Credibility test for EC, govt
Elections are test times. Today, it's a crucial credibility and popularity test for the major political players.
People, who are usually ignored over the years, will cast their votes today in 234 municipalities deciding the fate of Awami League, BNP, Jatiya Party and other parties contesting the mayoral battle of ballots.
The daylong polling environment will also show if the efforts of the AL-led government and the Election Commission have restored people's confidence in them in being able and willing to ensure a free and fair election.
Their credibility took hits due to the last faulty parliamentary election and the widespread anomalies in the polls to upazila parishads in 2014 and three city corporations in 2015.
This time around, their role is already being questioned. In the last one month, after the announcement of the poll schedule, field level government administration officials engaged in electoral duties could not take effective measures in most cases to prevent electoral anomalies and violence. The EC also remained mostly aloof from taking any serious actions.
Therefore the EC's announcement that it would ensure foolproof security could not remove people's fear of violence during the polling hours and uncertainty over a free and fair election.
This election has a very strong distinguishing feature. For the first time, the mayoral polls are being held on partisan lines, allowing parties to step in the battle officially. Earlier, a political party could not nominate any candidate. It could only extend support to its leader to win the race. Elections to councillor posts however remain non-partisan like it was in past.
Officially 20 political parties joined the electoral race by fielding their candidates. But the battle royal will be between ruling AL and opposition BNP. After a break of seven years, the two archrivals have formally stepped into the race with their electoral symbols-- boat and sheaf of paddy.
The last time they faced off was in December 2008 parliamentary election in which the AL won a landslide victory.
Their popularity and strength were not tested in the January 2014 parliamentary election as the BNP-led alliance stayed out of that battle.
In the outgoing year, the political situation has changed a lot. The year began with political turmoil. The BNP-led alliance enforced countrywide non-stop blockade from January 6 protesting the government's move to foil their programme to observe the first anniversary of the one-sided parliamentary election as a day of "democracy killing."
Widespread violence erupted around the country lasting for around three months during the blockade coupled with frequent hartals. More than one hundred people were killed; most of them were innocent and burnt alive due to fire-bomb attack on public vehicles.
The law enforcement agencies took stern actions on the opposition alliance's leaders and activists. The movement failed to oust the government. The BNP was portrayed by their rival parties as a terrorist organisation. The party's many grassroots level leaders were on the run.
The situation in the AL camp is also not much better. Its organisational weakness was exposed during the political turmoil. The party had to depend on the law enforcement agencies to such an extent to face the opposition movement that chiefs of these agencies started to use political polemics in their statements.
Severe intra-party conflicts have surfaced in this election as dissidents challenged party nominated mayoral candidates in many municipalities. Unruly activities of the ruling party men have also earned the party bad reputation.
In such a situation, wins and losses in today's battle of ballots, though in a small scale in terms of country's total voters (9.62 crore), will dictate to a great extent the issue of the credibility and popularity of the two archrival parties.
In previous elections to local government bodies held since 2010, BNP backed candidates have done better than their opponents supported by AL.
In the last 237 municipality elections held in between December 2010 and January 2011, BNP men won 95 positions while AL leaders got 90.
In elections to five city corporations held in 2013, BNP backed mayoral candidates won all five mayoral posts defeating their rivals supported by AL. Chittagong City mayoral post in 2010 was also won by BNP backed candidate.
The previous records make the BNP high command hopeful for their candidates in today's voting.
The polls appear as a new challenge for anti-liberation force Jamaat-e-Islami, a key component of BNP-led alliance. It could not participate in the race as its registration as a parliamentary party was scrapped.
Yet, more than three dozen Jamaat grassroots level leaders are vying for mayoral posts. Many of them are fighting for councillor posts. Their success, the party leaders believe, will help Jamaat regain strength after the executions of its top leaders. Some other Jamaat leaders are facing trial on charges of war crimes in 1971.
Jatiya Party emerged as the main opposition in parliament thanks to BNP's boycott to the last parliamentary election. It was able to field only 74 mayoral candidates. Their performance will show the credibility and popularity of their party.
Candidates nominated by 16 other parties are not in discussion due to their parties' lack of support in the grassroots levels.
Seven mayoral candidates nominated by AL were elected uncontested before the polls. Therefore, votes will be cast to elect 227 mayors. Voters of the seven municipalities--- Pirojpur, Madarganj of Jamalpur, Tungipara, Feni, Porshuram, Chatkhil and Chhengar Char will cast votes to elect councillors.
The elected will run the municipalities for the next five years and deliver various civic services in their small towns.
The election generated much heat and triggered high hopes among local people for better services. But it will be difficult for the newly elected representatives to deliver on people's expectation as they lack the capacity.
Over the years, new municipalities were set up by successive governments to get political mileage. The number rose to 323 from 50 in 1974. But none of the previous governments had brought effective reforms to strengthen the municipality.
One thing that is notable is municipality elections have been held almost regularly since 1973.
And those who want to run municipalities need people's mandate through elections. This again and again upholds people's power as Abraham Lincoln has long ago said: "The ballot is stronger than the bullet."