After three months of doom and gloom, arrested protests and tyranny on citizens through petrol bombs and strikes, Dhaka and Chittagong came alive in April with the call of the mayoral elections that were held on the 28th of April, 2015. The impending Dhaka and Chittagong city corporation elections were received jubilantly for several reasons. First, they led to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) lifting its strikes and blockades which had had crippling economic consequences and also brought the country to a political dead end characterized by violence on the average citizen. The ruling party- the Awami League (AL) did not appear particularly forthcoming in reversing the political trajectory out of the cul de sac. It screamed murder, but failed to nab the perpetrators. The citizens felt that the two parties had reached an all-time low, with a complete “end to arguments”. People felt hostage to the situation. Their options were to either partake in the arguments that towed the line of which ever party they preferred, resulting in a failure to arrive at any middle ground, or they were left as hapless bystanders in the political drama that was unfolding. An end to the opposition’s strikes and blockades through announcing polls meant that citizens could revert to everyday life, undisrupted by party politics and their struggle for power.
However, the call for elections was not a suspension of the power struggle. What was hopeful about the event was a return of the ballot or positive politics, if you will, in its most participatory and democratic connotations. Bangladesh’s history with democracy is marked by popular struggles, uprisings, constitutional provisions and changes that have sought at different times to both ensure and curtail people’s right to choose their representative. The caretaker government provision which was institutionalized in 1996 eventually lent itself to party manipulation and appropriation. After a nearly two year stint of the last military backed caretaker government, the democratically elected AL used its absolute majority in parliament to remove the caretaker provision from the constitution. Consequently, the following national election was boycotted by the opposition, paving the way for a non-participatory election. Political commentators waited till the last minute to see if the AL would withdraw the election of January 5th, 2014, and instill measures that would allow the BNP’s confidence and participation in polls at a deferred time. But it did not, and the AL came back to power uncontested, resulting the BNP to fall out of the electoral and therefore “democratic” process. The past three violent and highly disruptive months have been a protest movement to the non-inclusive election of 2014. The upcoming mayoral election and BNP’s participation in it were thus welcome on the premise that Bangladesh’s democratic journey would be put back on track. It also offered the Awami League an opportunity for image saving by proving its democratic credentials to the public.
With the hope of better days ahead and the promise of more participatory politics, the first question that occupied citizens and politicians was a concern about a level playing field for campaigning. While there is great disparity in personal resources- both financial and organizational, greater concern for the elections revolved around the question of the state’s role in equally ensuring and/or curtailing privileges to the candidates. There are allegations that the AL backed candidates have enjoyed state backing, while BNP and other candidates have been harassed or even assaulted by AL thugs with no redress. These allegations climaxed when the BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia’s vehicle was attacked and damaged while she was out campaigning for the candidate backed by her party for Dhaka North. The Prime Minister did not seem to condemn the attack. Rather, she argued that the leader of the opposition had brought these attacks upon herself due to the violent and destructive movement she carried out for the first three months of the year. This was not a satisfactory response from the Prime Minister, who, many believed, should have been nurturing the festivity of the election season and not fanning the flames of past discord. The police seemed inactive and the “independent” election commission failed to raise enough of a hue and cry for the state’s investigative and law enforcing agencies to apprehend the perpetrators. This and other smaller incidents raised questions about the nature of the playing field, highlighting that it was anything but levelled. Unlike the public, the leadership did not seem to embrace the election in the spirit of moving on towards a better functioning democratic political future.
Given that there was no consensus on political stability or any semblance of agreement at the top level, the candidates from the two political parties projected their candidacy away from politics. In Dhaka North, candidates Annisul Huq and Tabith Awal, especially the former, pleaded that the mayoral position should be thought of primarily as administrative. Dhaka needs a mayor to clean its streets, to solve water-logging, to ensure more greenery and open spaces, to ease traffic load and allow freer roads for commuters, etc. The best candidate with the best administrative capacity to manage all the coordination between different bureaus, within and outside the municipality should be the man to be elected. But how was this administrative job to be undertaken without a political mandate and without the help of bureaus who were not even answerable to the mayor? The question of the deeply politically embedded nature of this “administrative position” was raised by some of the younger contestants in the race. Notable from this group are Mahi B Chowdhury, the son of an ex-BNP leader and also former President of Bangladesh and Zonayed Saki, a left-leaning political activist and former student leader. The communist party of Bangladesh had also fielded a younger candidate, although with lesser visibility and voice than the other two. While Mahi focused on activating the youth towards a better Dhaka, Saki’s demands were oriented more towards substantive structural changes. For the purposes of a city corporation election, Saki brought to the table the issue of an autonomous city government as the ultimate means by which the mayor can best fulfill his mandate as a directly elected representative of the people. Demands of city government were made once in the past by an Awami League mayor, but shelved soon after. Subsequent governments and mayors did not raise the issue again. The formation of a city government and strengthening of local government have consistently been on the priority list of local government analysts, research organizations and human rights organization who have thought about instituting and improving upon the state of democracy in Bangladesh. While talks of de- centralization and its more efficient delivery of rights and duties to citizens sounded abstract to many, they brought a certain depth and substance to the mayoral contest- away from the rhetoric of Awami League’s “the spirit of 1971” as the only answer to all our problems versus hollow claims to democracy and inclusive Bangladeshi nationalism that the BNP laud itself for. Midway through the campaign, the BNP candidate was also supporting the idea of city government (although the BNP, with two mayors to its credit, has never taken on this project before. Nor was the formation of city government on the BNP mayoral manifesto). The government backed candidate could not quite dismiss the proposition. He was too sophisticated for an outright rejection. His strategy was to argue that good administration will eventually ensure healthier politics. A politically expedient and fairly fragile argument, Huq’s plea to voters through the route of “good administration” was somewhat punctured, revealing that neither he nor the job he was contesting for were going to be devoid of political context or content.
