Setting For Second Best


Whether it makes any difference or not, Bangladeshis will view this year’s upazila elections as the chance to have their voices heard.

In 2009, it served as the afterthought, hardly registering on the radar after a main event that had lived up to its billing and captivated a nation. This time around, on the back of an uninspiring showpiece, its dimensions are completely altered, and it is potentially burdened with propping up the worth of the entire show, to prevent the faithful from turning away in anger, to reassure them that they still matter. The long-awaited main event centring Bangladesh’s 10th parliamentary election fizzled out on January 5 with nary a thought spared in the script for what the people wanted. The upazila elections that kicked off this week with voting to elect chairmen and vice-chairmen for 97 of the country’s 487 upazila parishads (the rest will follow in four phases staggered out till the end of March) offered a chance for the country’s democracy to regain a modicum of respectability.

This year, two important aspects to the upazila elections, which are very much local in their essence, make them a bigger draw in relation to their parliamentary equivalents. One is the concept of competition, that is essential to underpinning a contest – without which any election is bereft of meaning. Each union parishad post is set to be fiercely contested, in the process presenting voters with a set of viable choices on the ballot. The second, equally important aspect is individual citizens’ franchise rights in a democracy – exercised through the act of voting. As is well-known by now, the Jan 5 parliamentary election that was boycotted by one of the two main factions in the country’s political arena was not only one-sided; with a majority of seats elected without any contest whatsoever, more than half the country’s electorate was directly denied their right to franchise.

Unglamorous as they might be, the upazila polls will not be demeaned by such flaws. Although barred from direct participation, all the main political parties have thrown their hat in the ring by ‘backing’ candidates in each of the upazilas. The electorate for Wednesday’s first phase totalling more than 1.64 crore all had the chance at least, to vote if they so wished. As Dhaka Courier went to press, early reports indicated a sizeable number did.

Be that as it may, it would be a mistake to give in to any misconception of the upazila polls as an apt alternative to parliamentary elections for the people’s political aspirations to find their fullest expression. The fact remains, that upazila parishad chairmen exert a fraction of the influence that members of parliament do on the political process. Although MPs, as the legislative branch, are meant to represent their constituents’ aspirations and lend their weight to lawmaking, in reality they have always played a disproportionate role in controlling almost everything involving the government in their constituencies as well. This includes overseeing development projects in areas such as infrastructure and education, and in the process undermining the role played by UP chairmen. Indeed, following the scrapping of an ordinance promulgated under the last caretaker government – a regressive step that took us back to an act passed during Sheikh Hasina’s first term as prime minister –  UP chairmen are beholden to MPs to get any major work done.

The Upazila Parishad Act, 1998, makes the MPs advisers to the upazila parishads in their constituencies. According to the law, each upazila parishad will take advice from its adviser to carry out its activities. The law also does not allow upazila parishads to send development plans to the government for implementation without recommendation of the adviser concerned. Most UP chairmen are critical of the way the law limits their ability to stamp their authority in the upazila parishad –  which consists of a chairman, two vice-chairpersons (one of them a woman), chairmen of all union parishads under the upazila concerned, mayors of all municipalities, if there are any, and women members of the reserved seats.

Despite that dismal picture for autonomy at the upazila parishad level, or perhaps because of it, certain sections of the electorate, a hungry media, and assorted politicos have contrived to portray the upazila elections as a contest between the Awami League and the BNP. The government’s about-face since taking office on initiating a dialogue towards possible early elections probably doesn’t help matters. For many people, waiting another five years for a BNP v AL showdown seems a stretch. The need for reform to the way local government is devised and run thus gets overlooked. While the League, governing without a mandate, badly need some show of support from the people, BNP hopes to reinvigorate its beleaguered grassroots through a strong showing. Nothing can work to breathe life into a party’s organisational base like electoral success.

From Ivory Towers

So the plea of two illustrious political scientists that Dhaka Courier spoke to on the eve of the election,  Dr Ali Riaz and Professor Harun-or-Rashid, is likely to fall on deaf ears. In their estimate, the upazila parishad elections should not be seen as a referendum on national political issues, or as a marker of the popularity enjoyed by either the government or the BNP.

They also said even if BNP-backed candidates win a majority of the councils, it will not necessarily have any direct bearing by denoting popular support for the party’s demand that a new general election supervised by a non-partisan caretaker administration be held at the earliest.

The analysts, however, said a strong showing by the BNP-backed candidates will serve as a boost to the party and its supporters following its failure to resist the January 5 parliamentary polls, which it boycotted. The Election Commission has mounted tight security for smooth conduct of the polls, including deployment of the army.

Ali Riaz, Professor and Chair of the Department of Politics and Government, Illinois State University in the US, does not see the upazila polls as a referendum on national politics.

“These elections have almost nothing to do with the national political mood,” he says, adding that “It’s unequivocally No.”

Prof Riaz said voters are well aware that the upazila leaders have no power to influence the national policies; therefore, national politics will not be on their mind when they vote.  His views were echoed by Professor Rashid of Dhaka University’s Political Science Department.

In an interview, Prof. Rashid said upazila elections and parliamentary elections must not be mixed up even though upazila elections have political significance too.

