Local government polls pose a big question for the opposition
For over a decade the local BNP leaders and activists have, at the behest of the centre, been engrossed in national issues like toppling the government, release of Khaleda Zia, the judiciary the election commission and so on. They did not have the chance to take up local issues such as the joys and sorrows of the people of the upazilas, the pourashavas, the union parishads, their bridges and culverts, schools and colleges, the cost of eggs, potatoes, onions and, added this week, the price of rice
The newspapers have printed reams and reams on reports pertaining to the 7 January election. The TV talk shows talked of nothing else. So there really isn’t much more to say other than to state the obvious, this was not an election. But something certainly happened on 7 January which some proudly like to call an election.
There are all sorts of democracies. According to the media, on 24 January the Supreme Court of Thailand passed a ruling to uphold the parliamentary membership of Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of Move Forward Party. Last year his party had won the majority in Thailand’s election. But the upper house of the parliament controlled by the military, did not allow Pita Lim to become prime minister. His membership of parliament was also suspended on allegations that he had shares in a media house. The law of that country maintains than anyone who owns a media house or has a share in it, cannot qualify to be a member of parliament.
Everyone’s hands are overflowing with money. They are doing business in every way they can. That is why those who claim that the 7 January election was a genuine election, maintain that the fact that around 70 per cent of our members of parliament are businessmen is a reflection of our flourishing capitalism
Pita Lim’s lawyers, however, managed to prove that the media house was inactive and inoperative. In other words, he was not actively involved in the media and so had not violated the law. The question may quite naturally arise, if businesspersons in our country involved in the media were not qualified to be members of parliament, how many would be dropped? As I was saying, there are all sorts of countries and all sorts of democracies.
The role of the US in our election gave rise to all sorts of discussions. No one will deny that the US is a capitalist country. The upper house there is the Senate which has 100 members, that ism Senators. Every federal state has two Senators, no matter what the size of their population may be. For example, two Senators are election from Montana which a population of around 1 million. And New York, with a population of 20 million, also has two Senators.
Biden, Obama, Bill Clinton were all Senators are first and them presidents. The other route is first governor, then president, like Bush Jr, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and others. I glanced down the list of the professional qualifications of these 100 Senators in capitalist America. Broadly speaking, at least 55 were lawyers, 20 to 25 were social workers and consultants on various issues. Around half a dozen had business listed as their profession. Donald Trump is an exception, one leap from being a businessman to the president.
Meanwhile we are basking in the tide of development. Everyone’s hands are overflowing with money. They are doing business in every way they can. That is why those who claim that the 7 January election was a genuine election, maintain that the fact that around 70 per cent of our members of parliament are businessmen is a reflection of our flourishing capitalism. The US certainly has a lot to learn from us. Bill Gates, Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos can follow in the footsteps of our businessmen-parliamentarians, learn from them and now may contest in the US elections. However, they aren’t likely to win the people’s votes. Cleary our love of the business community is much more than among the Americans.
Whatever has been done, has been done. It’s time to think of the days ahead. More election dates have been announced. From 9 March till April-May, for at around three months, elections will be held to two city corporations, around 490 upazilas, several pourashavas and various local government polls. The city corporation mayoral elections for Mymensingh and Cumilla certainly are major elections among these. Then in phases, before Holy Ramadan, and the two months after Eid, election to around five hundred or so upazila parishad elections will be held.
In the last week of January, Awami League decided that the ‘boat’ symbol can’t be allocated for the upazila parishad election. This is not a permanent decision and can be overturned so that the ‘boat’ symbol can be used again. Time will tell. The question is, will anyone contest with the sheaf of paddy symbol? That is, will the holders of this symbol allow it to be used for the local government election or not.
There are pros and cons to any situation or decision. We can discuss and debate ad infinitum. Without dragging the debate on any further, let me frankly reveal to a conclusion. If the opposition, that is, basically BNP, boycotts the local government election, the party will become weak at the grassroots. Local level leaders and activists will be reinvigorated with a local government election. They will take to the election arena, hold meetings and rallies, will contest against their opponents, there will be a buzz in the air.
For over a decade the local BNP leaders and activists have, at the behest of the centre, been engrossed in national issues like toppling the government, release of Khaleda Zia, the judiciary the election commission and so on. They did not have the chance to take up local issues such as the joys and sorrows of the people of the upazilas, the pourashavas, the union parishads, their bridges and culverts, schools and colleges, the cost of eggs, potatoes, onions and, added this week, the price of rice. And yet thousands of them, joining the national movement, have been nabbed and detained by the government.
The upazila level leaders of BNP and its like-minded parties surely will want to revive the local organisations at their respective areas. If they lose this chance in the next two or three months, to inspire their leaders and activists, to take to the field, to reclaim local leadership and, after being elected at a local level, get to chance to wield some degree of power over the local bureaucracy. Such a chance will not arrive before 2028 unless for some reason the parliament is dissolved and a fresh election us held under a neutral system.
Awami League must certainly be much divided in at least 58 seats where its ‘independent candidates’ won the national election. BNP and its like-minded parties should certainly contest in the local government election at least in these seats. That doesn’t mean that it has less chance to win in other seats. They should not waste this change to assess their popularity nationwide.
As I said before, there are always arguments for and against any matter. Many may say that joining the local government election would amount to moving away from the stand of not participating in polls under the party government. It would lend legitimacy to the Awami League government. It would be recognition of the 7 January government. The argument is irrefutable. The demand will certainly continue – to reject the 7 January election, to remove the present government, to create a caretaker government under which an election will be held. But there is no harm in having alternative plans as well.
Finally, over the past one and a half years, BNP’s movement didn’t focus on people’s financial distress, the spiraling cost of essentials, discrimination in government benefits and business, the poor state of the health and education system and the sufferings of public life. They made no promise of reducing prices, of increasing government support in education and health, of providing unemployed youth with adequate unemployment allowances and so on. Empty words hardly hold appeal.
*Shahdeen Malik is a lawyer of Bangladesh Supreme Court and teaches law at the University of Asia Pacific
*This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir