THE results of the recent elections of mayors of four cities in the country reflected a nationwide erosion of support for the ruling Awami League (AL) party six months ahead of general elections. Even some senior ministers view the results as an ominous turn of events for the AL.
Although local elections are not held on party-basis, candidates had the full support of the AL and BNP. One very significant thing is that the victorious and defeated candidates demonstrated their respect for the people's decision and the defeated candidates congratulated the winners and even embraced them. This is a very healthy sign for democracy in the country.
In my view, there are several reasons for the loss. Some of them are mentioned below:
First is the incumbency factor. Voters psychologically want to see a change, and one of the main reasons is that the performance of the incumbent mayors could not satisfy the people and there were huge perceived gaps between the promises at the time of election campaign and performance when elected. The mayors were perceived as being disconnected from the people.
Second, in local elections, the ruling party shows poor results because voters want to send a “wake-up” call that they are not happy with the party's performance. In Britain, when the ruling party loses local elections it takes it as a warning to improve its performance.
Third, the recent polls published in some media showed that AL has lost 20% of its popularity from its peak of 48% when the parliamentary elections were held in December 2008. Therefore, it is no surprise that AL-backed candidates lost.
Fourth, although local elections are ordinarily fought over local issues, the mishandling of some national issues by the AL government appears to have had an adverse impact on the mayoral elections and many voters believe that the ruling party is not listening to them.
For example, the vacillation in starting a dialogue with the opposition BNP party on the mode of the government under which the next parliamentary elections will be held in 2014 did not help the ruling party, which is perceived as “arrogant” by voters.
Fifth, the mass arrests of top leaders of BNP without bail for some weeks are seen as being contrary to the spirit of multi-party democracy and were considered as harsh. The government has also failed to protect the temples and pagodas of religious minorities in the country. As a result, AL may have lost the support of the minorities.
Sixth, Qawmi madrasas are privately funded. The number of such madrasas increased dramatically between 1999 and 2005, and there are reportedly about 20 thousand in the country. Hefajat-e-Islam represents the Qawmi madrasas and came up with the 13-point demand.
Although, on May 3, the prime minister clarified the government's position on the 13-point demand stating that some of them could not be accepted as they were contrary to the Bangladesh Constitution, the response appeared to be too late, according to many observers. Many people who support the government on the issue feel that the prime minister was not advised properly on how to deal with the sensitive religious issue in a country where almost 90% of the people are Muslims. Many say there should have been a dialogue with the leaders of the Hefajat-e-Islam.
When supporters of Hefajat-e-Islam gathered in Dhaka to press their 13-point demand on May 5, it turned out to be extremely violent and the government dealt with them firmly. The Islamists, including Hefajat-e-Islam, seem to have been successful in branding the AL as being 'anti-Islam' for this action, and this perception worked among the voters.
Seventh, Jamaat-e-Islami has been trying to project the trial of its leaders for crimes against humanity as being “revengeful” and meant to destroy the party. After the verdict by the International Crimes Tribunal, the unprecedented violence dismayed ordinary people as the government is seen to have failed to protect private and public property.
Eighth, there have been a few scandals, such as share market, Sonali Bank's loans, as well as allegation of corruption-conspiracy in the Padma Bridge project, during the term of the government. In addition, the undesirable activities of some AL- allied organisations have not helped the ruling party. Although the AL government can justifiably claim many substantial achievements at home (reduction of poverty, self-sufficiency in food, empowerment of women) and at multinational forums, those did not influence the voters. What is important is not the reality but the perception of the people.
However, some analysts say the loss of the mayoral candidates could turn into a positive gain for the AL because it can robustly argue that the BNP's demand for a non-party caretaker government to hold the next parliamentary elections is unjustifiable and unconstitutional as the mayoral elections were held in a free, fair and credible manner.
Finally, it is important for all political parties to note what constitutional expert Sir Ivor Jennings said: “Tyrannical majority and recalcitrant minority are enemies that destroy democracy.”
The writer is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.