The last day of campaigning closed with a rehashing of some of the overarching themes such as good governance, good politics, new politics and democratic aspirations. The campaigning left the citizens festive and eagerly awaiting election day. Over the span of three weeks, Dhaka dwellers, especially from the north, had seen much ranging from elaborate campaign processions, to lively facebook pages to even livelier debate and television talk shows. The impressive and competent line up of candidates engaged in world class debates, based on their impressive electoral manifestos, agreeing and arguing cordially on how best to deliver on those promises. These exchanges brought hope to the despondent citizen- besieged by a political culture, bankrupt of healthy ideas and substance, and reduced to confrontation at all levels. The mayoral race not only highlighted substantive issues, but also showcased new and younger faces. Could we be at the cusp of a new politics? Ofcourse, the absence of equilibrium in campaigning, along with the doubts on the efficacy of the election commission and police along with the unabated activities of party thugs remained as black clouds on the horizon. Nonetheless, much hope went into the election. The night before the polls, most political commentators claimed that a referendum on the political parties and the state of politics in general would be the issues to pivot around the mayoral elections. “Change” was also something that was made to loom over the citizenry through these elections. The AL candidates touted change, albeit from within, one BNP candidate represented a change in generation, and the dynamic newer faces spoke of generational and substantive change. The three weeks of campaigning, thus, indicated a better post-electoral era. While the mayoral position was not a very important one given existing political and administrative structures, the more positive events that characterized the period leading up to the mayoral election allowed much more to ride on and be said through the mayoral contest. It seemed to the hopeful citizen that Dhaka and Chittagong offered not only new administrators but also the salvaging of democracy, even if through the most basic route of elections.
The citizens’ hopes and aspirations came crashing when, by mid-day, news of irregularities at the polling centers broke out. The BNP announced their boycott of the elections around 12p. They defended their position by saying that their polling agents were intimidated and evicted and ballot stuffing had begun early on in the day. Reports from other candidates say that polling agents were under serious repression, and that a grand majority of the polling stations had been cleared off of all non-Awami League polling agents by 130 pm. With evicted or seriously intimidated non-AL polling agents, the AL agents, most of who belong to the AL student cadres Jubo and Chhatra League, ushered in a ballot stuffing carnival. Consequently, genuine voters who had come to the polling stations to vote were being turned away. The police either stood and watched, or facilitated the AL cadres by keeping watchful presences away. The TV media was covering this live and by mid-day everyone’s face book newsfeeds were flooded with first-hand accounts of how they were turned away from polling stations on the pretext that their vote had already been caste. Journalists started reporting first hand witnessing of ballot stuffing, of violence in the centers and of police complicity. Needless to say, the ended terribly. The hopeful citizenry watched haplessly as debates brewed on TV about numbers of votes caste, numbers of irregular polling stations, why the BNP boycotted when they did, and how miserably the election commission failed in its duties. Sadly, a democratic moment that the two cities prepared for joyously was hijacked from them. The promise of the days ahead were lost, if not to oblivion, but at least for some time to come.
Dhaka and Chittagong woke up on the 29th of April, 2015 with new “administrators” and all the political dysfunctions that they hoped the election would at least partially redress. With such theft of votes and denial of the rights of citizens having taken place less than three days ago, blames games and deflections have already begun. The AL are questioning the BNP’s pull out mid-way. Many from the non-partisan citizenry are agreeing with such line of questioning that implies that the election boycott was also pre planned and orchestrated by the BNP. While BNP’s boycott may have been premature, signaling either organizational incapacity or even ill-intent, the time of pull-out is not really the central issue here. The fact that there was very little supervision and monitoring by the administration, the fact that the government, after repeated requests from other contestants, failed to allow army monitoring, the fact that polling agents were intimidated- all emphatically point to the absolute lack of will on the part of the ruling Awami League to hold free and fair elections. BNP does not have a strong leg to stand on either given its own track record of rigging polls when in power. With the electoral process mired, the nation awaits a prognosis, an outlet where dissent can be meaningfully and effectively aired. People have already become busy in debating electoral reforms- both structural (i.e., reconfiguring formations at the ward commissioner and councilor levels as well as technical (how to avoid polling station menaces by perhaps digitizing the vote). These are no small tasks. But reforms or not, if political will remains the same, it is safe to say that Bangladesh will not see another free election under a political government. With political will not on the side of people’s rights of representation, with the caretaker option constitutionally removed, Bangladeshis may be waiting a long time before they are able to productively engage the electoral process. In the interim, we will have to content ourselves with the superficial makeover that the promise of more greenery and efficient sewage disposal may deliver. We wait to see how and to what extent city administration and governance can flourish outside of people-unfriendly politics. With the cities writ-large, we watch with suspended hope as affected political will makes promises of taking the country to greater heights.
Samia Huq is Associate Professor, Department of Economics and Social Sciences, BRAC University.