And so, the long-anticipated election that has brought together familiar foes for yet another battle of wits and wagers is finally over. The election to Gazipur City Corporation (GCC), the largest in the country in terms of size, was held on June 26. On paper, it was a local government election of peripheral concern to the rest of the country. Yet, since the day its schedule was announced, its subsequent postponement after a court order and eventual rescheduling, it has proved to be different and held our attention right to the end through a constant supply of news, speculations and theatrics all rolled into one exciting electoral package.
In hindsight, the GCC election couldn't have panned out any differently. The results have by now been declared, and as expected, rejected by the defeated party. Elections, in that sense, are rather getting predictable. Every time it's like déjà vu all over again. You feel as if you know what's going to happen and what's not. Imagine an election—national or local—that wasn't marred by rigging claims. Imagine an Election Commission being given a thumb of approval across the political spectrum for holding the proverbial “free, fair and credible” election. Imagine, if you may, a peaceful transfer of power that wasn't overshadowed by conspiracy theories about some shady deal to send the nation back into the Dark Ages. You would have a hard time imagining that because election as we know it today conjures up an image of a very different kind.
The GCC election has come with all the usual suspects: vandalism, raids and detentions, ballot stuffing, ousting of polling agents, postponement of voting in some centres because of the deteriorating law and order situation as well as sporadic violence. There also was, at least in the beginning, a sense of change in the air. Journalists covering the election gave it a higher score than they did the Khulna election, held on May 15. Meanwhile, the BNP has accused the EC of giving in to political pressure to favour the ruling party candidate, Md Jahangir Alam, who went on to win by a big margin. Various reports and pictures also exposed the partisan role of the police. One particular picture showed the AL candidate campaigning in a police car.
BNP was emboldened by these developments to claim “massive” irregularities, subsequently rejecting the results and demanding a re-election. Coincidentally enough, the party had made similar claims during the Khulna election. It had even demanded the resignation of the Chief Election Commissioner then. Judging by their similarities, one would be tempted to see the GCC election as a scaled-down version of the Khulna election, with almost similar developments and similar outcomes. In both cases, the poll-day reality didn't match the pre-poll hype.
However, there has been a noticeable reduction in the incidents of poll-day violence. Some political commentators have called it part of a new “model” that 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. Before the GCC election, as before that of Khulna, there were reports of police arresting opposition activists on various charges. So arbitrary were the arrests that even the High Court, on June 25, asked to put an end to harassing the supporters and agents of the BNP mayoral candidate in Gazipur. BNP couldn't post polling agents in many centres not just because they were driven off by ruling party men, as the party has claimed, but also because there were not many left to post. Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader has said as much, if not in as many words, while refuting BNP's ouster claims.
However, even if there was no foul play, BNP was unlikely to recreate its 2013 magic partly because of intra-party feud that had eroded its foundation. The party finds itself in a position in which allegiance is a virtue in short supply, and sympathy is overrated. Sympathy is an essential part of BNP's plan to fight back as it builds its campaign around the repressiveness of the regime. There is no denying that the voters are by now somewhat apprehensive of the prospects of a functioning opposition mayor in office. They know that if the past experiences of the five BNP mayors elected in the last cycle of mayoral elections are any indication, an opposition mayor would most likely be rendered unable to function under an otherwise highly politicised governance system which runs point on all matters of public importance; he may even be removed and quietly replaced midway through the term by panel mayors loyal to the government.
Such apprehensions eventually play out in favour of the ruling Awami League which wants to send out a message that the public is best served when it is in power. After 10 years of uninterrupted rule split into two terms, Awami League must devise new strategies to stay relevant. Hence the effort to hard-sell its development successes to the electorate which it hopes would divert attention away from the more critical issues of concern, such as the state of human rights and rule of law in the country, and the GCC-Khulna and subsequent local government elections are its way of preparing for the national election due later this year.
So how would we remember the GCC election now that it is over? How would we assess the role of the EC which has the all-too-important task of conducting the elections? The EC, as some recent online polls suggest, is facing a credibility issue but it seems unperturbed by it. Most recently, it has claimed, against the evidence, that the June 26 election was held “in a free, fair and credible manner.” It is ironic how the EC and the ruling party are using the same words to justify this election, and the one before, and how they always seem to find a way to be in agreement. It's important to note that if there is even a morsel of truth in the allegations raised by BNP and other opposition parties, it's worth exploring. The EC may have evaded the ignominy of having violence flaring up under its watch but a peaceful election is not necessarily a fair election. A fair election is so much more. It's about creating, first and foremost, equal space for all the competing parties and addressing all their legitimate concerns.
The EC, without a doubt, has failed to do this task. And by refusing to see it for what it really is, it risks missing out on an opportunity to undertake much-needed reforms in the way that it functions. With the fate of the entire nation depending on the integrity of one institution, it's a risk we can't afford to take.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.