Lessons from the five city corporation elections
Elections in the five city corporations concluded recently without any major untoward incident. With the main opposition BNP choosing not to participate, election results were predictably in favour of the ruling Awami League except for in Gazipur. These elections were the biggest electoral exercise before the parliamentary elections scheduled between late December and early January. So, how should we view these elections in light of the upcoming national elections? And what messages do they convey for the ruling Awami League?
Before the city polls, political commentators were terming the elections as a test case for the Election Commission (EC), which they were most certainly not. At least not in terms of managing a multiparty election. This time, the commission hardly faced any challenges, as there were scarcely any challengers. Moreover, as BNP was rather strict even about councillor candidates for the first time, the competition basically took place among ruling party contenders.
All five city polls were conducted through Electronic Voting Machines (EVM), but the national election will be held through ballot papers. The two are distinct voting mechanisms and require different types of management. So, from this point of view, too, they were not a test case.
The only positive of these five city polls was the voter turnout. Although the voter turnout in local government elections has traditionally remained high, these elections saw an average turnout of around 50 percent. Obviously, the councillor candidates always play a crucial role in raising the voter turnout. Despite that, it can be said that people will turn up at the polling centres if the atmosphere is good. In other words, a congenial atmosphere would be sufficient to get people to come. But the question remains largely about what would happen if the elections become competitive and are accompanied with the tensions and apprehensions typically surrounding a combative election.
If the commission thinks it has done a good job conducting the elections, it would be grossly underestimating the demands it will have to meet during a truly participatory and competitive election. There is no scope for complacency as the commission did not face any risks. Rather, these elections were carried out merely for the sake of formalities.
Many believed that the commission failed abysmally when a mayoral candidate in Barishal came under attack. The comment that the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Kazi Habibul Awal made after the attack drew huge criticisms. When Barishal city mayoral candidate Syed Faizul Karim was assaulted, journalists asked the election chief about the matter. He replied, "Did he die? No. I did not see him bleeding. But we heard that someone punched him from behind." If any ruling party's mayoral candidate had come under attack, would the CEC have made the same remark?
Apprehension of clashes is always high when the election is competitive. Attack on a mayoral candidate indicated a grave lapse on the part of the EC in fostering an appropriate voting environment. As a result, the Islami Andolon Bangladesh boycotted the elections for Rajshahi and Sylhet city polls. The mayoral candidate in Gazipur, Zaida Khatun's motorcade also came under attack before the polling day.
In the 2018 elections in the five-city corporations, the allegation against the then KM Nurul Huda-led commission was that it had failed to establish control over the police and administration. At that time, the BNP-backed mayoral candidates alleged that they were driven away from the field even before the voting started and the role of the EC was that of a mere spectator. As BNP boycotted the election, the commission did not face any such test this time.
So, if the commission thinks it has done a good job conducting the elections, it would be grossly underestimating the demands it will have to meet during a truly participatory and competitive election. There is no scope for complacency as the commission did not face any risks. Rather, these elections were carried out merely for the sake of formalities.
Although the ruling Awami League leaders have been saying that the election was free and fair, the one issue that surfaced was the intra-party feud. After failing to get a nomination from the party, former mayor and Gazipur Awami League leader Zahangir Alam's mother Zaida Khatun contested the election and won. She defeated the Awami League veteran Azmatullah Khan, which is a testament to the betrayal of ruling party members. In Barishal, the incumbent mayor Serniabat Sadiq Abdullah did not get the party nomination, but his uncle Abul Khair Abdullah did. The division was very much visible and the media reported that Sadiq did not even go to the polling centre to cast his vote. In Rajshahi and Khulna, the party did not face any challenge as there was no strong contender either from the opposition parties or from within the ranks of the Awami League. So, if we happen to have a competitive election, how the Awami League will tackle its intra-party feud should be of concern.
But the biggest loser of these elections is the Jatiya Party. In Gazipur, the Jatiya Party's mayoral candidate lost his security money. In Barishal and Khulna, Jatiya Party mayoral candidates came in fourth, while in Sylhet, the party candidate did well and came in second, but lost by about 70,000 votes, which is rather significant. So, the main opposition in the parliament should do some soul searching over its organisational strength.
While the five city corporations have managed to elect their mayors for the next five years through largely free and fair polls, there is little room for complacence. This applies particularly for the Election Commission, as well as the ruling Awami League.
Mohammad Al-Masum Molla is chief reporter at The Daily Star.