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     Volume 8 Issue 52 | January 9, 2009 |

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Elections go Local

Nader Rahman

They say the first 100 days are the most crucial for any new government; it gives them time to chart out their plans and implement some as well. Sheikh Hasina will not be so privileged, barely two weeks after she takes her oath she will face her first real challenge and how she handles it will be far more important than her first 100 days. Elected as an agent of change the weight on her shoulders is considerably more than on previous Prime Ministers elect, not only does she need to portray herself as the new face of Bangladeshi politics, she needs to live up to her slogan of change. The litmus test better known as the Upazilla Elections for the Awami League will take place on January 22, exactly two years after the country's general elections were supposed to be held and a nation waits with bated breath.

One may logically ask why the Upazilla Parishad elections are so important and the answer lies not only in the recently promulgated Upazilla Parishad Ordinance 2008 but due to the fact that they will be the sternest test of the Awami League's wholesale policy of change and accountability.

To put it politely the two previous Upazilla Parishad elections in 1985 and 1988 held under the rule of HM Ershad's dictatorship were less of elections and more like selections. They proved to be yet another way of tightening their grip over every single level of governance. The people (s)elected were either ruling party sycophants, or people loyal to their local MPs. Those elections ravaged the reputation of trustworthy local governance and fertilised a tree of corruption from the root up, a process we are still trying weed out. In 1991 the newly elected BNP government repealed the Local Government Ordinance of 1982 almost immediately after it took office. Two years after being voted into power in 1996, the Awami League government passed the Upazilla Parishad Act in 1998. Sadly they could not hold the elections and that lack of inertia was carried into the next BNP governments tenure as even they could not decide how to go about it.

The problem with the way the Upazilla Parishad system was run it gave supreme power to the local MP, a sort of veto power akin to those enjoyed by the permanent members of the UN Security Council. With that veto in hand, many an unscrupulous MP awarded local contracts to his friends and well wishers as well as performing favours for those within the community who could help him in the future. They would essentially dole out favours, cashing them back at the appropriate time and place. While it would be incorrect to say that everyone behaved this way and abused their power, it would also be acceptable to say that most certainly did. This has created intrinsic problems that the Awami League will have to tackle this time. The ground level corruption and nepotism will have to be halted if local governance is to make a meaningful comeback and most importantly they will have to help hold free and fair elections for the public to be able to trust their Chairman and Vice-Chairmen's.

With one third of the seats reserved for women, the Upazilla Parishad could bring about a revolution in women's rights.

Logically what one has come to expect in Bangladesh is that after a party is overwhelmingly voted into power, they try and monopolise as much power as they can get, appoint loyal people to important posts and then seemingly do everything possible to tarnish their names. This time Awami League will have to learn from previous governments' mistakes, they seem to want to take corruption and nepotism by the scruff of the neck and there is no better opportunity than with the upcoming Upazilla Parishad elections. If they can demonstrate to the public that they are honest and trustworthy and that the elections took place under their purview without so much as a hitch then it will go a long way to proving that they really mean the change they speak.

With the promulgation of the Upazilla Parishad Ordinance in 2008, this year's elections should be even more interesting than ever. The rules have been changed to give the chairman final say over matters concerning his Upazilla and the local MP has been shoved out of the picture. This could mean a local MP could have to work with a Chairman who backs another party. If it works out the way it was planned it would then keep them both on their feet and may bring about a new sense of professionalism. No longer will they look out for themselves and their parties, they will have to look after their people first, anything less his opposing number will be on his back. The Upazilla Parishad chairmen could embody the House of Representatives, while the MPs would be similar to Congress.

With one third of the seats reserved for women, the Upazilla Parishad could bring about a revolution in women's rights. We have all heard the stories of micro-credit and how the people who mainly take and repay those loans are women but while those women are empowering themselves individually, an increased presence in local government could help empower others. For a country such as Bangladesh the decentralisation of power is of utmost importance and Upazilla Parishads could point the nation in the right direction. If people are dedicated and loyal enough, they will take matters into their own hands and MPs will no longer be the end alls and be alls. If an MP wants to be re-elected now he will have to work with his local Chairman, rather than bullying him. If he wants people to vote for him, he will need to do more than just ride on the coat tails of his party, this is the time when their actions will need to speak louder than words.

Campaigning for the Upazilla Parishad Elections.

While most of the nation is relieved that the December 29 went off without so much as a whiff of trouble or vote rigging, they will all look at the 22nd as a true statement of intent. If there is to be change we can believe in then the Upazilla Parishad elections will be the clearest signs, by not scheduling them at the same time as our national polls, what the Election Commission has done is to put all eyes on the newly elected government and that is not bad at all. The risk was great, but the rewards could be equally as fruitful. The boundaries of development are defined by local government and if this time the people can look beyond party politics and vote for the right person, then our next government should have no problem pushing those boundaries into rural homes and houses, bringing development their doorsteps. An Upazilla has never been as important as it is today.

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