The recently concluded municipal elections highlight the current trend of Bangladesh politics, and add to the debate on the possibility of fair elections under ‘partisan’ governments.
Before going into the messages the voters sent and what our democracy can learn from the process, let us give an overview of the results and other political issues relevant to this election.
In a snapshot, the overall results show a near equal number of victorious candidates from the ruling Awami League and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. If one adds pended or postponed municipalities and nearly a dozen allegedly ‘stolen’ Noakhali/Feni/Barisal/Bhola municipalities, the margin might even go decidedly to BNP’s side.
These elections give a good sampling of Bangladesh. Neither for one of the major cities nor totally rural Union Parishads these elections sampled the population where urban folks come in contact with rural Bangladesh. These municipalities are small towns where agriculture has significant direct impact on the economy and where villagers travel on almost daily basis to sell their produce or make necessary purchases. These are the perfect mixing bowl of urban and rural Bangladesh. Unlike Dhaka where major concern would be traffic, law and order or load shedding or the remote village, where people’s concerns are mostly about price of seeds, fertiliser etc. — these elections covered both sort of perspective.
Going into these elections, the calculation among the ruling party strategists might have been like this — based on last parliament election and relentless steamroller of last four years, BNP’s grassroots is almost nonexistent, leaving greater Noakhali and Bogra and Barisal as its last strongholds. BNP, on the other hand, thought they would do well in Barisal, Rajshahi and Chittagong divisions, and split even with AL in Khulna, conceding grounds in Dhaka, Sylhet and Rangpur divisions where Awami League and Jatiya Party traditionally do well.
It is worth mentioning that in 2008, despite their overwhelming victory, Awami League hardly managed to win any seat from greater Noakhali, while out of five Barisal seats, two Sadar seats went to BNP, surrounding two to JP and one marginal island area went to AL.
While the rest of the country saw peaceful polls, violent election rigging were confined mostly to those areas which were deemed as strongholds of BNP. To show that AL can conduct free and fair election (possibly to make the way to abolish caretaker government system), its high command might have had decided to discourage election rigging or violence in districts where AL thought their candidates were favoured to win. But the perceived BNP strongholds were a different case. Awami League nominated candidates like Nizam Hazari and Abu Taher to win by force. And as a result hell broke loose in Greater Noakhali and Barisal proper. Turning from the results to what it might mean for the parties, this may be first of a series of backlashes many political analysts expected that AL might incur due to the naive, inexperienced leadership Sheikh Hasina picked post 2009.
A general secretary of a party is the most vital person to keep the party disciplined. This can be better done by an experienced commanding figure with personal rapport to all grassroots leadership. By the time young Mujib became secretary of Awami League, he had visited, personally charmed, ate one meal and slept one afternoon or night at the house of each local level AL leader. So when elections came, he had personal knowledge of and influence on those local leaders and could easily curb rebel candidacy. The current secretary of Awami League has never done that. He lived in Europe even before 1975 tragedies and was suddenly chosen to be the organiser-in-chief after 1/11. Even after becoming the general secretary and minister of the largest ministry, LGRD, he reportedly spends a big chunk of the year with his family in Europe.
For BNP, it is important to remember that it was a local government election, and traditional political symbols like boat, sheaf of paddy, scale or plough were not used. So the results may not accurately reflect the standing as far as political parties are concerned. In local elections where government does not change, people in Bangladesh tend to vote beyond party line. These are probably the reasons BNP did so well in Rangpur, which had religiously voted for ‘langal’ and Ershad for the last 20 years.
Also, AL had a very undisciplined election with a plethora of rebel candidates. That definitely helped BNP secure some marginal areas. So BNP leadership has no reason to start jumping and screaming ‘red card’ and ‘yellow card’. Moreover, BNP leadership must accept responsibility of poor organisational preparedness to counter ruling party’s use of force in greater Noakhali. The ground level organisation in these districts completely failed in forming any sort of resistance against violent vote robbery.
But all that said, BNP is not destroyed. Against the hope and fear of many, BNP is here to stay and Bangladesh effectively maintains a two-party democracy. Awami League has to learn to live with BNP.
Moving from the parties, what can our democracy learn from these elections?
Despite the photo voter ID and the voter list peddled ad infinitum by 1/11 apologists, election rigging is not a matter of past. After Bhola, Noakhali, Feni, Choumuhuni, Laxmipur or Barisal, we have learned that while some fake votes might have been prevented, when the whole centre is snatched and ballot boxes are stuffed publicly, the new voter list and photo ID have no effect.
More importantly, the Election Commission (EC) still runs in old colonial way in the digital Bangladesh. EC can’t officially accept report of vote robbery via MMS or SMS or voice call. They need written or typed official report with details via proper channels — i.e., faced with imminent or ongoing violence or irregularity, the presiding officers must send an original written report via courier to DC office, where it is officially received with a seal, then the DC (Returning Officer) writes and signs a note and faxes it to EC, then the full commission goes over the report and decides on what is to be done. And while the formality goes on, all ballots are already sealed and stuffed in box.
After Pabna and other experiences, it is very clear that local administration is not immune to ruling party intimidation and influences. It’s naive to hope that a DC will be proactive enough to quickly act in reporting ruling party hooliganism. Recent newspaper reports show how helpless the local administrations were in reigning in election centre hooliganism. Although centres were taken over by the ruling party activists, the magistrate or the presiding officer were scared to call off the election.
These events reemphasise the need for an expanded Election Commission. EC must have its own permanent manpower to perform the role of returning officers. They also need to have their own mobile teams who will overtly or covertly travel from centre to centre and will have the power to call EC to hold voting in affected centres. And new rules of procedure need to be enacted to allow the EC to act swiftly.
This election took place in relatively well-connected, developed urban centres with good telecommunication infrastructure. Yet the administration failed to record widespread violence in most centres of Noakhali, Feni or Barisal. Even the ever present hyperactive media failed to visit most of the violence ridden centres. So when there will be elections in rural Union Parishads or during Parliamentary elections, it is easily imaginable that unless the administration remains non partisan or two major political forces neutralise each other, the EC will be totally toothless in even recording the violence, let alone stop it.
Rumi Ahmed is a blogger and lives in USA.