What should we read into the city corporation elections in Bangladesh?


Earlier today four major cities of Bangladesh had their city corporation elections in which four new mayors have been elected. All four cities’ incumbents failed miserably allowing new faces to assume new responsibility. All four incumbents were leaders of the ruling Bangladesh Awame League (BAL) and all four victors, on the other hand, are leaders of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Naturally, the results should cause much panic in the ruling camp whilst give cause to celebrate to the battered opposition.

However, leading up to the elections and in the immediate aftermath, jubilation appears entirely absent despite the victories being significant. For a start, there were much suspicion and many view the apparent fair election as a ploy by the Government to create a case for not agreeing to the opposition demand. Some suspect that BAL will use these results and that of Chittagong and Narayanganj earlier to back their position that a political government can hold free and fair elections and that an interim, non-partisan and caretaker government is not necessary. The opposition lead by the BNP of course claims that they remain skeptical about a fair election without the provision of a caretaker government which the current government got rid of recently.


Admittedly, Government has an argument and true too that given the mistrust, Bangladesh Government has a difficult task to show that they are genuine. But this also lends credibility to the opposition demands.


In a democracy, in most western countries, democratically elected parties stay in government until election and a new government takes responsibility. No one makes a fuss that the government of the day at the time of election is of a party or a coalition of parties. Therefore, why should this be different in Bangladesh. But there are significant differences in the realities of Bangladesh and these democracies. In most of these democracies, Judiciary, Civil Society, Law Enforcement Agencies are generally independent of political interference and has long rooted tradition of open debate without fear of physical retribution. Sadly, in Bangladesh, belonging to the ruling party earns you exemption from the proper force of law and you are almost entitled to do whatever you like. Often, hardcore criminals accused of multiple murders roam around in the shadow of Ministers and powerful politicians. In some cases, previously dangerous criminals are also elected in senior positions of government. There is also at least one example where a person accused of being involved in murder appointed to the High Court as Judge. Given all of these and given the prevalent violent political culture, it is natural that opposing parties struggle to have confidence.


Notwithstanding the election results, the deep mistrust, unsolved murders and cases of political persecution, comprehensive political interference in the state administration at all level and given government’s denial of space to the opposition movement, it is natural that these distrust and envy will continue to ring true and loud in the ears of political aspirants. Thus, the case for a politically neutral, non-partisan caretaker government still remains. Moreover, some will argue that these results demonstrate the shaky ground on which the government stands and the inevitable and annihilating defeat that the government destined to face in a forthcoming general election and as a result they will be ever more prepared and willing to rigged the polls. Those with depth knowledge of Bangladesh will find it harder to dispel these feelings as myths.


There are also other good reasons. People across the country, as high as 90% in some polls, believe that without a non-partisan caretaker government a fair election is not possible and they want to see such government. Question thus remains why then the ruling party abused an unsound and questionable Supreme Court Judgment to get rid of the caretaker provision from the constitution abusing their absolute majority in the Parliament?


On the opposition side, whilst the results no doubt are reassuring and encouraging, we must not forget that at least some of these candidates received much negative publicity in the past for alleged involvement with corruption. Whilst these results gives them opportunity to prove their worth, without proper strategic thinking and without careful plans, they will soon disappoint their respective people. Given Bangladesh’s culture and the ground realities, a Mayor with his best will, will struggle to keep calm and remain sane. For them to succeed to eradicate poverty, to reduce wastage and to improve living in their respective cities, their political parties must provide a safety net through guiding them strategically and holding them account for their performance. It is also in the interest of all political parties and particularly the governing coalition to facilitate development of diverse and varied kind of citizens movement who are committed to openness, transparency and to individual freedom and dignity.


Whilst I wish all the new leaders of the four cities all the best, I remain skeptical however, waiting for time to prove my skepticism wrong. Of course, it would be unjust not to say this that for the people of Bangladesh, these elections show once again that no matter how tough the time may be, with determination good hearted people will always win over the corrupt, violent and intolerant people.