There are two interesting questions to be posed regarding the recently held upazila elections. First, if the BNP boycotted the parliamentary elections in January because they did not trust the government to hold a fair election, then why did they take part in the much less important upazila elections?
At the upazila level, the chairman of the Upazila Parishad (UP) holds limited authority after the introduction of the new legislation in 2011, in which it was decided that the chairman is bound to take the advice (meaning directive) of the Member of Parliament for that area.
The MP for the majority of Bangladesh today belongs to the Awami League. So why, then, did the BNP bother to take part with such zeal in this seemingly insignificant election when it had already boycotted the far more important parliamentary elections a few months earlier?
Second, if the UP level is so irrelevant and all power is vested with the MP, why was it so important to the Awami League to win as many as possible? To secure as many as possible of these seemingly irrelevant posts, the ruling party made use of pressure, violence, ballot box stuffing and a host of other time honoured ways of election rigging.
The police, RAB and the administration were leaned upon not to intervene, and even the Election Commission was made to play along. The ruling party was required to hold free and fair elections, which the BNP claimed the Awami League was incapable of doing and now a triumphant BNP can say, “We told you so!”
Consequently, the BNP scored one significant point here, and it has been suggested that this was its primary objective. But it is hard to imagine a political party engaging so wholeheartedly in an election with all its tens of thousands of activists and workers simply to prove that the election would be rigged.
At the very least, I cannot recall any major BNP leader in January saying, “We do this knowing we will lose!” when it was decided to join the upazila elections. Besides, the point will cut little ice among those that matter. The administration, the army, RAB and other state institutions have been too solidly wedded to the Awami League interpretation of the January 5 election to be much upset by a little rigging in the local elections. The rigging may raise some concern among foreigners and in certain civil society quarters, but these are largely irrelevant.
What the BNP did say when it decided to join the upazila elections was that it would fight any malpractice the ruling party could throw at them. The BNP claimed it would win because it has the support of the people, a people tired and upset by the ruling party’s “terror regime;” and with this support the BNP and its activists and workers would fight this “tyrannical” government.
What motivates local activists and workers is of course access to power. But short of that, it is to be able to prove themselves, to show that they can compete, that they can mobilise, that they are clever and can exploit what opportunities arise, that perhaps they can even create opportunities.
In the process of mobilising and running an election campaign, with mikes, posters, bribes, speeches, deals and whatever else is part of local politics, the local leader proves himself as a local leader. In doing so, he carves out spheres of influence, he proves his political acumen and his potential value in the local political game.
Violence, mobilising certain voters and scaring others away, making the police look another way, or the presiding officer to go away for tea for a while, and then to stuff the ballot boxes, this all shows your local influence, your clout. It is interesting to note that the rigging in the upazila elections was not entirely restricted to the ruling party. Opposition activists tried to do the same in a few places. They were probably the more hardy activists, the more daring ones.
This is how activists show their valour. The opposition activists engage in a straight and daring fight with the ruling party and the police, and the ruling party activists engage in a straight fight against what is probably a more popular party among the voters.
For both, the engagement will add to their individual political CVs, their list of merits. Elections are brilliant occasions for the local activist to learn the trade, to hone his skills and to establish proof of loyalty and value in the highly competitive and at times quite meritocratic system that is politics in Bangladesh.
Another important point is that the UP chairmanship and vice-chairmanships still carry weight, in spite of having to follow “the advice” of the MP. There are still papers to be signed, and without the chairman’s signature funds will not be released, or foreign funded projects that require the upazila’s involvement will go elsewhere.
Moreover, the UP chairman is often in a good position to mobilise local forces, either in favour of a project or against it. He can for instance encourage locals whose lands are affected by a new road construction to take their objections to court. Alternatively, he can discourage them from doing so.
We must keep in mind that in between elections, life goes on – projects are distributed, budgets decided upon, funds disbursed. Delays are awkward and create embarrassment, and may cause investigations and monetary problems among contractors the MP wishes to keep close.
At the very least, a completely sidelined UP chairman may be able to claim that the ruling party is engaging in malpractices, and he may provide the local media or the MP’s rivals within the ruling party with a story or two. Both the tangible and the more intangible sources of power available even to the opposition chairman give rise to what we may call “a culture of negotiation.”
Elections may be golden opportunities to show one’s valour for the ambitious and the reckless; but for the ambitious yet relatively cautious elections will naturally be more complicated and even dangerous. In the complex game that is Bangladeshi politics, even locally, the successful one pursues several strategies at the same time. One such strategy is to tow the party line, to mobilise and hold processions and protests to the media and give fiery speeches.
Another is to make sure the situation does not spin out of control, in order to not embarrass, the likely winner and future strongman of your area. We may wish to keep in mind here that there was little or no violence at the vast majority of polling stations, although there were certainly mobilisation and protests.
Malpractices were confined to certain polling stations and certain upazilas, but for the majority of polling stations the situation was a bit more complex. They had elements of protest, mobilisation and counter-mobilisation and yet relatively peaceful polling.
It’s worth mentioning that too much unrest may suggest the local MP is not in control. Whether you are a rebel candidate from the ruling party or a candidate, rebel or otherwise, from the opposition, you may wish to remain on a relatively friendly footing with him. It would be good, if in the future you can call on him, and he can hand some government projects to your associates or whisper some words in the ears of the police when someone has asked you to intervene.
To fully comprehend the last point here, one needs to understand that likely outcomes and scenarios after the election play a large role in strategic thinking even before the election; in other words, we need to appreciate the simple point that the game always continues.
There is a new day tomorrow and we all need food on our tables and money to pay for education. To cut oneself off from the main sources of local influence in the imminent future is not a wise strategy. Those you fight are your rivals, and not necessarily the local MP.
Negotiations and accommodation is the virtue of the game, however acrimonious on the surface. This may apply to the ruling party members’ thinking as well, even if it is in a modified way. The ruling party has power now, but power is like honey, it attracts flies. It also has a strong ideological inheritance, but many object to the party’s effort to equate this inheritance with its own partisan politics.
There will always be conflict of interest locally; there will never be enough resources to make everybody happy and there will always be individual enemies of individual leaders, personal animosities and ancient rivalries. In other words, there will always be an opposition. The only viable “home” for those opposed to the ruling party is the BNP; so, there will always be the BNP. Locally, the ruling party will have to accommodate its local leaders and negotiate with them.
The massive imbalance in power and positions of influence caused by the parliamentary election boycott created frustration among local party leaders. It is likely that their interests and their accumulated pressure made the BNP join the UP elections, and not some “point” to be made with the foreigners or with civil society.
In the campaign, many ambitious local leaders have made strides ahead in intraparty rivalries, while others have fallen back. This is good for the organisation and keeps it active, regardless of how law abiding it is; it can be called a meritocratic system after a fashion. With their newly acquired positions, even if there could have been many more, the local leaders in various places will be able to keep the organisation going, to keep it active, alert and prepared to rebuild or further strengthen its position.
The ruling party has witnessed this and local activists and leaders sought to prevent the opposition from gaining access to positions that on paper do not matter, but locally matter a whole lot. The culture of negotiation and accommodation makes it dangerous to dismiss positions of influence, however formally insignificant. So the heat of the UP elections were about getting into positions in order to be ready for the next few years of local accommodation.