Voting has almost disappeared in the elections of the various trade bodies. Most committees of district chambers and district trade bodies are formed without votes. Committees are formed through understanding in the commodity-based establishments as well.

Most of the district trading bodies and commodity-based organisations are headed by cronies of the government or the businessmen from Awami League or its associate organisations, Many of them are holding onto these posts year after year.

As a result, the general businessmen are being deprived of electing leaders of their own associations. And so the actual state of trade and commerce is not being discussion among the business community.

Inquiries reveal that the committees of 43 out of the 63 district chambers of the country including Bhairab formed their last committees without any kind of voting. Voting took place in 17 chambers. In three, administrators were appointed due to conflict over voting.

A total of 28 district chamber presidents currently have posts in Awami League and its associate organisations. There are former leaders of Awami League in the post of president of six chambers, while the presidents of five district chambers are close relatives of Awami League leaders. The presidents of three district chambers are former leaders of BNP and the presidents of two are former leaders of Jatiya Party.

There has been no voting in many commodity-based organisations including BKMEA, the association of knitwear industry owners, REHAB, the association of real estate agents, and BPGME, the association of plastic product manufacturers and exporters.

Even FBCCI, the apex body of business persons, did not have any voting for two consecutive terms. The last election was held in July last year. Those affiliated with Awami League politics got berths in the committee.

Talking to business leaders of various levels, it was learnt that becoming a leader in such business bodies opens the opportunity of getting nomination in the local and national level election, getting posts in political parties, wielding clout in the locality, and availing foreign trips as part of the prime minister’s entourage. This also helps in business.

For these reasons, there is a tendency among a section of businesspersons to become leaders of these business bodies by any means. Besides, political party leaders in various districts have also become eager to occupy the posts in these business organisations.

The upper echelon of the ruling party is also supporting them to become business leaders for their own interests. As a result, most of the committees are formed through understanding after completing all the election processes in most cases.

The outgoing president of FBCCI, Md. Jasim Uddin, told Prothom Alo that in most district chambers and commodity-based business organisations, those who are in the leadership want to cling onto the posts. Businesses These chambers need new leadership for someone to speak for the business community.

To ensure that, the leadership should not be for more than two terms. The current rules and regulations need to be amended in order to bring in qualified people to the leaderships. He said the new law pertaining to business associations was amended just within one year and yet the no regulations were drawn up to implement the law. Business bodies must be reformed through stern regulations.

The main objective of a business chamber is to protect the interests of businesspersons, sustainable development of business and creation of a favourable environment for business. But unhealthy competition prevails in these bodies
Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of TIB

Voting irregular in FBCCI

The upper echelons of the government decides who will become president and vice-president of FBCCI, the apex body of the businesspersons. In the last few elections none other than the government-backed candidates took part in the election for president. So quarters within the business community see FBCCI as a business branch of the government.

Even in its last election in July, FBCCI could not restore voting fully. The voting was partial. The post of president was finalised even before the election. As a result, the former president of Chattogram Chamber, Mahbubul Alam, was first elected director and then president unopposed.

However, the Combined Trades Council, known as the opposition panel in the polls, won 15 of the 23 posts of directors. President Mahbubul Alam is a member of Awami League's Industry and Commerce Sub-Committee.  Amin Helali, the representative of Bangladesh Textbook Printing and Marketing Association was elected as the senior vice president.

The six persons elected as vice-president are Sunamganj Chamber president and district Jubo League convenor Khairul Huda, Gazipur chamber president and central Awami League’s industry and commerce sub-committee member Anwar Sadat Sarkar, representative of Bangladesh chamber and treasurer of Faridpur district Awami League Jashoda Jiban Debnath, president of e-commerce association Shomi Kaiser, Awami League presidium member Mofazzal Hossain Chowdhury Maya’s son Rashedul Hossain Chowdhury and exporters’ association representative and Awami League’s industry and commerce subcommittee member Munir Hossain. Among them only Shomi Kaiser and Rashedul Hasan Chowdhury were elected as directors through direct vote. The rest were elected as directors through selection or unopposed.

As Mahbubul Alam took over as president of FBCCI, the tenure of Md Jashim Uddin came to an end. He was elected president without votes in 2021. Before that Sheikh Fazle Fahim had also become president in the same manner. In 2017, however, a partial vote took place when Shafiul Alam Mohidudin became president. He is currently a member of parliament in Dhaka-10 constituency.

Eight of the last 11 presidents of FBCCI, including Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin, are currently directly involved in politics. The outgoing president Jasim Uddin is a member of the sub-committee on industry and commerce of Awami League, while Sheikh Fazle Fahim, who served as president before him, is a member of the presidium of the Jubo League's central committee.

Former president Kazi Akram Uddin Ahmad is a member of the advisory council of Awami League, Yusuf Abdullah Harun is a member of parliament of Awami League from Comilla-3 constituency. Another former president, Salman F Rahman, is prime minister Sheikh Hasina's advisor for private industry and investment.

