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A cautionary tale

  • Published at 06:29 pm April 22nd, 2015

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, on April 1, told parliament that her government was likely to amend the local government laws, making polls to the city corporations, pourashavas, upzillas, and the union councils partisan as it is in the UK, the US, and other mature democracies.

Justifying her position, she said people rated the local government polls as party affairs, though the parties did not nominate candidates for such non-partisan elections. She even said the parties could not take any disciplinary actions against an elected representative if found guilty of misdeeds and corruption while in office.

No doubt, making the polls partisan will strengthen the political parties, with no guarantee that it will cement the local government system -- a primary and vital platform from creating leaders from the grassroots for the parties.

Given the level of democratic setup in Bangladesh, our forefathers made local government polls non-partisan to encourage individual leadership at the local level -- outside the political party chain in the urban, semi-urban, and rural areas.

The candidates of the local government polls emerge as leaders for their close contact with the people, motivating them to resolve local problems. For instance, the candidates in the salinity-affected south-western region would campaign with the promise of guaranteeing supply of sweet water while the voters in the Chittagong Hill Tracts demand that their elected representatives work for eradicating malaria.

Aspirant candidates with no political backgrounds launch door-to-door campaigns in the pretext of seeking dua (blessings) years before the local polls, promising an end to the local problems. In many cases, the political parties induct the self-made leaders in their fold, given their popularity at the grassroots. Partisan local polls would discourage such individual leadership efforts at the grassroots, ultimately weakening the system.

If introduced, the partisan local government polls would make aspirants more focused on pleasing their local and central political bosses instead of going to the local people. For example, the candidates seeking BNP’s nomination would campaign with restoration of the non-party caretaker issue and strengthen the so-called movement against the ruling AL. Similarly, the AL leaders would focus on eliminating the “militant BNP-Jamaat” to woo the central leadership for nominations. Thus local issues are likely to be overshadowed by the national issues.

We have around 6,000 local government bodies including 4,550 union councils. Is it possible for Sheikh Hasina or Khaleda Zia to interview candidates for each of the polls? They must depend on other leaders who would make money out of the nomination process, opening up a new avenue of political corruption.

A former councilor of Naogaon pourashava, Md Badar is a classical example that can give people a glimpse of the problem. Marginal farmer Badar used to vie every polls to the Naogaon pourashava in the mid-70s. All year round, he used to go door-to-door seeking votes for the next elections. If any problem arose in his ward, Badar turned up.

Finally, in 1984-85, Badar was elected commissioner with the highest votes among all nine councilors -- thanks to his marathon campaign that made people sympathise with him. The AL’s late general secretary Abdul Jalil was elected chairman. Five out of nine commissioners had AL’s blessing. Badar maintained contact with the people in the first six months after the election.

Jalil urged him join the AL, and Badar did so.

Badar changed immediately. He started snubbing the voters who selflessly campaigned in his favour and voted. Vexed by his anti-people attitude, one day, one of his angry campaigners warned him in public: “We will see you during the next votes.”

A haughty Badar replied: “I do not bother with you public; I have my party and leader. I will win if my party men alone vote for me.”

Badar suffered a massive defeat in the next election, ending his hard-earned leadership.