Gazipur city election: Peaceful, but how credible

The Gazipur City Corporation election was held peacefully, with no visible irregularities or excesses. Independent candidate Zayeda Khatun defeated the Awami League-backed candidate Azmat Ullah with a margin of 16,187 votes. Zayeda Khatun bagged 238,934 votes. Azmat Ullah won 222,747 votes.

Azmat Ullah is a tried and tested politician. He was the Tongi municipal mayor for three terms. He is well educated. He is known to be a gentleman. On the other hand, Zayeda Khatun is a self-educated non-political entity. Her main identity is that she is the mother of former mayor Jahangir Alam. 

The questions making the rounds now are: how were there such unexpected results in Gazipur? What made the election peaceful? What message has the Gazipur election delivered regarding the next four city corporation polls and the 12th national parliamentary election?

Several factors appeared to have worked behind Zayeda Khatun's victory. Firstly, the ruling party possibly did not take her very seriously. That is not improbable, if the background of the two candidates is taken into consideration. After all, there is a huge difference in their education, qualifications and experiences. It would have been a different matter if former mayor Jahangir Alam was a contestant.

Secondly, voters' sympathy possibly went in favour of Zayeda Khatun. Many felt that Jahangir Alam's candidacy was unjustly cancelled. They wanted to retaliate by ensuring that his mother won. The possibility cannot be ruled out that the supporters of other parties, even BNP supporters, voted for Zayeda Khatun in order to embarrass the ruling party. Then again, there is a strong rumour of vote buying, which happens behind the scene. 

Thirdly, the allegations of cronyism, corruption and misdeeds of the ruling party, which has been in power for so long, naturally put a big dent in its support. Arrogance and illogical rhetoric of some ruling party leaders make many people angry.  The skyrocketing price hikes of essentials are also likely to have contributed to lowering people's support for the government.

Before the elections I had argued that the Gazipur city polls would be peaceful. A major reason for the election to be peaceful is the absence of the main opposition party BNP in the contest. Many will recall, the 2018 Gazipur city corporation election was 'controlled', with the bureaucracy and the law enforcement agencies used to drive the opposition activists from the field, in connivance with the Election Commission. In absence of the opposition in the electoral contest, there was no need for such interventions. The ruling party activists, too, did not feel the need to commit any excesses.

Another significant reason for the peaceful Gazipur city election is the announcement of the new US visa policy the night before the election. Many believe that those carrying out election duty, consciously refrained from any sort of electoral offences for fear that they and their family members would be deprived of US visas if they were involved in electoral irregularities and violence. It must be noted that indulging in electoral irregularities and violence are also electoral offences - known as corrupt practices and illegal practices - under section 73-90 of our own law.

However, although the Gazipur election was peaceful, it was not credible. An election cannot be called fair and credible if it is not competitive. The voters must have options, credible options, before them if the election is to be credible.

For example, if a thirsty person is offered a glass of mineral water and a glass of tap water, he will certainly not choose tap water. If the same person is offered a glass of boiled water and a glass of tap water, he again will refuse the tap water. Then, if he is given the choice between mineral water and boiled water, he may chose mineral water, or he way chose boiled water as both are credible options.

Thus, voters get the opportunity to choose or 'elect' only if there are credible options. If that is not there, then the voters don't have the opportunity for 'electing' between alternatives. In that case, the question of a credible election doesn't arise. Since there was no credible alternative candidate from the opposition camp, the Gazipur city election, although peaceful, but can't be called free, fair and credible.

Eleven parliamentary elections were held in Bangladesh so far, seven of which were held under the party in power, and all seven of those elections were controversial and the ruling party continued in power through those so-called elections

What message does the Gazipur city election convey for the next four city corporation elections and the forthcoming national parliamentary polls? Will those elections be peaceful too? 

Other than Barishal, the other three city corporation elections are likely to be peaceful. Since no credible alternative candidates are nominated by the main opposition party in these city elections, the ruling party and its loyal administration and law enforcement agencies will not have to intervene to have their candidate win. The ruling party leaders and activists will not have to indulge in electoral malfeasance either. But in Barishal, there is a rift within the ruling party itself and the Islami Andolan is also reported to have fielded a strong contender. So the election there may not be all that peaceful in Brishal.

The national election is, of course, a different story. After all, power changes hands through the national election and many interests, even the very existence of political parties, are linked to that change of power. So it is only natural that the major political parties will be desperate to win the national election at any cost. Therefore, one can't rule out violence in the national election, notwithstanding peaceful city corporation elections. And the existing constitutional framework brought about by the 15th amendment, is the biggest obstacle in this regard.

The 15th amendment, which weaponised the constitution to hold the election under the party in power, the electoral field has been made uneven -- in favour of the ruling party and against the opposition. If the election is held under a government with the ruling party in power, the party chief remains as the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House during the election. Also the cabinet under the Prime Minister will be in charge of the bureaucracy and the law enforcement during that time.

In addition, since the parliament will not be dissolved during the election under the present constitutional framework, the existing members of parliament will contest the election with all their powers, authorities and benefits intact. As a result, there is little hope to have a level playing field and a free, fair ad credible national election under the existing constitutional framework.

Our past experiences vouch for such an ominous possibility. Eleven parliamentary elections were held in Bangladesh so far, seven of which were held under the party in power, and all seven of those elections were controversial and the ruling party continued in power through those so-called elections. The remaining four elections, on the other hand, were held under the Neutral Caretaker government, and they were viewed by both local and foreign observers as free, fair and credible, and power also changed hands through those elections. This was because the election-time government ensured level playing field major political parties during those elections.

* Badiul Alam Majumdar is Secretary, Sushashoner Jonno Nagorik - SHUJAN (Citizens for Good Governance)