As we cruised into the Kirtankhola River near Barisal, the sun had just begun to rise. A faint outline of a long line of trees and structures appeared on the horizon. It was a welcome sight after a night in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, sailing through mile after mile of unknown waters. Barisal, with its canals, legends and poetry, is a fitting tribute to a journey that takes you through a crisscross of rivers which serve as a testament to the rich riverine ecosystem of Bangladesh.
Any visitor to the city these days will be astonished by the transformation that it has gone through, from being a quaint neighbourhood struggling to shed its small-town aura just a few weeks ago into a vibrant melting pot of ideas, events and gatherings, drawing journalists, activists, politicians and psephologists from places as far-flung as the capital and further beyond—all gathering to be a part of the mayoral election.
Barisal City Corporation (BCC) goes to the polls on July 30, along with Sylhet and Rajshahi. This being an election year, any poll has the added significance of being seen as laying the groundwork for the national election which is due later in the year. In the days since the announcement of its election schedule, BCC has witnessed an influx of political tourists. Roads and signposts have been plastered with banners and leaflets. If you walk through the streets, you can learn a thing or two about the art of persuasion from the recorded messages being delivered from campaign vehicles circling around the city.
Given its track record of relative pre-poll peace so far, Barisal can claim a certain degree of authenticity unlike those two other cities, which have been marked by chaos and unrest, but it's not immune to the influences of power politics. You have candidates building their campaigns around maudlin sentimentality and unreconstructed populism. There is the usual mix of accusations and recriminations slung by the competing parties, as well as whispers about various machinations behind the scenes. A gripping sense of anticipation exists side-by-side with that rare empowering moment for the public that comes only before an election.
Yet, like the water that keeps its shores clean and its grounds fertile, Barisal offers a spectacle that's quite refreshing.
Not long after we reached the gate of the city's River Port, on a stage set on the ground floor of a building in downtown Barisal, a compère shrieked into the microphone to announce the arrival of Serniabat Sadiq Abdullah, the ruling party candidate. Amid cheers and chants from his supporters, Sadiq rose to speak. As he tried to charm his way into the hearts of the crowd with the promise of development, he dedicated a significant amount of his time talking about his main rival, the BNP mayoral candidate Majibor Rahman Sarwar, whom he referred to as “Sarwar Kaku” out of reverence.
That same day, not far from the site of the Awami League meeting, I met with Sarwar at the local BNP office. Asked about his reaction on Sadiq's allegation that the BNP campaign was centred around alleged threats on the party chairperson and “national” issues rather than the “interests” of the local populace, he gently sought to explain his position, never raising his voice for once, or making any disparaging comment against his younger opponent. This line of reasoning marks a welcome departure from a tradition in which politicians thrive on bellicose rhetoric and unsavoury exchanges. Through the restraint shown on the part of its candidates, Barisal offers a healthy alternative, a campaign strategy not directed at persons but at principles.
But politics is as much about what you appear to be as what you do to live up to that appearance. Awami League, riding on the much-vaunted success of its development activities, will try to recreate its Khulna-Gazipur magic while BNP, which won the last mayoral election, will try to minimise the damage wrought by a forgettable term in office. In BCC, never has a party won two successive terms. It was BNP which won the first election in 2003. The second and third, held in 2008 and 2013, were won by Awami League and BNP respectively. Even the highly popular Shawkat Hossain Hiron couldn't break this jinx when he sought re-election in 2013. The question is, with such a proven record of anti-incumbency bias trailing it, does BNP stand a chance?
Nothing seems to be going in BNP's favour at the moment. The party has been left ploughing a difficult furrow with both its chairperson and senior vice-chairman either in jail or on the run, which has all but incapacitated it for the foreseeable future. Many senior leaders have also been kept on a tight leash. As if to lend validation to its claims of a witch-hunt and existential threats facing the party, a frequent suspect in BNP's failures to win any of the two mayoral races this year has been what the political commentator Badiul Alam Majumdar called “the Khulna model of controlled election,” orchestrated by the ruling Awami League.
Alam lists five features of this election model: 1) keeping the leaders and workers of the party on the run; 2) preventing its polling agents from performing their duties; 3) using force on the Election Day; 4) inaction of the EC; and 5) making mayors from the opposition party powerless. This model, as I have explained in another column, “seeks to prevent elections from getting messy through a shift towards more subtle and non-violent tactics fashioned to weaken the opposition from within, and eliminate competition well in advance of an election.”
No wonder Sarwar, also the first mayor of BCC, is focused more on the negative coverage of these trends which may serve as collateral in case things do not turn out as expected.
For Awami League, the calculation is rather simple. It wants victory and sees no reason why the voters shouldn't want it too. Sadiq, who comes from a privileged political background, commands support from the young voters and also holds sway over a sizeable number of senior voters mostly because of his enterprising and easy-to-approach image. Of the 242,166 voters in BCC, 30,909 will vote for the first time. Word in the city is that these new voters may tilt the balance in Sadiq's favour.
There is a conflicting theory as well. With the centralisation of local politics, the line between local and national issues is getting increasingly blurred, which means the anti-incumbency factor may cut both ways. If BNP won the last BCC election, Awami League has been at the Centre for the last two terms. Awami League will, therefore, have to persuade the voters to not fall for the negative spillover effects of national issues, such as the quota protests, and instead look at the reality closer at home. It has Hiron's enviable legacy to look up to but the truth is, Barisal has been notoriously resistant to past influences.
Two other candidates are also creating ripples on BCC's electoral landscape—BSD's Dr Manisha Chakraborty and Islami Andolon Bangladesh's Mawlana Obaidur Rahman Mahbub—but whether they will outlive their ripples to have any meaningful impact on the election remains to be seen.
If the election is allowed to take its own course without any interference from outside forces, a victory for any of the candidates is far from assured. That's a BIG “if” considering the controversy that surrounds the Khulna-Gazipur elections and the role of the Election Commission. Will authenticity triumph over compliance? Or will Barisal also succumb to the “Khulna model”? As things stand now, the city remains a battleground for contrasting ideologies, expectations and policy objectives.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star. Email: email@example.com