The recently concluded municipal election highlights several points about the current trend of Bangladesh politics and further fuels the debate about possibility of fair elections under a political government. But before going into the messages this election sent and what our democracy can learn form this election, let get a short overview of the results and other political issues relevant to this election.

1. In a snapshot, the overall results show a near equal number of victorious candidates from ruling Awami League (AL) and opposition Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP). If one adds pended Cox’s bazaar, BrahmanBaria municipals in BNP column, Tangail to AL, the margin might go in BNP’s side. Then hypothetically if one adds 10 plus Stolen Noakhali/ Feni/ Barisal councils to BNP, the gap widens further in BNP’s favor.

2. This election gives a good sampling of Bangladesh. This election was neither one of the major city Corporation election nor totally rural Union Porishod election. This election samples the population where urban folks come in contact with rural Bangladesh. These are small towns of Bangladesh where villagers travel on almost daily basis to sell their produce or do necessary purchases. These are the perfect mixing bowl of urban and rural Bangladesh. Unlike Dhaka where major concern would be traffic or load shedding or the remote village, where people concerns mostly about price of seeds, fertilizer etc. — these city council election covers both sort of perspective.

3. Before going to this election, the calculation among the ruling party was like this — based on last parliament election and relentless steam roller of last four years, BNP’s grassroots is almost nonexistent. The only stronghold for BNP, per Awami League, was Greater Noakhali, Feni, Bogra and Barisal proper area.
BNP, on the other hand, thought they will do well in Barisal division, Rajshahi division, Chittagong division, split even with AL in Khulna division but may not do as well in Dhaka, Sylhet and Rangpur division.

4. As per AL’s assessment, to show that AL can conduct free and fair election and win ( eventually to make the way to abolish CTG); Awami League decided not to encourage election rigging or violence in districts where AL thought their candidate will inevitably win. As a result, while northern divisions, Dhaka division, Sylhet division saw peaceful polls, hell broke loose on greater Noakhali districts and Barisal. Awami League consciously nominated folks like Nizam Hazari and Abu taher to win Feni-Noakhali area by force as they did not believe that after losing last parliament election in these area, they have chances to win municipal election. It is worth mention that during last MP election, AL hardly managed to win any seats from from these two greater districts. All Noakhali and Feni seats went to BNP, while out of five Barisal seats, two Sadar seats went to BNP, surrounding two to JP and one marginal island area went to AL. And this violent election rigging was confined mostly to these areas.

5. This election is first of the series of backlashes many political analyst expected that AL might incur for the naive, inexperienced leadership Mrs. Hasina picked post 2006. A general Secretary of a party is the most vital person to keep the party disciplined. This can be better done by an experienced commanding figure with personal rapport to all grassroots leadership. By the time young Mujib became secretary of Awami League, he had visited, personally charmed, ate one meal and slept one afternoon or night at the house of each local level Awami League leader. So when election came, he had personal knowledge of and influence on those local leaders and could easily curb rebel candidacy. This current secretary of Awami League has never done that. He lived in Europe even since before 15th August tragedy and was suddenly chosen to be organizer in chief. And even after becoming Awami League Secretary General and minister of the largest Ministry, LGRD, he kept on spending a big chunk of the year with his family in Europe.

6. It was a local government election. Traditional political symbols like boat, sheaf of paddy, Scale or Plough were not used. So the results may not accurately reflect the accurate standing as far as political parties are concerned. In local election where change of government does not take place, people in Bangladesh tend to vote beyond party line. These are probably the reasons BNP did win most municipals in Rangpur which had religiously voted for ‘Langal’ symbol and Ershad for the last 20 years.

Also being a ruling party and above mentioned reason, Awami League had a very undisciplined election with a plethora of rebel candidates. That definitely helped BNP secure some marginal areas.
So BNP leadership has no reason to start jumping and screaming red card and yellow card. More over Mr Moudud and others must accept responsibility of poor organizational preparedness to counter ruling party use of force in Noakhali and Feni areas. To win an election, any national political party must fulfill two requirements, earn public support, organize to get out the vote. BNP failed that in Noakhali, Feni, Barisal etc.

7. Daily Star’s recent public poll was not reflected in the election results.

Now what our democracy can learn from this election? What is the message coming out of this election that can help strengthen our future election processes?

1. As Many expected or hoped, BNP is not destroyed. It is here to stay and Bangladesh effectively maintains two party democracy. Awami League and progressive media have to learn to live with BNP.

2. Despite 1/11 apologists told the nation ad infinitum that with photo voter ID and new heavenly voter list, election rigging was a matter of past. After Bhola, Noakhali, Feni, Choumuhuni, Laxmipur or Barisal, we just learned that this is not the fact.

3. Election Commission still runs in old colonial day way in this digital Bangladesh. EC can’t officially accept report of vote dacoity via MMS or SMS or voice call. They need written typed detail official report via proper channel. i.e The presiding officers sends a original written report via courier to DC office. DC office officially receives it, seals it received. Then DC ( Returning Officer) writes his note, signs it and faxes it EC. Then the full commission goes over the report and decides. And while these formality goes on, all ballots are already sealed and stuffed in box.
To curb election rigging, there must be a digital, fast efficient way of collecting mobile phone report by the EC’s own mobile task-force and new rules of procedure need to be enacted to allow the EC to act swiftly.

4. After Pabna and other experiences, it is very clear that local administration is not immune to ruling party intimidation and influences. It will be very naive to hope that a DC will be proactive enough to quickly act in reporting ruling party hooliganism. Kaler Kantha is a decidely Awami League leaning newspaper. This report in Daily Kaler Kantha shows how helpless the local administration was in reigning in election center hooliganism. Although centers were taken over by the ruling party activists, the magistrate or the presiding officer was dead scared to call off the election.

These events reemphasize the need of an expanded election commission. EC must have it’s own permanent manpower to perform the role of returning officers. They also need to have their own mobile teams who will overtly or covertly travel from center to center and will have the power to call EC to hold voting in effected centers.

5. This election took place in relatively well connected, developed urban centers with good telecommunication infrastructure. Yet the administration failed to record widespread violence in most centers of Noakhali / Feni or Barisal. Even the ever present hyperactive media failed to be visit most violence ridden centers. So when there will be elections in rural Union Parishads or during Parliamentary elections, it is easily imaginable that unless the administration remains non partisan or two major political forces neutralize each other, EC will be totally toothless in even recording the violence, let alone stop them.

6. The election commission continue to underwhelm the nation by their timidness. They sounded like tigers when 1/11 military regime was in power. Now we see that they were paper tigers. CEC can make sweeping comments about political parties election practice. But when he and his commissioners tolerates Bhola, Noakhli, Feni, Laxmipur style election rigging and keeps on parrot talking, ” The election was free and fair”, one fail to see any seismic shift from old culture.