Former president AK Azad is trying to for nomination from Awami League in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. On the other hand, Abdul Awal Mintu is the advisor of the BNP chairperson.

Late Anisul Haque was elected as the mayor of Dhaka North City, being nominated by Awami League.

Shariatpur Chamber’s president AKM Ismail Haque, who has been holding the post since 2015, is the brother of former police IGP AKM Shahidul Haque. He also became president without votes. Ismail Haque is the joint secretary of district Awami League and upazila council chairman of Nariya.

Party leaders in district chambers

To become FBCCI president and vice-president it needs blessings from the government. So those involved in the local Awami League politics get the advantage. The blessings of the local Awami League are required even to become district chamber leaders. However, Awami League leaders are becoming business leaders without any vote.

In the last one and a half decades the president of Gazipur and Bandarban district committees are Anwar Sadat and Kyaw Shwe Hla Marma respectively. Anwar Sadat is the member of Awami League’s subcommittee of industry and commerce while Kyaw Shwe Hla Marma is the president of district Awami League.

Saidur Rahman has been the president of Barishal chamber for 13 years. This launch businessman became president without a vote. He is the vice-president of the city Awami League. He is also the chairman of sadar upazila council. Kazi Aminul Haque has been president for the same period of time in Khulna Chamber. He also holds the post of senior vice-president of city Awami League.

Bogura chamber's Masudur Rahman, Satkhira's Nasim Farooq Khan and Chuadanga's Md. Yakub Hossain Malik have been chamber presidents for 10 years. Among them, Masudur Rahman and Nasim Farooq became president without voting. Masudur Rahman is the treasurer of district Awami League. Nasim Farooq is the former general secretary of district jubo league.

Shariatpur chamber’s president AKM Ismail Haque, who has been holding the post since 2015, is the brother of former police IGP AKM Shahidul Haque. He also became president without voting. Ismail Haque is the joint secretary of district Awami League and upazila council chairman of Nariya. Hafizur Rahman, the younger brother of former shipping minister Shajahan Khan, has been the president of the Madaripur Chamber for two tenures ever since he availed the post without voting in 2021.

No voting in commodity-based bodies

AKM Selim Osman, the member of parliament of Narayanganj-5 constituency has been clinging onto the post of the president of BKMEA, the organisation of Knitwear industry owners for the last 10 and a half years. No election took place in the directorial board of the organisation since 2012. A committee was formed through consensus last July and Osman ascended to the post of president as usual.

The tenure of the current committee of BGMEA, the association of the owners of the garment industry, the top export source of the country, ended last April. Before that, however, the current president Farooq Hasan extended the term of the committee by six months. The council's extended term ends in October, before which elections are to be held in September.

According to the law, there is an obligation to constitute the election board 90 days before the election and to announce the election schedule 80 days before, but the current board is yet to do that.

BGMEA's election alliance forum has demanded the election of the next board within the stipulated time. In the first week of August, they formally complained to the Director General of Trade Organizations Division of the Ministry of Commerce. The leaders of the forum requested to take legal steps against the current president for not commencing the election process within the stipulated time.

However, amid this cacophony, the current BGMEA board started to argue with the higher echelons of the government to extend the term of the committee. For this, the Ministry of Commerce took the initiative to amend the law.

Until now, there was a provision to extend the tenure of the business organisations by six months upon completing their term by citing various reasons. Now it has been extended to one year. On August 29, the Cabinet gave its final approval to the draft Trade Organizations (amendment) Act 2023. It was passed by the national parliament last Thursday.

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REHAB, the association of real estate agents, used to have festive elections. In 2014, Alamgir Shamsul Alamin came to the post of president without voting. He became the president in the next three terms through consensus. Currently, the process of election for the next term of the organisation is going on. A contested vote is likely.

On the other hand, the Bangladesh Plastic Products Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BPGMEA) has not been voting for almost a decade. The current president Samim Ahmed has been president for three consecutive terms without a vote.

Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of TIB, told Prothom Alo that the situation is almost the same in all of these bodies of businessmen and professionals. These associations are deviating from their original objectives. Voting in these bodies for leadership have also disappeared.

The main objective of a business association is to protect the interests of businesspersons, sustainable development of business and creation of a favourable environment for business. But there exists an unhealthy competition in these bodies.

Iftekharuzzaman further said, the main objective placing an individual of one's choice at the helm of business organisations is to fulfill the business agenda. A strong nexus between power and business has been created.

People in the leadership of business organisations are taking unlawful privileges. Businesspersons outside of this syndicate who want to do healthy business are cornered. The chambers do not play any role in solving their problems.

(The correspondents of concerned districts and upazila of Prothom Alo helped prepare this article by providing information.)

* This article appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Syed Faiz Ahmed