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     Volume 8 Issue 55 | January 30, 2009 |

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Upazila Parishad Elections
A False Start

Nader Rahman

The Awami League promised the citizens of Bangladesh that they were the party who would bring about real change. They said a vote for them was actually a vote for a new Bangladesh, one without nepotism and political corruption. And after five years of Hawa Bhaban and two years of an unconstitutional caretaker government the voting public believed their message. Whether out of lack of a better choice or a real sense of belief in the party, one will never know, but their clarion call for change was answered at the voting booth. Less than a month after their election, their call for change seems a far cry from their activities as the Upazila Parishad elections have clearly shown.

The local government elections were viewed to be an acid test of Awami League's new credentials and in a larger sense; free and fair Upazila Parishad elections could have shown the country that the new government meant business. This is not to say the opposition had no constructive role to play in the development of local government. If they both held themselves back from the politics of confrontation then, the Upazila Parishad elections would have gone off smoothly. But that was not the case, with over 100 official complaints and numerous others, which did not even make it to the Election Commission. the elections proved to be farcical and made a mockery of the so called 'new beginning' for Bangladesh. But the problems started well before the general elections and were only exacerbated by the ruling party's unwillingness to reign in its members.

Police arrested a presiding officer and two polling officers while they were trying to cast 'fake' votes in support of the local candidate at Maruadi Government Primary School centre in Araihazar upazila of Narayanganj. Photo: Focus Bangla

When the election commission announced the new date (January 22) for the Upazila Parishad elections, many viewed the decision as amateurish and one that could potentially cause disaster. The rationale behind such comments was that people would not be motivated to queue up to vote for the second time in a month, especially after taking part in what would be historic elections. Many claimed they should have been held before the general elections, while a small number of people thought they should have been held at the same time as the general elections. In the end it was ATM Shamsul Huda and his crew that took the decision, one we are still struggling to deal with. The ill-timed elections also provided a chance for the newly elected government to prove their newfound impartiality and to put it bluntly they did not deliver.

A polling agent at the Char Boro Dhopli government primary school polling centre in Companiganj, Noakhali is seen trying to manipulate a voter into casting her vote for a particular candidate. Photo: Focus Bangla

While the general elections were held in a free, fair and festive manner, the local elections took a page out of the elections of old. Thugs and hooligans of the ruling party and the opposition took to the streets and not only scared voters but also openly captured polling stations and intimidated thousands. Ballot boxes were stuffed, people were threatened and what should have been the best example of democracy in practice, quickly turned into the worst. Out of the carnage two names appeared, according to newspaper reports, Fisheries and Livestock Minister Abdul Latif Biswas and Awami League law maker Abdur Rahman Bodi both allegedly interfered in the polls in Belkuchi upazila of Sirajganj and Teknaf of Cox's Bazar. The whole point of the local government election was that the political party in power would not impose itself or even align itself with the candidates. That was royally flouted as they not only campaigned for Upazila Parishand candidates but even turned up at the polling centres grossly violating the election commissions rules and procedures. While they are accused of criminal offences, the case of Bodi was a return to the bad old days of Bangladeshi politics. He is accused of beating up assistant presiding officers at a polling centre, a barbaric act for one who was voted into power less than a month ago.

The Election Commission for their part said that stern action would be taken against the accused and even the Prime Minister said she would not intervene with the due process of the law. But all of that seems like political posturing, a habit the Bangladeshi public is well versed in. Recently the Awami league has even claimed that internal action will be taken against the accused, but whether that turns out to be a simple dressing down or drastic measures remains to be seen. This has been the first real test of the new government and it would bode well for them if they made examples out of the two accused. If they are found guilty, they should be thrown behind bars and that should provide a wake up call for those in power. The only way to stay in power is to earn it and keep one's nose clean, any thing less should not be tolerated. But that will not probably happen, they will probably simply be censured with nothing more than a slap on the wrists. For their part the opposition also stands accused of election hooliganism and that should not be forgotten as well. If they are to play a meaningful role in the future of Bangladesh they should strive to keep themselves 'cleaner' than the government. The opposition exists to keep the government in check and if they remain more corrupt than the government then they cannot speak with real conviction.

The problems with the Upazila Parishad elections run deep and they also highlight the failings of the Election Commission. Shushashoner Jannoy Nagorik (Shujan--Citizens for Good Governance) released a damning report on the candidates for the Upazila elections a few days before the people went to the polls. It claimed that 78% of the contestants tax records were dubious. It also said over 50% of the contestants were or had been accused of criminal offences and out of the 444 candidates for Chairman only a mere 71 actually paid taxes at all. The report placed the Election Commission and its activities under scrutiny. While they were praised across the board for their handling of the national elections and generally getting rid of spurious candidates, this time around they failed miserably. Many of the female posts reserved for women were contested by family members of those running for Chairman and after trying to rid ourselves of dynastic politics on a national level, seemingly the regional level looks set to take that tradition over.

On a different note the Upazila Parishad Ordinance passed by the caretaker government was seen a major step forward for local governance, but in the end even the good work done by Fahkruddin and Co could be undone by the first political government in two years. The Ordinance took away supreme power from the local Member of Parliament and gave the chairman final say in matters pertaining to his constituency. This, it was said would boost the power and effectiveness of local government and no longer make them glorified henchmen to their MP's. But currently this very ordinance is being reviewed, and many within the government including Syed Ashraful Islam, Local Government and Rural Development (LGRD) Minister feel that the power should essentially be shared and the MP must be in the decision making process. If this were to take place it would be a body blow to local governance and would seriously taint the entire concept of Upazila Parishads yet again. This time it could be the knockout blow, for 20 years politicians have bickered over it, abolishing and then reinstating it to various degrees of suspicion. And finally the caretaker government brought the whole concept to life yet again with the 2008, Upazila Parishad Ordinance. Just when it was on the right track, it could be derailed yet again, and this time it will probably be the last. If it fails to work this time, the system can no longer be blamed, the fault lies squarely on the shoulders of the Awami League.

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