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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

Could we get a word in edgeways?

Update : 12 Mar 2015, 06:19 PM

Game on.

One insufficiently remarked upon casualty of the past year and a half of high-octane political conflict is the Bangladeshi people’s inability to make their voice heard at the polls.

The government rhetoric that the BNP missed the bus ignores that the real deprivation and denial of rights has been suffered by the Bangladeshi people who have now gone six years without being able to properly exercise their franchise.

In the capital city, it has been even worse. The last mayoral elections were in 2002 so the good citizens of Dhaka have had to wait more than a decade since last being able to vote for the head of their city government.

But with the announcement that the DCC polls are on track for the next few months, at least Dhaka residents will be able to cast a vote for mayor, albeit either in Dhaka South or Dhaka North, following the bifurcation of the city government by the AL in 2011.

Now with the news that Nagorik Oikya convenor Mahmudur Rahman Manna, who is currently behind bars facing charges of sedition, is likely to contest for the Dhaka North mayoral seat, it seems like we may finally have a good old-fashioned election on our hands.

The AL has already expressed its support for the candidacy of former FBCCI and BGMEA chief Annisul Huq, a shrewd choice, and a battle between him and Manna, if the latter can succeed in mobilising the anti-AL vote behind him, should make for a competitive race which gives the people a fair choice between two starkly competing visions.

What will be interesting to note is whether giving the nod to the widely respected and well thought-out Huq will convince voters that the AL is putting competency and character first, and help to win over those unhappy with the direction the party has taken in recent times.

The party could scarcely have gotten a better candidate to test their vision and their mettle against than Manna. His running would turn the race squarely into a referendum on AL rule, and I would think that’s a fight the party wants.

With Manna currently tarnished by the apparent contents of his leaked telephone calls, he is a far less formidable candidate than he was before, and if they can’t take him now then that should send the high command a serious message.

For those who wish to register a protest vote against the AL government, they might have preferred a candidate with less baggage. But Manna is certainly still a canny operator, who will be out to restore his name and turn the tables on the government, and may represent their best chance of a result.

What would be equally heartening would be to see another competitive race for Dhaka South, where the ruling party will be throwing their support behind Sayeed Khokon, son of Dhaka’s first elected mayor, the late Mohammad Hanif.

Interestingly, Haji Selim, an influential and powerful AL city boss, has also thrown his hat into the ring, with the potential to split the AL vote, so a serious opposition candidate could hope to do some damage.

The country needs elections, and with national polls seemingly not on the government agenda any time soon, we will have to settle for city polls.

Equally important, Dhaka city needs a mayor -- or even two -- and it is unconscionable that we have gone without any effective leadership at the city level for so long.

That far more power needs to be devolved to the city government level is something that should have been done long ago, but even with the limitations of the offices, the coming elections are hugely significant.

They are the first opportunity for the population to offer its assessment of their record in the past year in office and send a message as to whom it blames for the current political crisis.

Make no mistake: The upcoming city polls -- if they happen at all, and if they are contested freely -- big ifs -- will serve as a referendum on the government.

Its assessment of the government’s performance is something that the public -- albeit a small slice this time round -- has a right to make itself heard on. For the government, it is equally important that they take the temperature of the public and listen to what it has to say.

The elections may prove a vindication of the government’s policy, with voters choosing to express their solidarity with the government in the face of the reign of terror that has been unleashed across the nation over the past two months, and suggest support for a continued hard line in dealing with the opposition.

But without a free and fully contested election, they will never know. And not knowing what the public thinks is far more dangerous to any sitting government than any reverse they will suffer as a result of an unconvincing performance at the polls.

A final word to the BNP: With most of its leaders in hiding or behind bars, we can understand that it wouldn’t want to, or really be able to, field any candidates.

But I would hope that it would put its machinery to work behind the opposition candidates so that people know that they can express support or disapproval through the ballot box.

Perhaps even more than the government, the BNP is in dire need of hearing what the people have to say about it, and hearing what the voting public would like the party to do. If it sits this one out, then it will never know. 

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