. In this backdrop, if the City Corporation elections end up being one-sided, it would deepen the current political crisis. That would be detrimental for the ruling party.

Moreover, if the opposition party doesn’t participate, the inner turmoil of Awami League could increase and they might have to tackle rebel candidates. Out of the five cities, Gazipur, Sylhet and Barishal could see rebel candidates. There is less chance of that happening in Rajshahi and Khulna.

Several Awami League leaders are seeing a big challenge for the government to hold a participatory election. Some of them are saying they want interested BNP leaders to take part in the polls to ensure a competitive election. There are indications from several AL leaders that the government might play a role in ensuring competitive elections.

There are already discussions within the ruling party regarding the voter’s lack of interest in polls. The party leaders are saying that if no one from the BNP takes part in the polls independently, then their target will be increasing the number of voters at the polling centres to establish that people have confidence in the government despite a non-participatory election.

There is no doubt that holding controversial city elections would further justify the purposes of BNP’s movement. Even the Awami League is also considering this. There is clear indication of that in the speeches of the party leaders in recent times. Therefore, there is pressure on the ruling party to ensure a free, fair and acceptable city election.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, Awami League’s presidium member and agriculture minister Abdur Razzaque said that they (AL) have taken the city elections quite seriously. They will try to ensure a competitive and acceptable election during the city polls.

The lack of confidence with the Election Commission is also a major issue now. Besides, the city polls will also make it clear whether the EC can act independently outside the influence of the government.

Election observer Munira Khan believes the EC must exert it commitment to hold competitive and acceptable polls before the city elections. Otherwise, people's lack of confidence with the EC will further increase.

Election commissioner Md Anisur Rahman told Prothom Alo that in case of non-participatory election, the challenge would be different than that of a participatory election. However, regardless of the challenges and possible obstacles, they would try holding a free and fair election, he added.

He further said the EC is putting stress on the city elections to regain people’s confidence.

The election to Gazipur City Corporation will be held on 25 May while the polls to Khulna and Barishal city corporation will be held on 12 June. The elections to Rajshahi and Sylhet city corporation will be held on 21.

Speaking regarding the city polls, political analyst Mohiuddin Ahmed told Prothom Alo that the city elections will be held a few months prior to the national polls. Therefore, it has become quite significant in the existing political context of the country. Everybody will have an eye on this election, he added.