Could a long-standing intra-party feud play into – or deliberately be used to engineer – an Awami League defeat?
The Awami League needs this win as a symbol of its popularity. Analysts and party insiders consider the NCC polls a barometer reading of the popularity of the government.
But for people in Narayanganj, the vote appears to be for or against the Shamim Osman political machine.
The Awami League high command has instructed its two big local leaders, long-standing rivals Selina Hayat Ivy, the party-backed candidate, and Shamim Osman, the local MP, to play nice.
Conventional wisdom suggests Shamim could adversely affect Ivy’s chances of winning the race against BNP candidate Shakhawat Hossain Khan, a lawyer turned politician whose work as attorney in the Narayanganj 7 murder case underlies his appeal.
The rivalry between Shamim and Ivy is legendary in Narayanganj and has brought the troubled city into the national spotlight several times.
In a display of adherence to party discipline, Shamim has obliged the leadership and declared his support for Ivy.
According to the Election Code of Conduct, he cannot directly enter the fray, but Ivy supporters are sceptical about what his followers might do during the election.
The local Awami League, which is saturated with Shamim supporters, appears to be aware of the symbolic importance of the election and appeared to be working to secure a victory.
But even central leadership stalwarts like presidium member Abdur Razzak is wary of the possibility that Shamim’s camp may not have its heart in the campaign. He has warned Shamim that if he goes against the party’s interests, he will have to pay.
For now the Ivy-Shamim rivalry has been toned down. But an act of non-cooperation by Shamim’s camp – such as abstaining from casting votes – could cause an upset.
Even if undermining Ivy doesn’t destroy her chances at winning, it could erode her margin of success.
For their part, Ivy supporters – and they are not a small contingent – believe her good works and integrity give her the clear advantage. The prime minister’s firm endorsement of her candidacy, they believe, will seal her success.
Sheikh Hasina overruled the local grassroots of her party by putting her hopes in Ivy. This was not merely a recognition of Ivy’s local support base but a tactical move to supplant those loyal to Shamim, according to local observers.
Shamim and Ivy both inherited their political mantles.
Shamim Osman’s family wields considerable clout across the party and has a political base in Narayanganj so strong that it was once considered invincible.
His family is influential in other parties as well, notably the Jatiya Party, whose vote bank could be commandeered to support whoever his camp prefers. The JaPa vote bank would have been a clear check against the vote bank of the BNP’s lesser allies, if the Shamim-Ivy rivalry were not a factor.
Ivy’s father was the first chairman of Narayanganj when it was still a municipality. She is regarded as a clean politician and enjoys considerable popular support in Narayanganj city. Residents of the crime-ridden city told the Dhaka Tribune crime and corruption topped their list of concerns ahead of the election.
Ivy defeated Shamim in the last mayoral election.
Recall that the last polls were not held on partisan lines: Ivy was not endorsed by any party; Shamim, as the local MP, enjoyed his party’s support. This year, with elections being conducted on explicitly partisan lines, Ivy has clinched the AL candidacy.
Hence the enduring rumblings of an engineered upset by Shamim’s supporters.
Some Ivy supporters claim BNP candidate Shakhawat Hossain is so hopeful of reaping an advantage out of the feud that he has started to echo the language Shamim Osman once used to criticise Ivy.
Shakhawat Hossain was the fourth in line for his party’s candidacy, a relative new-comer who leapt past well-established Narayanganj hands to end up on the ballot.
Leaders of BNP affiliate organisations are positive about the polls. Whatever the result of the elections, they say, it is high time the BNP acted like a political party again.
They say it is good to be out stumping for votes, rebuilding the party’s frayed political networks and encouraging the public to come out and vote openly for the party.
The BNP appears to have taken the new partisan format for mayoral elections to heart – it is not about who is running, but about which party symbol he is running under.
But the lukewarm response of the senior Narayanganj BNP leaders who have been sidelined by Shakhawat’s candidacy suggests that the BNP has its own feuds in the making.
Today, the people will vote. The rest of the time, in Narayanganj, it is likely to be politics as usual.