The underlying message of Khulna city polls
The just-concluded Khulna City Corporation election may be considered as the beginning of the run-up to the next parliamentary polls. Elections to four other city corporations are expected to be held in the next few months before the national polls which may be held in December. Five years ago, the same things happened in the run-up to the last parliamentary election held on January 5, 2014.
Various electoral anomalies such as heavy showdown by the ruling party men in and outside the polling stations, ballot stuffing, casting fake votes, and driving out polling agents of rival candidates in Tuesday's Khulna City Corporation polls signalled a bad start to the run-up to the parliamentary election. Things, however, were different five years ago before the last Jatiya Sangsad polls.
The elections to four city corporations—Khulna, Rajshahi, Barisal and Sylhet—held in June 2013 were largely free and fair. The Gazipur City Corporation polls held in July, just after a month of the four mayoral polls, were also free and fair for the most part. The BNP-backed mayoral candidates clinched victory in all the five city corporation polls. Yet, the then Awami League government and the Election Commission were able to take much of the credit for holding free and fair elections. Their sincerity was beyond question. It was considered as significant political mileage for both the then government and party in power. Banking on this success, the government and the AL kept rejecting the BNP-led opposition's demand for restoration of a non-partisan government to oversee the 2014 parliamentary election. Finally, the parliamentary election was held under the AL-led government five months after the five city corporation polls. But the January 5, 2014 parliamentary polls were boycotted by the BNP-led alliance as their demands were not met. And though it was one-sided, the election was marred by widespread electoral irregularities and set an unprecedented record of having as many as 153 out of 300 MPs elected unopposed.
Five years down the line, the EC planned to hold polls to the five city corporations in phases. It first announced the schedule for holding polls in Khulna and Gazipur City Corporations. Both polls were supposed to be held on May 15. Due to legal complications, the Gazipur election was deferred and it will now be held on June 26. Khulna polls were held on the date as per schedule. Polls to Rajshahi, Barisal and Sylhet, as the EC has planned, will be held in the coming months.
But electoral irregularities in Khulna city polls exposed once again a fragile electoral system which tends to collapse as the election becomes a "battle of ballots" between two archrival camps—AL and BNP. The fragility developed since the last parliamentary election. And the system continued to get weaker during the polls to local government bodies including Union Parishads, municipality, and Upazila Parishads which were held in the last four years. Those polls were largely marred by violence—polling stations captured and ballots stuffed by ruling party men. A new model of election thus came into being.
However, fairness of the polls to three city corporations—Narayanganj, Comilla and Rangpur held in 2016 and in 2017—seemed to have flickered a ray of hope for getting rid of this weak electoral system. But the way the Khulna city polls were held made even that faint hope disappear. Moreover, this may raise doubt in the public mind about whether the polls to Gazipur and other city corporations will be held in a free and fair manner. The biggest question now is: what will be the fate of the next parliamentary election?
In the battle of ballots in Khulna, AL candidate Talukder Abdul Khaleque defeated his rival BNP candidate Nazrul Islam Manju. But how much does the win matter to the government and the AL? How will they defend this controversial election? Did they really "win"? Can a win be bigger than the credibility of the polls?
The Khulna polls were a litmus test for credibility for the EC. After the polling hour, the EC claimed the polls were peaceful and "excellent" though various electoral irregularities were exposed by the media. How will the EC restore people's confidence in them if they sincerely think that this is an "excellent election"? This is also a big question.
The EC alone is not responsible for the existing fragile state of electoral system. Along with the EC, political parties, particularly the party in power, law enforcement agencies and the government must shoulder the responsibility for the questionable state of electoral democracy. Above all, the most important thing is the political will of a government to hold free and fair elections. If a government exercises its powers in an atmosphere where there is a severe lack of checks and balances, then the government may not be willing to demonstrate its political will to hold free and fair elections.
In a democracy, therefore, building political institutions sometimes is more important than a ceremonial election. Findings of a recent commission led by former UK Prime Minister David Cameron may be recalled here. The 13-member commission established under the auspices of the International Growth Centre (IGC) and sponsored by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and the University of Oxford's Blavatnik School of Government says: "The building blocks of democracy– the rule of law, checks and balances, the protection of minorities – matter as much as the act of holding elections. For states trying to find a pathway out of fragility, these building blocks can be even more important." In the report titled "Escaping the fragility trap", the commission focused on the importance of building specific institutions of governance as it thinks these are the institutions that constrain the arbitrary use of power and create open and competitive access to public office.
Keeping in mind the Cameron-led commission's findings, it may be argued that these building blocks appear equally as important as the act of holding elections in Bangladesh. But little care is being paid to building those blocks. Khulna city polls exposed once again the need for building effective institutions like the EC and law enforcement agencies. In the absence of those institutions, elections will become a mere ceremonial occasion to determine the winner and the loser—sometimes in a free and fair manner and sometimes in an unfair manner. Such elections contribute little to strengthening a country's democracy and improve people's rights.
Shakhawat Liton is a special correspondent at The Daily Star.