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Islam and Politics ( 12 Aug 2008, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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In Bangladesh, a ‘dress rehearsal’ for national polls

By Haroon Habib


The military-backed government is preparing to hold the crucial upazila polls in October.


The just-concluded elections to four major city corporations and nine municipalities in Bangladesh were a major political exercise that was accomplished successfully. The August 4 elections were the first to be held under the caretaker government in the last 18 months. But even after months of relentless campaign to “clean up the political old guards,” the people voted for the “old politicians” belonging to two major political parties. However, in some cases, particularly at the mayoral level, new candidates have won.


The local elections were held under a state of emergency enforced in January 2007. The government, the election commission as well as the political parties considered the exercise “a test case.” There were some minor flaws in regard to photo ID cards. Nevertheless the elections were credited by all observer groups as transparent, peaceful, free and fair.


The only resenting voice was that of BNP secretary-general Khandker Delwar Hossain, who described the elections held under the state of emergency as “unacceptable.” Delwar’s faction of the BNP under Khaleda Zia’s leadership boycotted the election though many senior party leaders perceived the boycott strategy as wrong and demoralised the grassroots workers since the boycott call did not work. The central leadership of the BNP kept off the polls, and defiant party candidates were defeated with a second position in all the places.

Major reality


The August 4 elections presented one major political reality: Despite relentless moves to find out viable alternatives, it proved once again that the Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina and the BNP led by Khaleda Zia still rule the Bangladesh national politics in the absence of a credible alternative.


The results also proved that the caretaker government’s avowed ‘mission’ to bring honest and clean public representatives did fall short somewhat. Media reports said that a large number of people with “criminal records” contested and even won the polls. Awami League leader and Sylhet city Mayor Badruddin Ahmed Kamran was put behind bars by the caretaker government on charges of corruption, but he won by a record number of votes, becoming Mayor for the second time. It is not yet known whether the government will release such politicians as many such candidates got a “clean chit” by virtue of the mandate they got.


Two other significant points emerge: the government argues that the participation of the large number of people in the peaceful-ever elections has proved that polls can be held under the state of emergency. Saying so, it has demonstrated its eagerness to hold the crucial parliamentary elections too while the state of emergency is in force. But many politicians are strongly opposed to it. They claim that the large voter turnout was a testament to the people’s eagerness not to glorify the state of emergency but to see a quick restoration of democracy. It seems that political parties in the country will reorganise themselves.


The local government polls were largely seen as a dress rehearsal by the military-backed caretaker government to the coming national elections, scheduled for the third week of December next. But many analysts say the polls involved 1.2 million of the country’s 80.5 million voters and say it may not be appropriate to treat it as a dress rehearsal.


The polls brought about some fundamental changes in nomination procedures. Traditionally, nominations used to be made by central-level leaders. But a small change was noticed this time when candidates were selected from the bottom.


The Bangladesh Awami League (AL)-led 14-party secular alliance won a landslide victory over its arch rival Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and fundamentalist Jamaat-E-Islami-led four-party combine. Some observers argue that had the BNP been officially in the race, the AL might not have bagged all the mayoral positions. Nevertheless the results showed a remarkable downslide in the BNP-Jamaat’s popular base.


Independent media reports said the election results should give reasons for optimism. The atmosphere of peace that prevailed during voting was quite unlike the earlier elections.


Overall, the elections have reflected the cardinal principle that the Bangladesh people still held an abiding faith in democracy and any move to depoliticise the nation may not succeed and the country needs to pursue the bigger goal of returning to an elected democratic polity. The military-backed government is now preparing to hold the crucial upazila (sub-district) polls in October, which major political parties strongly oppose. They question the government’s “hidden agenda.”


The country is now in the midst of a serious debate: whether to hold the upazila elections before the parliamentary elections and whether the political parties will participate at all in the December parliamentary elections if the caretaker government does not lift the state of emergency.


Source: The Hindu, New delhi