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The apex body of the country's apparel industry, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), is going for elections this time, after forming its board of directors twice through negotiations.

If everything goes right, a competitive election will be held on 4 April after eight long years. Leaders of two major coalitions, Sammilita Parishad and Forum, have already started campaigning. Another alliance Swadhinata Parishad is also in the field.

Commerce minister, Dhaka North City Corporation mayor and several lawmakers have joined the campaign for one of the alliances, adding a different dimension to the election.

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Meanwhile, Sammilita Parishad and Forum have taken opposing stances on the use of digital membership card. The voter list has been updated with the inclusion of 536 news entrepreneurs. Many of them are not in business now. Above all, there is a festive mood around the BGMEA election, with apprehensions too.

On 14 February, leaders of Swadhinata Parishad demanded an election that will be fair and free from intimidation. In 2019, their nomination was snatched away and agents were ousted on the voting day. All allegations of Swadhinata Parishad are against the leaders of Sammilita Parishad and Forum though the latter assures there will be a free election.

Failed negotiation

The last competitive election of BGMEA was held in February 2013. Sammilita Parishad and Forum contested it. Both alliances negotiated to finalise the board of directors prior to the next election. In the first phase of negotiation for two terms, a committee led by Siddiqur Rahman of Sammilita Parishad was formed in 22 September 2015 for two years. The committee extended its tenure for 19 months on various grounds. Later the president at the time again tried to extend the committee tenure but former presidents foiled the bid. Siddiqur Rahman left the post of BGMEA president and became the vice-president of the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI) uncontested.

After Siddiqur Rahman left, Sammilita Parishad and Forum moved to form a committee as per the two-year negotiation. But all of a sudden, Swadhinata Parishad, led by managing director of Design and Sources Jahangir Alam, announced they would contest the election. Then the election was held just to maintain formalities. Sammilita Parishad-Forum panel won all the posts. A committee led by Rubana Huq was formed.

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Forum leaders again tried to form a committee through negotiation but leaders of Sammilita Parishad didn’t agree. The incumbent committee also tried to extend its term but failed because of opposing role of former presidents. Eleven out of 14 former presidents are from Sammilita Parishad.

On the failed negotiation, Abdus Salam Murshedy, chief election coordinator of Sammilita Parishad, told a press conference on Monday, “The board of directors was formed twice with competent people through negotiation. However, members didn’t receive services as expected. So, members want an election and if election is held, the board of directors will have accountability. ”

On condition of anonymity, many leaders of Sammilita Parishad said Forum is not organised well. Sammilita Parishad has more chance to win the election, that’s why negations didn’t take place.

Regarding this, leader of the Forum, Mahmud Hasan told Prothom Alo, “Sammilita Parishad negotiated in 2015 as they couldn’t win the election. Now we hold a strong position. Hopefully we will win the election.

Complexity over digital card

Incumbent BGMEA’s board of directors has taken initiative to make digital or biometric identity mandatory for the members to cast vote aimed at bringing transparency to the election. Though Swadhinata Parishad welcomed the move, complexities have arisen due to strong opposition from Sammilita Parishad. At the end, the board leaders softened their stand on making digital cards mandatory. Last December, a decision was taken at a board meeting of BGMEA to issue biometric identity to provide the incentive of the government and the various services of the organisation. The biometric identity will contain details including photos and fingerprints. Collecting photos, signatures and fingerprints for biometric identity began on 16 January. Work on 1,600 members’ biometric identity has already been completed.

Ministry, mayors and MPs in campaign

Meanwhile, three coalitions launched campaigns for the next BGMEA election. Commence minster and Sammilita Parishad’s long-time president, Tipu Munshi was present at the inauguration ceremony of the Parishad’s election office in Gulshan in Dhaka on 15 February. Dhaka North City Corporation mayor and Sammilita Parishad’s general secretary Atiqul Islam was also present. Lawmaker and former BGMEA president Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin have been attending the election meetings of Faruk Hasan regularly. Another lawmaker and former BGMEA president Abdus Salam Murshedy is the chief election coordinator of Sammilita Parishad. However, no minister or lawmaker are campaigning for the Forum.

Regarding this, Forum leader ABM Samsuddin told Prothom Alo, “Ministers and lawmakers work for all people. Seeing their roles supporting a business group diminishes the dignity of their position. Competition should be based on the competence of the candidates. That’s why I request the ministers and the lawmaker not to campaign for any particular group.”

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Trading blames continue

At the announcement programme of the Forum leadership at a Dhaka hotel on 6 February, a supporter alleged that leaders of Sammilita Parishad want to become ministers and lawmakers after winning the election. After becoming president, business becomes less important to them. He also alleged that a Sammilita Parishad leader is securing various contracts including dredging by using the position of the BGMEA president. Replying to the allegation, Abdus Salam Murshedy on 15 February said leaders of the Forum are talking nonsense fearing the forfeiture of security deposits.

Swadhinata Parishad leader Jahangir Alam, at a press conference on 14 February, alleged that the last election was rigged. Votes of those who were abroad at the time of election were also cast. The allegation falls on Sammilita Parishad and Forum as they contested the election jointly.

Swadhinata Parishad in the middle

Defying all odds, Swadhinata Parishad leader Jahangir Alam contested the election in 2019 and bagged more than 400 votes. That’s why both Sammilita Parishad and Forum are trying to forge alliance with Swadhinata Parishad.

Parishad leader Jahangir Alam told Prothom Alo, “If our thoughts and agenda reach a consensus we can contest the polls joint with any alliance. For now, we plan to vie the polls solely.” Alam, however, admitted that they already fielded 26 candidates in Dhaka but were still looking for nine more in Chattogram.

Leaders of both Sammilita Parishad and Forum said talks are on whether or not to forge an alliance with Sammilita Parishad.

Will there be a festive mood in election?

Entrepreneurs of the garment sector have long been directly connected to national politics. Four incumbent ministers and 14 lawmakers are from the garment sector. Two lawmakers and a mayor were among the last four presidents. Besides, incumbent committee’s vice president SM Mannan is the general secretary of Awami League’s Dhaka north city unit.

Several possible candidates fear that, as in national politics, powerful entrepreneurs may influence the BGMEA election. However, Sammilita Parishad leader Faruk Hasan has assured of holding a peaceful election. BGMEA president Rubana Huq said election will be transparent. Any untoward incident is unlikely, she added.

This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna

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