It’s difficult to understand why so much energy was spent on an election, which in the end, really may not matter at all.
Since the mayoral powers are limited, the lives and lifestyle of Dhaka people is not influenced by the person who sits on the seat. The local government system in general is very weak in Bangladesh, and in the urban scenario, it is particularly so. Because the political parties who control the government have no desire to part with the high power that comes with such an arrangement, they become big shows.
In rural areas, the local government system serves as a conduit for services, but the urban governance system does not dispense of service delivery tasks, which largely remain the function of various ministries.
But then why is there so much noise if it’s largely ceremonial?
The mayoral election may be the least ‘useful’ seat which politics produces, but is also the one election that reflects who controls Dhaka and how. It’s not substance but symbol.
So what does the latest election in Dhaka and Chittagong signify? Who won the election?
In terms of winning the seats, it’s the Awami League (AL), but unfortunately the election itself doesn’t look good, with media producing a great deal of evidence that it was rigged in a variety of ways.
bdnews24.com’s headline was “Awami League-backed candidates win city corporation elections marred by massive fraud,” so nobody can accuse the news site of a pro-BNP stance.
Other media outlets, both print and electronic, have said more or less the same, so we have to accept the verdict of the informal observers.
Most people have said that AL would have won anyway, and that may well be true, but now the rigging issue has become a matter of how much, rather than what if. It shows that to AL, winning was more important than any other objective.
Will this hurt AL?
A bit certainly, because such ceremonial seats create goodwill rather than political triumphs, and AL does look smaller today than it did before the voting began from the way voting was handled. It has also lent some credibility to the BNP position, where they didn’t participate in the November 5 elections knowing of rigging plans.
It also hurts the AL lobby claims. So AL has won the seats and cities, but in the end it may not be a great victory or something that adds to the party position or democratic practices.
The future will only tell if all this was worthwhile or not.
The BNP internally has gained because they have found an exit from the “underground” politics they had gotten linked to. They had become identified with violence on the street, and bombs that kill, as well as being cosy with the extremist Jamaatis.
But in this election, in which they openly participated without Jamaat-e-Islami, BNP has proven to themselves that they have the capacity to be flexible and run on their own steam.
In the January 5 election, their boycott was not supported by a majority of the party leaders, but everyone was too afraid of Khaleda Zia and her son to speak out against it.
This time, this group has led the road to return and the party’s capability of getting a large number of votes despite their bomber reputation. They have displayed that there is a space in which they can operate without the Jamaatis, and that a great number of people are ready to vote for them.
So in a roundabout way, BNP gained politically, even if they lost electorally.
One should also mention the rise and fall of certain individuals and institutions. The Election Commission (EC) has lost a lot of credibility even though they may not be responsible for it.
Bangladesh has seen such an election after a long time. The January 5 election may have been voter free, but it was not rigged the way that happened on the 28th. It did seem obvious that the EC is not in charge, and this time, the weakness of the system was obvious.
Nor does one understand why the Chief Elections Commissioner (CEC) had to go on air and declare the elections “free and fair,” which no-one believed regardless of the facts. Perhaps it’s written in the job description, which is why the question is whether the damage is permanent.
Or does a damaged CEC not matter when future elections similarly may not matter as much?
The candidates were interesting and some lost their shine. Annisul Huq, who claims that he had no property and money, could not be considered seriously and was soundly ridiculed everywhere. It has not added to his credibility, and he looks more like an AL person than an independent mayor.
On the other hand, the conduct of Afroza Abbas has been stellar, and she has emerged as a future star of Bangladesh politics. Her connection with the people was good, and she has certainly eclipsed her husband’s political status.
A well-spoken, moderate person who is able to collect support so easily without threats of violence and bad language is a refreshing outcome of this political fracas.
So not all was bad, and hope this person takes over the ageing and unpopular BNP leadership of Dhaka.
But what of the people?
Well, they have participated to the best of their ability, and having spent a holiday and looking on rather bemusedly at an election that means so little to them, they can return to the business of staying alive – and if the opportunity arises – flourish.
The role of the state doesn’t offer much to the rest, and that is why the election remains what it is: a ceremonial event.
However, if this trend of elections that keep returning only the ruling party as winners, they may end up facing problems of many kinds.
But then who knows. Getting people interested in an election that doesn’t enjoy sufficient public confidence may be a bigger challenge than winning one.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher. He has worked for the Dhaka Courier, the Daily Star, and BBC among many others. He has also worked as a Human Rights specialist with the UN and other agencies. Afsan was the Oak Fellow on International Human Rights of the Colby College in the USA in 2008.