“If BNP wins majority, it will be a boost to them…that will definitely enhance its position. However, I don’t think this will have any immediate bearing on the demand for early elections,” he said. “There can be a kind of indirect influence, at best.”

Prof. Riaz made the note that the winning party would certainly try to use the results as a rejection of their rivals by the public.

“Until I see exit poll data to support these claims, I’ll continue arguing that local elections are not a referendum on national issues or party choices,” he said.

Prof. Riaz too was insistent that upazila and national elections are different. “I don’t think these two are related.”

Usually, he said, national issues do not feature prominently in local elections – rather local “political dynamics” play the key role, he said.

Prof. Riaz provided the key insight that local elections in the past, particularly upazila elections, were not dominated by issues – national or otherwise.  Instead candidates’ personal appeal seems to be the deciding factor.

On this Prof. Rashid also agreed, saying he does not think that national politics will dominate elections. “Much will depend on local issues and candidates.” Asked whether the upazila elections could be expected to draw greater turnout than usual as a chance for people to vent their aspirations, Prof. Riaz said, “I don’t think that upazila elections will have more turnout due to flawed parliamentary elections held on January 5.”

Instead he chose to emphasise the point that these local elections are no alternative to national elections, and traditionally voters never viewed local elections as a means to express a national message.

Prof. Rashid too chose to play down the effect of the disappointing parliamentary elections having an effect on turnout for the upazila polls. “I don’t think so. Why could people not vote in the general election? It was mainly because the major opposition party BNP boycotted the elections.”

Both distinguished academics probably held up ideals that may be expected to prevail under normal circumstances. But these are not normal times in Bangladesh. At least not for its democracy. Over the last one year, a number of indicators have come together to inform a view that the Awami League-led government was set to suffer certain defeat in parliamentary elections. They somehow schemed their way out of that outcome, but not how they would have liked. Organising an election where they happened to be the only viable option was never going to make people forget the decision that was denied to them. More likely, whenever they get the chance to do so, they will use it to express this dissatisfaction. The upazila polls too will likely fall into such a pattern. Indeed, the fact that UP chairmen enjoy little relevance makes it even more likely, that some voters will instead just choose to vote the way they would have in the parliamentary election, given the present environment.

People Propose, Parties Dispose

Perhaps sensing the deep anti-government mood of the electorate, on the eve of the first phase of the upazila elections, the ruling party sought to play down the importance of the local polls as a marker of nationwide popularity.

Stressing the upazila polls’ local essence, the party’s Publicity and Publications Secretary Dr Hasan Mahmud told Dhaka Courier’s sister news agency UNB that important as they are, “there is no scope for drawing conclusions regarding a party’s popularity at the national level from local elections.”

Dismissing suggestions that the upazila polls assumed greater national relevance in light of the controversial parliamentary election held last January 5, Dr Mahmud pointed out that there is no direct participation of political parties in these elections.

Nevertheless, it is well known that political parties do play a part in upazila elections by lending the organisational strength they enjoy throughout the nation to their favoured candidates. As in previous years, this year too witnessed potential candidates vying hard for one  of the main parties’ ‘backing’ in each of the 487 upazilas. But Dr Mahmud played down the link between parties and candidates, saying “it’s difficult to identify who is backing who in every case. In many upazilas you’ll find very popular candidates seemingly backed by more than one party.”

Increasingly identifiable as one of the Awami League’s leading spokespersons in his current role, the former minister welcomed the participation of the BNP-Jamaat faction in the upazila elections, adding, “It would have been even better for upholding and strengthening the country’s democracy if they had taken part in the parliamentary elections as well.”

Still, he rejected the notion that a triumph for candidates backed by BNP or Jamaat would be a testament to the support they enjoy nationally, returning to his theme that the vote in each upazila would fall on local issues, and their results would serve as no indication of a party’s standing amongst the electorate.

For their part, the BNP spent election eve warning people of another conspiracy being hatched by the government, in cahoots with the Election Commission. Mirza Fakhrul Alamgir and Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, two of the party’s most senior leaders, both utilised appearances before the media to talk about harassment suffered by BNP-backed candidates. In a number of upazilas, such candidates had even been “attacked”, they alleged. Whether or not these allegations contain any meat (a report containing details was submitted to the Election Commission by the BNP on Tuesday), this falls into the pattern over the last one year, of the BNP fearing the worst from an election, only to emerge as the winners in the end. Whenever they have decided to take part, that is. One is reminded of the 5 mayoral elections last summer, when the League touched nadir, suffering defeat in Gazipur. Early results coming in from the upazila parishad elections on Wednesday suggest the pattern will be repeated. With the party shut out of the parliament, it must make us all wonder, about the one they stayed away from.

STOP PRESS: As predicted, BNP-backed candidates looked set to come out on top from Wednesday’s first phase of the upazila elections. Unofficial results from 91 out of the 97 upazilas where voting was held awarded 40 chairman posts to BNP-backed candidates; 32 backed by AL; and in a surprise showing of the strength and popularity they still enjoy, 7 backed by Jamaat. Others shared the remaining 12 posts, including 1 backed by Jatiya Party. In 2009, AL-backed candidates bagged 400 out of 481 chairman posts.

Article Source: Dhaka Courier


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