A paradigm shift in the political system took place in Bangladesh on October 12, 2015 with the decision of the Cabinet to hold local polls on partisan basis. The century old practice of non-party poll of local bodies has been changed to a first-ever partisan poll that brought major challenges for political parties of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh Awami League considers demonstrating its popularity at grass-roots level through this election, while Bangladesh Nationalist Party spokesperson Asaduzzaman Ripon has opposed these partisan local government elections, saying it is a political trick with an ill-motive.
But one Adviser to the Chairperson said, “BNP is all along a pro-election party. My personal view is that the polls can be contested as part of the movement.”
BNP is thus not decisive about their participation in the ensuing election of Union Parishad and Municipality.
The Chief of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Col (Retd.) Oli Ahmed has expressed his desire to contest the election of UPs and Municipalities. He, however, stated that the change showed that “Politics and politicians are becoming controversial and democracy is being destroyed in a planned way.”
Jatiya Party Chief said the partisan local poll will generate hatred, violence, and lack of discipline in the country while his wife, leader of the opposition, advised her party followers not to attach importance to the remarks of her party chief.
One spokesman of Jamat-e-Islami has hinted of their participation in the local poll even if BNP refrain from participating in the election as before.
The major challenges of political parties would now be to organise themselves with their dedicated supporters steering the wheel of the party at the grassroots level. As of now, almost all parties are centrally governed, and some are pocket-based political parties with media coverage only, with no units and supporters at the grassroots level.
This decision will surely throw a challenge for them to organise by party first, and reach the people. Obviously, many of them will not be able to nominate a candidate in many municipalities, upazila, and city corporations.
It will in fact, eliminate some media-based parties from the political race and help real political parties with a people mandate emerge.
The Cabinet on October 12 decided to approve draft amendments of 5 existing Acts, such as,
- Local Government (Union Parishad) (Amendment) Act, 2015
- Upazila Parishad (Amendment) Act, 2015
- District Council (Amendment) Act, 2015
- Local Government (Municipalities) Act, 2015
- Local Government (City Corporation) (Amendment) Act, 2015
Only the draft of Local Government (Union Parishad) (Amendment) Act, 2015 was approved and drafts of other amendments were approved finally. There will be no restriction to a person to contest in election as independent candidate with a symbol of his choice.
The Chief Election Commissioner has informed that the schedule of municipality elections is to be announced soon and thus there could be an ordinance to be promulgated, provided Parliament is not in session.
Accordingly, Government has promulgated an ordinance on the amendment of Local Government (Municipalities) Act, 2015 in view of urgency for holding election by December 2015. The Chief Election Commissioner also stated there might not be any scope to allow any new political party to contest in local polls due to time constraints.
In the meantime, politicians, local government experts, and other civil society organisations are in hot debate about the decision of the government to hold local poll on party line, having no discussion with political parties, or arranging any referendum to elicit public opinion towards such a major shift.
Those who are advocating partisan polls are citing examples of India, UK, and USA where local elections are held with the identity of political parties. Thus, it is not a political departure or a new idea in party politics.
Even in Bangladesh, local polls like city corporations and upazila elections were held in the past with clear political identity of candidates although they used no symbol of party.
On the other hand, those who are opposing the decision are in view that this decision might obviously destroy the value system cherished so long at local level. As observed in the past, Chairman and members are elected at Union Parishad on the basis of their family background, tradition, reputation for social work et cetera.
They belong to no party but elected with massive votes in cognizance of their commendable social works in the locality. The partisan poll will surely drive away these whistle-blowers of the value system in the locality to be replaced by party followers who might have controversial identities in the community.
There is enough scope for reformations in local body’s governance in addition to delegation of power and devolution of authorities and modernisation in the governance of local urban bodies.
The financial management system is very weak and traditional, human resource management is poor, and collection of tax and revenue and assessment of holdings taxes et cetera demand major re-hauling to establish efficient governance. Government should have gone for these reformations prior to taking major changes in the election system.
However, the onus of the implementation of this government decisions lies with the Bangladesh Election Commission with the active support of general administration to make the election just and fair.
It also depends on political parties to accept the change and justify their existence at the grassroots level without being a party of few to be focused on media only.
Dhiraj Kumar Nath is a former secretary and adviser to the caretaker government.