Saturday, January 29, 2011

On municipal elections: wake up call for AL and hope for BNP

Published in The Independent
January 29th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam

Under the law, local government elections have to be non-party based. None the less, the recently held municipal elections have been little else but party based. In a country where elections in public universities and professional bodies are overtly political where groups contesting in such elections openly expose their connections with the mainstream political parties , it is un-realistic to expect that political parties would have keep away from local government elections.

National leaders of the mainstream parties thus gave both covert and overt support in a variety of ways to their respective “unofficial” candidates as they have done in all past such elections in the recently held municipal elections. Such influence of the political parties was there for everyone to see more glaringly than in the past. In fact, the visit of the Prime Minister and former President Ershad to Rangpur just days before the elections in Rajshahi and Rangpur together was undertaken as a message to the voters in the local government elections there.

The ruling party has thus reasons to be concerned about the over-all results of these elections. In the 236 posts for which results were announced out of 242 contested, the AL backed candidates won 88 posts against 92 by BNP backed ones. Both parties faced rebellion from within. Such “rebel” candidates with link to the AL won 23 seats and 11won with link to the BNP. The Jamat won 5 posts while the Jatiya party only 1. The results of last round of these elections for 14 more municipalities were not available at the time of writing this piece.

The elections were peaceful in Rajshahi and Rangpur in the first phase but was not so in Barisal and Feni, Noakhali, and Laxmipur. The ruling party’s interference was noticeable in the later phases in Barisal where it won all but one seat and in Feni, Noakhali and Laxmipur where there was violence by the ruling party cadres leading to cancellation of election in a number of municipalities.

The Prime Minister described the elections as the most peaceful in Bangladesh’s history. The reversal of BNP’s fortunes in Barisal and violence in Feni, Noakhali and Laxmipur nevertheless makes the Prime Minister claim a little difficult to accept. However, after the BNP backed candidates fared well in Chittagong and Sylhet Division, credibility was restored to the elections. However, on balance, the elections were not convincing enough to show enough political maturity to abolish the Caretaker Government for national elections under the elected government that the ruling party would like.

The municipal elections were a report card on the status of politics in the country. Although nearly 7 million people voted, the voters were a mix that made the elections very interesting in the context of the politics of the country. It was neither held in the big cities nor in the rural areas but in small towns where the urban and rural population blend smoothly. Hence it helped reflect the mood of the people nationally more truthfully than national or rural/ union parisad elections.

The elections revealed that the huge popularity of the ruling party has waned a great deal in the last two years. It also exposed what is an open secret, that both the mainstream parties have problems within their respective parties. In many seats more 2 or more candidates have contested from the same party, one sanctioned by the party and the other not so who chose to contest anyway on his own. In case of the AL, 23 candidates won seats who have not been backed by the party. In case of the BNP; the number of such rebels was 10. In AL’s case, there was widespread suspicion that some senior members of the party who are not in favour of the party’s high command had encouraged the cause of the rebels. This was also true of the BNP but to a much lesser degree.

There were also a few other revelations worth noting. In the northern districts, the ruling coalition lost very badly and in Rangpur considered to be a forte of former President Ershad, the Jatiya Party linked candidates were wiped out. Even the joint appearance of the Prime Minister and the former President in what was covertly undertaken with the municipal elections in view; the voters rejected the ruling coalition. Nationally, the position of the Jatiya Party would be considerably weakened as a consequence of its poor performance in the municipal polls.

The election results were a clear message for the AL to shape up. It was however not an indication of a shift among the voters for the BNP as it would like to believe. Although the AL was eager to explain that these elections were fought on local ones where not national politics but personalities were on test, it was also mindful that a poor performance would have an impact upon its national standing. In that sense, it would do the AL a lot of good to accept the results as a wakeup call for the next national elections. It should be mindful that the people have taken note of the fact that it has not delivered on its election promises of cheaper prices of essentials, particularly rice, improved law and order; increased supply of power and trial of the war criminals. The BNP of can take heart from the elections that the AL is no longer invincible keeping the next elections in view. It could also feel happy that it put much less efforts in the elections than the AL but with better results.

The growth of private TV channels in a good number, private radio stations and of course the newspapers have helped bring down the wall between the nation’s capital and people living outside Dhaka. Thinking national is now the trend in the country. In the past, voters in the local level were influenced to vote for candidates of the ruling party to gain government’s assistance and support for local issues. In the municipal elections this time, the people have voted by giving national issues more importance than the local ones.

The law to keep local government elections non party based is also supported by the civil societies and for good reasons. Political parties would need large resources for direct involvement in such elections which in turn would mean investing more money and people. Such needs would force the parties to raise money through corrupt means such as extortion, etc. Further, it would lead the parties to take over local bodies directly using such control not for people’s welfare but their own. The negative and conflict ridden face of national politics would then be taken to the grassroots.

The existing law forbidding political parties from getting directly involved in local elections should continue. The results of the just concluded municipal elections could be a timely warning for both the political parties if they take lessons from it. For the AL, it could additionally encourage the Prime Minister to bring back to the Cabinet the party stalwarts that she has kept in the cold who have proven their strength that the former can ignore only at the party’s peril.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and a former Secretary to the Government.

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