The talks of the election town



Mohammad Al-Masum Molla

Factors that are likely to decide the new mayors in two Dhaka and one Chittagong city corporations

The anti-incumbency factor, the electorate’s desire to see change, swing votes of the slums and the substantial Noakhali vote bank are seen by commentators as major factors in the city elections, due in less than two days time.

However, the attacks on Khaleda Zia which enjoyed wide media coverage, and also those on the contestants running for the smaller posts, which have not drawn much media preference, are all likely to direct public sympathy towards their favour.

Political commentators said that if the polls are fair then it would be a tight race to the finish for all three mayors.

The ruling Awami League has an obvious advantage over its arch rival BNP, most of whose heavyweights are either on the run or behind bars. In fact the mayoral candidate for Dhaka south, Mirza Abbas, the first mayor of undivided Dhaka, happens to be technically absconding. The ruling party’s heavy handed crackdown on the political opposition and its evident bids to stifle dissent have given rise to strong anti-incumbency sentiments among the voters.

Coupled with that is the electorate’s consistent desire to see change. The ruling Awami League government has been the first regime to be re-elected in Bangladesh, albeit by dint of a BNP boycott of the last national elections. The last few city elections in Gazipur, Rajshahi, Khulna, Sylhet and Barisal where BNP swept the polls clean are proof enough of how these two factors could beat even solid ruling party-backed candidates.

The recent sexual harassment at the Pahela Baisakh celebrations, perceived to be ruling party cadres, will cast shadow on Awami League’s prospects. The ruling party and its student wing Chhatra League’s conspicuous silence over the issue would further darken that shadow.

Ataur Rahman, political scientist, said: “If people take this election politically then the anti-incumbency and regional dynamics could be key factors governing the election outcome.”

He also said that the most important thing is the voter turnout. “If turnout is huge then the ruling party-backed candidates might be surprised.”

The BNP-backed candidates will have to cope with the antagonism arising out of the party’s three months’ of blockades and general strikes. The violent anti-government campaign to topple the government claimed 100 lives and hit hard the poorer income groups. BNP’s programmes might come back to haunt them if a silent but substantial portion of the electorate, typically lower middle class, acts on those losses.

The political opposition’s programmes could also cause its candidates much embarrassment if the electorate confronted them with the demand for an explanation. However, with the government reverting to its heavy handed attitude in the last days of the city polls, that appears to be the last thing that BNP-backed candidates would be confronted with.

Instead, the assault on BNP chief Khaleda Zia and harassment of BNP-backed candidates will almost certainly lead the electorate to sympathise with the plight of candidates like Tabith M Awal and Mirza Abbas, whose wife is zealously pounding the streets of her husband’s constituency.

Three-time former prime minister Khaleda Zia came under attack from ruling party cadres on Tuesday and Wednesday leaving a number of her personal security men seriously injured and several cars of her motorcade damaged including the one she was riding in. Tabith was barred from offering jumma prayers on Friday for “security” as law enforcers said the state minister for home would go there to pray.

Political commentator Afsan Chowdhury said: “The attacks on Khaleda Zia’s motorcade will add votes in favour of BNP-backed candidates. Absence of Mirza Abbas could be a deciding factor in the south. In the north, Annisul Huq did not receive expected response but Tabith’s problem is that anybody hardly knows him.”

The Election Commission’s made a somersault on military deployment, first asking for army patrol across Dhaka followed by another letter, the very next day, requesting that the three battalions remain inside the cantonment but ready to move out.

While the first request meant that the army would be out and about on the streets of Dhaka, an evident deterrent to hooliganism and violence. The second letter, however, meant that the military units would be standing ready at their barracks and would come out only when requested by the election office.

The swing vote of the slums could well prove to be more important than they are considered to be. It is widely held that slum vote banks are susceptible to last minute manipulations. Local influential quarters seldom shy away from exploiting this vulnerability of the poorer sections. The slums in both parts of Dhaka are bound to play a significant role in the final outcome.

Tofail Ahmed, local government expert, said: “Swing voters will be a big factor in deciding the fate of mayoral candidates. But it is still unclear whether the voting will be done on political considerations. BNP is silent and their leaders and activists are not very active on the streets.”

Last but not least, the butt of many jokes in Bangladesh, the Noakhali factor may also have a serious impact. There is a large number of voters in Dhaka north hailing from Noakhali, a region known for its enterprising inhabitants. True that both Annisul Huq and Tabith Awal, the two main contenders of Dhaka north, are from that region. But it is Tabith’s father Abdul Awal Mintoo, BNP chief Khaleda Zia’s adviser, who is billed to enjoy the full support of his home district.

Tabith’s father’s business empire is run on the shoulders of Noakhali men. Business tycoon Mintoo is known for efforts to create wealth not just for himself but also for those hailing from his district. Word has it that there is few from Noakhali who have never benefitted from Mintoo’s wealth directly or indirectly.