In June 17, Chittagong elected itself a new mayor. BNP supported Monjur Alam beat out the incumbent Mohiuddin Chowdhury, who is also the president of Chittagong Awami League by 95,528 votes. Manzur obtained 4,79,145 votes, while Mohiuddin obtained 3,83,617 votes. Mohiuddin was last elected in 2005, when he beat out BNP’s Mir Mohammed Nasiruddin by a margin of 91,480 votes.
Mohiuddin Chowdhury, who served as a naval commando in our 1971 War of Liberation, is probably the longest-serving public official in Bangladesh’s history. His record, serving continuously for seventeen years, is likely to survive for a while. In my few visits to Chittagong, I had been consistently impressed with the city’s cleanliness. After serving just five-year terms, our national leaders have extended hangover when they lose office. Keeping this in context, it must be said that Mohiuddin has handled the end of his seventeen-year old tenure, throughout which he enjoyed the status and rank of a Minister of State, quite well. It’s also extremely disappointing to see political commentators sympathetic to Awami League making this a referendum on Mohiuddin Chowdhury the person. Winning and losing are just normal outcomes of elections; they do not translate to “rejection by the people.”
Monjur Alam was first elected as a City Councillor in 1994, the same year that Mohiuddin, his former mentor, was first elected to the office of mayor. He fell out with Mohiuddin during the tenure of the former Caretaker Government and subsequently left Awami League before the 2008 elections; contesting it as an independent and losing. In this election, Monjur essentially took a leaf out of Mohiuddin’s 2005 strategies and used it to better effect against the incumbent; it was extremely impressive to see him matching Mohiuddin worker-for-worker as election results were being announced. Considering the fact that he is universally described as soft-spoken and polite after at least seventeen years in the extremely cut-throat world of Chittagong local politics, is a successful entrepreneur with more than eighty business ventures, and has established more than thirty schools and other charitable institutions so far; what was said of Bilbo Baggins must also be said of the mayor-elect: there is more to him than meets the eye.
What will be the consequences of this election? Here are some that come to mind:
1) A weakened Chittagong Awami league: Awami League has always been extremely weak in Chittagong Division. Even in the 2008 election, BNP had its best performance in Chittagong and the surrounding districts. One of the reasons for this organizational weakness was the internal feuding between Mohiuddin in one side and all the other Chittagong AL leaders on the other side. Now that Mohiuddin isn’t a mayor any more, he has been freed up to run for national office. He will also harbor a deep grudge against the other Chittagong Awami League leaders whose animosity, he seems to think, may have cost him this election. Thus, look for intra-party squabbling in AL to worsen in the coming years, and a dismal electoral performance from Chittagong in the next general election.
2) Dhaka City Corporation Elections: Dhaka is going to elect its own mayor later this year. The elections were supposed to be held in May, but Awami League, perhaps getting a sign of things to come, abused their governmental authority and pushed it back to sometime in December. After Monjur’s victory, another defeat in Dhaka will be a huge blow for Awami League, and will make it that much difficult for them to deny that they have not lost some of their popularity. Thus, look for a much scrappier, adversarial, more violent election in Dhaka.
In the BNP side, Monjur’s victory means that current Mayor Sadeq Hossain Khoka’s renomination is no longer automatic. The Chittagong election underlined the price of incumbency all too well, and Khoka doesn’t have Mohiuddin’s many achievements to fall back on. Both BNP and Awami League may be tempted to look for a clean, outsider-type candidate. However, they would do well to realize that Manzur Alam is fundamentally different and electorally superior to the likes of Abdul Awal Mintoo and Salman F Rahman: having served in public office, he knows how to be political.
3) Election Commission appointments: The tenure of the current Commission will end sometime in 2012. I would urge anyone and everyone interested in seeking the continuation of democracy in Bangladesh, and a free and fair election in 2014 to get very interested in the individuals who are appointed by the Awami League to replace the current Commissioners. After the Dhaka City election, multiple by-elections to soon-to-be-vacated parliamentary seats are also coming up. It is quite likely that Awami League may lose at least a few of them, which will continue to make them more paranoid about the upcoming general elections. And when people get paranoid, they make mistakes. The Election Commission currently has vastly augmented powers; they can use them to run a smooth election, or they can use them to unfairly advantage one combine over another.
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