Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Narayanganj elections: Mixed signals

As I See It Column
The Independent
November 12, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

No election in recent memory has attracted so much attention as has the Narayanganj City Corporation (NCC) elections. The media, the visual in particular, made it a national issue. The focus was totally on the election of the Mayor. The private TV stations devoted almost all its time and energy covering the NCC elections for days leading to voting and celebrations after the dream candidate was elected.

Everybody, or almost everybody got carried away with the election of Mayor in the NCC elections, even the winner who in TV talk shows thanked everybody in the country and abroad for their support. In her excitement she made it appear as if her election was an international event. In fact, she did say so!

That minor slip notwithstanding, Selina Hayat Ivy has indeed been the candidate that we dream to see in the elections, particularly in the national elections. She is honest; dedicated and most important of all, courageous enough to stand against her party and its Chief who is not kind to those who show inclination to oppose her.

In the end, it was not Selina Hayat and her supporters alone who celebrated her victory. All and sundry came to the wining party and embraced her as their candidate; all except the opposition. The ELection Commission (EC ) that was snubbed when the government turned down its request for the army deployment in apprehension of trouble, took credit for holding a free, fair and peaceful election. It forgot to take up with the government its refusal to deploy the army in violation of the Constitution.

Shamim Osman , who was supported by the ruling party but lost, also buried his shame, anger and humiliation and welcomed the winner. His belief in Allah and confidence that only terrorism and voting fraud could rob him of a thumping victory , simply withered away. The Prime Minister, fortunately, did not let people wait too long guessing what turned SHamim Osman to into such a fine gentleman so suddenly and dramatically when she summoned him and Selina Hayat to her official residence together and patted both in the back . She claimed credit for all the good and unexpected things that happened in the NCC elections.

The Prime Minister also claimed that Selina Hayat was her candidate. It was a claim that many would not agree with. In days leading to the election, Selina Hayat expressed her disappointment and frustration before the media that she had been by-passed in favour of SHamim Osman by the party and the Prime Minister despite being an Awami Leaguer who had served Naryangang municipality honestly and faithfully for many years till it was made into city corporation and elections called to elect its fist Mayor and Councillors. She also regretted that her father was also by-passed in 1973 for a parliamentary seat by the AL that he won as an independent candidate and returned to the party. To her credit, she said that like her father, she would also not leave the Awami League.

The Prime Minister further claimed that the NCC elections went to prove that a political government is capable of holding a free and fair national election and that there would be no need anymore to go back to the caretaker government. During the BNP's first term in 1991-96, the AL backed candidates won both the Dhaka and Chittagong mayoral elections that in no way weakened the party's demand for the caretaker government. In Naryangang, once the BNP supported candidate withdrew and it became evident that Selina Hayat would win a landslide victory, there was little incentive to intervene in favour of Shamin Osman.

That became all the more un-necessary and impossible when the EC put all its efforts behind the elections to ensure that nothing untoward happened. With its credibility at stake, the EC was left with no other alternative but to work overtime for a free and fair election. The safety net for a free and fair election became full proof with the positive role of the media that was everywhere with journalists and cameras ready to catch anyone daring to use fraudulent means. Therefore the PrimeMinister's claim that the NCC elections supported her party's stand that national elections could also be held under an interim government instead of a neutral caretaker government in a free and fair manner does not stand to serious scrutiny.

The ruling party, to put it mildly, has been caught with its pants down with the victory of Selina Hayat, the Prime Minister’s claims notwithstanding. It reflected a few things that would no doubt come back to haunt the party later. First, its top leadership including the party chief backed the candidate with the corrupt image against the one with a honest one. It reminded many of the party and its chief’s backing for known terrorists in the 2001 elections that was one main cause of its debacle in that election. Second, the NCC elections also underlined serious fissures in the ruling party. Known dissidents in the party openly backed the winning candidate while senior leaders of the party backed the loser.

It would be unrealistic to imagine on a national scale what happened in the NCC elections .The EC would not be able to give even a fraction of attention to each of the 300 constituencies that it gave in Narayanganj. The media likewise would be rendered inactive on a national scale. Most important of all, the warmth shown to Shamim Osman by the ruling party does not cause optimism in most people's mind that candidates like Selina Hayat would be preferred over the likes of Shamim Osmam in the national elections.

Politics in Narayanganj under its new Mayor is not expected to be any better than in rest of the country with SHamim Osman already showing his real face and the ruling party sympathetic and supportive of him.The recent murder of the popular Mayor of Narsinghdi due to intra-party conflict is a reminder that the Narayangang phenomenon should not raise our expectations that we would be delivered anytime soon from our violence ridden and conflict prone politics that today is not just between the ruling party and the opposition but within the parties as well.

In the hurry to embrace Selina Hayat, we have failed to congratulate SM Akram who did something unheard of in our politics. He resigned from the key post of Convenor of Narayanganj AL in protest of his party’s blessings for SO by ignoring him! One wishes that there would be more like Selina Hayat and SM Akram to deliver us from the politics of conflict that we have today, politics that is pushing Bangladesh to the edge.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

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