THE kick-off of the series of elections to Upazila Parishads (UzP) on Wednesday has removed the uncertainty over their existence as crucial local government institutions. Ruling Awami League and its archrival BNP will be engaged in a fierce battle of ballots to grab the posts in the parishads to consolidate their power base at grassroots level.
The reality, however, discourages us from being optimistic about having functional UzPs. The UzPs which were formed through elections held in January 2009 after a long break of 19 years could not function as per their mandates in the last five years due to the government's indifference towards them. The AL-led government did little for strengthening them. Rather, it had taken various measures including empowering MPs and bureaucrats to meddle in and run the affairs of the parishads, thus turning them into dysfunctional bodies. The government did this ignoring its 2008 parliamentary election pledge to strengthen the parishads.
Before the one-sided January 5 parliamentary elections, the ruling AL again made the same promise to strengthen the local government institutions, including the UzPs. It is not certain whether the new government that assumed office on January 12 will deliver on its electoral pledges. Will it trample on its own pledges again?
In his budget speech in June 2012, Finance Minister A.M.A. Muhith had promised that AL-led government would present a roadmap within its tenure on empowerment of the local government system. At the end of June the same year, the parliament passed the budget for FY 2012-13. The government implemented the various budgetary proposals, but did not present the roadmap within that financial year. That government had time to present the roadmap by January 11 this year, before the new government began its journey. But it had forgotten the promise.
However, on June 6, 2013, the finance minister came up with some highly ambitious ideas to strengthen the local government system. His ideas include distribution of responsibilities among the zila, upazila and union parishads, ensuring coordination among them and giving them some responsibilities -- both regulatory and developmental in nature. The ideas also include creating an effective and inspirational bureaucracy for local governance.
This time, however, he said that those were his personal views and his government would not have time to think about them as its tenure was coming to an end. So, he has left the ideas for the next government to address the issues and offer a national debate to forge a consensus.
It is not sure whether the new Hasina government will work on the finance minister's ambitious ideas. Muhith, who is finance minister in the new government, should speak in favour of his ideas. Otherwise, the new government may follow the same old strategy of keeping all its promises on paper only.
In terms of timely elections, if the UzPs are considered as fortunate, then the zila parishads (ZP), the highest tier of the local government system, must be termed most unfortunate. The government, in December 2012, appointed 61 AL men as administrators to as many ZPs, ignoring its 2008 parliamentary election pledge to hold polls to the ZPs. The administrators do not have any specific tenure. Only elections to ZPs can end their tenure. In his budget speech in June 2013, the finance minister had claimed that substantial progress had been made in furthering the election process of ZPs, and district administrators had been appointed to pave the way for having elected public representatives. But there is still no sign of holding the long due elections to the ZPs.
The situation in Dhaka City Corporation (DCC) is much worse. The AL-led government split the DCC into two in November 2011by hurriedly passing a bill. After the split, the government removed then Mayor Sadek Hossain Khoka, who is a BNP leader and was elected as mayor in March 2002. The government appointed two of its officials as administrators to run the two DCCs for a period of six months. Since then, the government has been appointing new administrators after every six months. The EC earlier had moved to hold the polls and announced the schedule. But the LGRD ministry blocked the elections by raising the issue of demarcation of boundaries of the two DCCs. Now nobody knows exactly when the elections to the bifurcated DCCs will be held.
The state of the union parishads (UP), the lowest tier of the three-tier local government system, is also poor. Elections to them have been held almost on time, but there is no significant move to transform them into dynamic organisations. It may not be possible to do so by keeping the zila and upazila parishads largely dysfunctional.
It is unfortunate that the successive governments, since restoration of democracy in 1990 through ousting the Ershad-led autocratic regime, have followed almost the same strategy of the past military rulers to abuse the local government institutions to consolidate their powerbase at the grassroots level. Military rulers General Ziaur Rahman and his successor General H.M. Ershad, during their regimes, had made moves to build strong ties with the representatives in local government bodies. They had sent some patrons among the local government representatives to drum up support for their regimes. The local government bodies' representatives who were left sidelined for long periods felt honoured and extended their support to the military rulers. They could not foresee the looming danger behind the strategy of the military rulers. Both the military rulers were largely successful in their missions.
After restoration of democracy in 1990, it was expected that a democratically elected government would do something better for strengthening the country's local government system. This was a must for decentralisation of state power, and for serving people better and establishing the long cherished good governance. But the expectations remained unfulfilled due to the successive governments' indifference to the need to strengthen the local government system.
The prevailing sorry state of the local government system exposes how successive governments have failed to obey Article 11 of the Constitution. According to this Article, the Republic shall be a democracy in which effective participation by the people through their elected representatives in administration at all levels shall be ensured.
The government should immediately consider the ideas disclosed by the finance minister in his last budget speech and take necessary steps to deliver on its electoral pledge to strengthen the local government system. Otherwise, no effort will contribute to strengthening the country's democracy. Rather, the poor state of the local government bodies will always be a mockery of democracy.
The writer is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.