Double blow for AL
The ruling Awami League has suffered a double blow in the just concluded municipality polls: it has lost the battle of ballots to its archrival Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Even a greater loss has been the violence that marred the last day of the staggered polls.
The Election Commission, the administration and especially the ruling party won praises for making the first three days of elections peaceful and largely credible.
But the gains were lost on the fourth and last day of the voting when supporters of the AL-backed mayoral candidates snatched ballots, attacked polling stations and torched vehicles in Noakhali, Feni and Laxmipur districts. Authorities have been forced to suspend polling in many centres.
The Awami League-blessed candidates having 88 mayoral posts were behind the BNP-backed candidates who bagged 92 posts, according to election results of 236 municipalities.
The last day's violence has ruined what could have been a victory for the government and the ruling party even after its electoral loss. Making the elections peaceful all through could have been a rare trophy for the ruling party and the government.
The rampage also brought to public mind the bitter history of polls in Bangladesh.
Except a few instances, parliamentary or local government polls have never been free of manipulation by ruling party and interference by the government.
Remember the Magura by-polls in 1994?
Allegations of massive rigging by the then ruling party BNP finally led to the introduction of the caretaker government to oversee national elections in Bangladesh.
The then opposition led by AL refused to take part in the parliamentary elections under the then BNP government in February 1996. The sixth parliament, which had lasted only 11 days, passed the constitution 13th amendment act, introducing the caretaker government system.
Thus, the culture of winning the elections by any means, growing political intolerance, distrust and rivalries between AL and BNP brought a constitutional amendment leaving power to caretakers for three months. The main job of the caretaker government is to oversee the holding of national elections.
The same practice of using muscle power to manipulate elections was seen in subsequent local government voting. The last union parishad elections held in 2003 with the BNP-led four party alliance in power saw much violence. The then ruling party's violent means to manipulate the elections left around 80 people dead during the polls.
The last municipality election, held between May 5 and May 10, 2004 with the BNP-Jamaat-led alliance government in office, was marked by violence and irregularities.
The silver lining that was emerging in the just-concluded municipal polls has now been tainted by violence.
It could have been otherwise. The AL-led Grand Alliance government could have used its loss as an opportunity to learn some crucial lessons: to try to find why it fared so poorly and then improve its work in the three years still left.
The government should carefully analyse the message it has received from people and take steps without blaming only party's rebels for the defeat.
In fact, it is good for the government that it has got an early warning just two years into its governance. It has three more years to do better.
The government still can demonstrate its good will if it takes stern actions against those who were involved in the latest polls violence.
The election results also indicate that the ruling AL's grassroots remain unorganised and lack discipline. The party's high command should think how to revamp field level workers who sustain a political party.
The results should boost the opposition camp. But the BNP in no way can claim all the credit for its gains. The party has done little to stage such a huge comeback just two years after its drubbing in the 2009 parliamentary polls.
The BNP is still trying to overcome internal feuding and lack of discipline.
BNP has its own lessons to learn from the polls. Rebels in the AL, price hike of essentials and violent activities of ruling party men in many areas are among the reasons why voters in many places have turned away from the ruling party.
BNP will sure use the results to boost its anti-government campaign. But it should not rush to the conclusion that the people have displayed no-confidence to the AL-led Grand Alliance government.
Finally, the Election Commission (EC) deserved kudos for conducting the elections that were considered even by independent observers as largely peaceful and credible.
It's time to build on the gains and look forward to the Union Parishad polls due in March/April.