Yet another election to appease the government

Upazila parishad elections started on 8 MayFile Photo

Though the local government system is part of a political system in the power structure, its elections are held on a non-political basis. In the election that took place on Wednesday in one-third of the upazilas, there was scope to use the party symbol or identity. However, basically because of the decision taken by the ruling Awami League, the party leaders and activists at the grassroots could use neither party identity nor the symbol.

As for the other parties which have an understanding with the government, that is, the allies or the loyal opposition, they are fully aware that nothing will take place outside of the invisible machinations and so they either didn't field any contestant or they just put on a token participation. Even the "King's parties" that had sprouted up before the national election with promises of national alternatives, have slunk away. The other opposition parties have boycotted the election.

The list of boycotting parties is rather long. Other than BNP, around a dozen or so of their alliance partners, as well as Jamaat-e-Islami, Islami Shashontantra Andolan, CPB and others have said the election will not be meaningful and so have refrained from joining. As the election is not being held on a party basis, over a hundred BNP leaders and activists became candidates and have lost their party membership, remaining more or less isolated in the field, according to media reports. Many of them are already elected representatives in various posts of the upazila parishad and so, under a sort of social and mental compulsion, are violating party directives and going ahead to compete in the election.

The myth that had been established in politics that the orders of the leader cannot be violated, has crumbled to a great extent. Some may try to see this as a positive change in politics and their contention cannot be entirely dismissed. Anything imposed forcefully from above can never be democratic

We are all aware of this backdrop of political despair concerning the upazila parishad elections. This despondency is rooted in the 12th national parliament election held four months ago on 7 January this year. Just 11 days after that election, on 18 January the chief election commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal admitted that the election hadn’t been inclusive. He later twisted his words, saying, “It is not that the election was very participatory. Unless it is acceptable to the overall political leadership, there remains a political crisis.”

In the same speech, Kazi Habibul Awal said, “The people’s confidence in the election system has waned. As a result, many questions emerge among the people concerning the election commission. If more reforms, transparency and credibility are established in the election system, the next election will be more acceptable.” However, it is not as if he took any necessary measures to take up the reforms required to restore people’s confidence in the elections. Quite to the contrary, he stretched out a helping hand to the ruling party and fulfilled their wishes. He amended certain clauses so that the upazila parishad election could be held without party symbol and also withdrew the condition for independent candidates to have signatures of one per cent of the voters.

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Had the rules been in place for elections with party nomination and symbol, then undoubtedly Awami League would again have had to field ‘dummy’ candidates as in the 7 January election, or in most of the seats arrangements would have been made for the uncontested victory of the candidates.

It is also very clear that they hoped that more BNP leaders and activists would join the election if the matter of party symbol was not there. But despite all sorts of crises, BNP expelled over a hundred leaders and activists, taking a firm stance in rejecting the upazila election.

Amidst the boycott by BNP and the other opposition parties and also the absence of voters in the first phase of the upazila election, two factors are extremely significant. Firstly, the commission and the government went all out in their efforts to portray the election as proper and competitive. The election commission went as far as it issued a letter to the Speaker to ensure that the ministers and members of parliament remained uninvolved in this election, something which they did not do in the case of the city corporation election. In other words, the election commission itself proved that though they had the ways and means to halt misuse of power, they did not always apply that power.

This time it was in order to meet the wishes of the ruling party that they sought the Speaker’s assistance to decrease the influence of the ministers and MPs. Then again the question arises as to whether the Speaker at all has any effective authority in this regard. It was only after the directives were issued from the top level of the ruling party for relatives of the ministers and MPs to withdraw their candidature, that the election commission began its tirade against ministers and members of parliament imposing their influence.

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The second important factor is that no threat or tirade has proven to be effective in the efforts to ensure party discipline. According to Prothom Alo reports, the number of those disregarding the directive for relatives of ministers and MPs to withdraw candidature is around 50. It is now clear that in the interests of power, the strategy to field dummy candidates is an effective ploy even in violation of the party constitution. The myth that had been established in politics that the orders of the leader cannot be violated, has crumbled to a great extent. Some may try to see this as a positive change in politics and their contention cannot be entirely dismissed. Anything imposed forcefully from above can never be democratic.

The double standards within the party also unquestionably have a role to play in matter of disobeying party discipline. A report published in Samakal on 3 May says that even Awami League general secretary Obaidul Quader’s brother and the former president’s sister are candidates in the election. If members of the top ranking leaders’ families can become candidates because of their position in the party, then other ministers and MPs will naturally want the same rights for their family members. The same newspaper published the remarks made openly by former minister Shahjahan Khan regarding his son’s candidature.

Banik Barta came up with another bit of startling news. On 20 April they reported that there were differences within the party regarding the definition of who were to be considered relatives of the ministers and MPs. The question also arises, can any political party curb the right of anyone to contest in the election, no matter to whom they are related?

The main problem is the failure or reluctance of the administration to halt the ministers and MPs from abusing their power and influence. In many cases they aid and abet this abuse of power in an intentional and unethical nexus.

Conflict among factions within the ruling party has taken on extreme proportions in many places, leading to clashes. This is expected. But as in the case of the last three elections, there are no options in front of the voters to choose from. So, as the media indicates, hardly any interest or enthusiasm has been generated among the common people regarding the upazila polls. What else can one expect when the commission’s task is to appease the government rather than make an effort to earn the voters’ confidence?

* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist

* This column 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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