Election with the fear of 'enforced disappearance'

Generally speaking, it is the opposition parties that accuse the ruling party of ruining the economy and stalling development. This time it is two leaders of the ruling party, mayoral candidates in the city corporation polls, who are making such allegations.

Speaking at a reception accorded to him, Abul Khair Abdullah, the Awami League-nominated candidate in the Barishal City Corporation election, said, "My single objective is to revive Barishal city, where development had fallen flat over the past five years, and make it into a pristine city, to restore the dignity and respect of all citizens of the city from all classes and professions. I will start a voyage for a new Barishal."

In speaking thus, he has conveyed two messages -- that there has been no development in Barishal over the past five years, and that the people of Barishal city have not been given their due dignity and respect. This Awami League mayoral candidate wants to develop the city and restore the people's respect and dignity. That is fine. However, he did not mention that the question of people's dignity is linked to their voting rights. The respect of citizens can in no way be established without their voting rights.

Former mayor of Gazipur city corporation, Jahangir Alam, speaking to newspersons after submitting his nomination papers on Thursday, said, "I am contesting in this election against an individual, an individual who has destroyed this city (Gazipur). I am standing up against him."

He did not mention any names, but he was indirectly referring to the Awami League-nominated candidate Azmat Ullah. After all, BNP did not announce any candidate for this election. BNP's Abdul Mannan had defeated Azmat Ullah in the 2013 election. His entire term as mayor was spent behind bars and dealing with court cases. He had no time to either develop or destroy the city.

Jahangir Alam, nominated by Awami League, had won the 2018 mayoral election. However, he was removed from the post due to certain untoward remarks he had made. He had even been suspended from the party, though was later pardoned.

This time the party nominated Azmat Ullah instead of Jahangir Alam. And Jahangir Alam is contesting as an independent candidate, declaring he would retrieve the destroyed city. When asked whether he would remain in the fray till the end, he replied, "They may place shackles around my ankles from tomorrow. They may arrest me. I may even face enforced disappearance. If I am not removed through any conspiracy, I will not budge from the election." (Samakal, 28 April 2023).

According to the election commission's decision, the Gazipur city elections will be held on 25 May. Next the Barishal and Khulna elections will be held on 12 June and then the Rajshahi and Sylhet City Corporation elections on 21 June.

Back in the day, elections meant festivity in Bangladesh. The country would be buzzing with discussion and debate. Activists and supporters would swarm around the homes of the candidates. It is not like that this time. BNP has said it will not take part in any election under this government. It has warned its leaders and activists against contesting as mayoral or councillor candidates in these polls. BNP has boycotted city corporation elections in the past but did not bar anyone from contesting as councillors. Unlike the post of mayor, the party symbol is not used in the case of the councillor posts.

The question has arisen, what will BNP do without contesting in this election? Will they simply allow Awami League to sweep through uncontested? Will they resist the election? It is difficult to resist a city election or local elections. During Ershad's rule, Awami League and BNP together couldn't do that. He went ahead and held the upazila elections, despite the opposition's blockades and hartals (general strikes).

BNP leaders feel that if all the parties involved in the movement for a non-party government boycott the city corporation polls, it will become Awami League's 'election of its own', not an election of the people. Awami League's alliance partner Jatiya Party is not too eager about this election. The Left Democratic Front is in a dilemma. Other than Islami Andolan, none of the Islamic parties are that visible on ground. In all the recent local government body elections, all Awami League's candidates have won, save a couple of exceptions. So many parties even outside of the BNP alliance, are not very interested in the election, believing 'once bitten, twice shy'.

In the Ukil model, it was Awami League leaders and activists who ensured Ukil's victory. And in the Sylhet model, Awami League could not thwart Ariful Haque's victory despite all their efforts and attempts

In election politics, Awami League's mindset of grabbing everything into its own control, has now become a matter of concern for the party. There is the fear that the party candidates will lose if there is a good election, and if a bad election is conducted to ensure the party candidates win, harsh criticism will pour in from home and abroad.

According to Prothom Alo reports, Awami League leadership has adopted all sorts of strategies to increase participation in the election. But it remains unsure if the strategies will be like the Ukil Abdus Sattar model of Brahmanbaria or the Sylhet model. In the Ukil model, it was Awami League leaders and activists who ensured Ukil's victory. And in the Sylhet model, Awami League could not thwart Ariful Haque's victory despite all their efforts and attempts.

People are the determining force of the election. If one is respectful towards the power of the people, then so many strategies and manipulations are not needed.

In an election where the rebel candidate of the ruling party fears arrest and enforced disappearance, one can hardly expect such an election to be free and fair. Also, when the possible successor of the elected mayor from the same party accuses him of stalling development and spurning people's respect and dignity, that party's candidate selection process is certainly questionable.

The results of the Chattogram-8 by-election appeared in the newspapers yesterday, Friday. It is not big news that the Awami League candidate Noman Al Mahmud won. The big news is that the voter turnout in this election was only 14 per cent. That means 86 per cent of the voters did not turn up. Contesting with the 'boat' symbol, Noman secured 67,205 votes. His nearest contestant, Islami Front's Shehab Uddin Muhammad Samad, won 5,087 votes. The total number of voters is 517,652.

Awami League's major concern now is whether this turnout will increase or decrease in the elections to the five city corporations.

* Sohrab Hassan is joint editor of Prothom Alo and a poet. He may be reached at [email protected]

* This column appeared in the print an online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir