The Zahangir model of navigating elections
Perhaps one of the more interesting questions that commentators and analysts, as well as I, have been pondering is: what would Awami League's strategy be if BNP does not join the upcoming election? There does not seem to be a clear answer. Although the ruling Awami League leaders say the national election will be held on schedule, and they will not request any political party (meaning the BNP) to join the polls, it remains uncertain whether this election will be a repeat of 2014 (when 153 MPs were elected uncontested, thanks to BNP boycotting the polls) or of 2018 (when allegations were made of voting taking place the night before the election). Or if it will be completely different from the last two occasions, since the same event seldom unfolds just as it had the last time.
BNP has already made its position clear: it will not participate unless the election is held under a caretaker government system. And the Awami League has dismissed the demand, saying the election will be held according to the constitutional mandate, which precludes any possibility of BNP's participation.
While ruling party leaders claim that BNP's boycott would not be an issue, their top brass has already asked party men to prepare a list of dummy candidates.
A report in The Daily Star on February 17 highlighted that the Awami League plans to field dummy candidates alongside its nominees in all constituencies to make the next election look participatory in the absence of genuine opposition candidates. At the AL Parliamentary Party meeting of February 7, PM Sheikh Hasina asked lawmakers to prepare a list of probable bogeys in their constituencies, the report said.
The AL supremo had issued similar directives ahead of the last national polls in 2018, but the BNP took part in that election, saving Awami League the trouble of having to float its own opposition. But this time, the chance of BNP joining the polls is very slim. And thus we come back to the question: what would the ruling party do in such a situation?
Once the handful of BNP lawmakers resigned from the current parliament, one BNP veteran, Ukil Abdus Sattar, contested a by-poll as an independent candidate and won. The media reported that there was no AL candidate as Ukil Abdus Sattar was supported by the ruling party. Since then, this has been referred to as the "Ukil model", which could presumably be replicated in the upcoming election to make it seem participatory.
Even the ruling party's general secretary Obaidul Quader in April said, addressing the BNP, "Many BNP leaders and workers are getting in touch about the elections. There are many leaders among you like Ukil Abdus Sattar. Many leaders are looking for some way to participate in the election and are getting in contact secretly. Wait and see."
The Ukil model, then, could potentially cause a section of BNP leaders to join the election.
But political commentators say there might be another potential model. This model was born out of the recent city corporation election where former Gazipur mayor, Zahangir Alam, was one of the main topics of discussion. Failing to get the party nomination, Zahangir filed his nomination form as an independent candidate. His bid was rejected for financial non-compliance. However, Zahangir is still very much in the race, as he has filed another nomination for his mother to run as a mayor, who everybody understands will essentially be his proxy.
Zahangir's mother, who has never been in politics, is contesting for the mayoral post. So, while Zahangir is not running or challenging the ruling party candidate, Azmat Ullah Khan, on paper, he is, for all intents and purposes, the main challenger.
Zahangir's fate was sealed by a viral video clip which shows him mocking Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (father of the prime minister) and the Liberation War. After that, he was expelled from the party and also lost his mayoral post.
While Zahangir made a show of seeking the party nomination and then filing the nomination paper as an independent candidate, it appears he was quite sure that it would be rejected. As back-up, he had also collected nomination papers for his mother and has now submitted those, seeking her candidacy. So, while Zahangir might have been sure of a rejection for himself, he had also resolved not to concede without a last-ditch attempt.
According to insiders, while this might have been a desperate attempt from Zahangir to salvage his political career, the ploy of using a proxy candidate will only have strengthened the ruling party, making the election competitive.
Obaidul Quader's comment in this regard is quite interesting. When journalists asked him about Zahangir's role in the polls, he said, "I know that he [Zahangir] used to be part of Awami League, and had become mayor with the party backing. I will not make any comment now until the party takes a decision in this regard."
Analysts believe that many of the current lawmakers will not get a party ticket in the upcoming polls, especially those who tarnished the image of the AL with controversial activities, no matter who they are. And this was evident in the city corporation nominations where Zahangir from Gazipur and Sadiq Abdullah of Barishal did not get party tickets. So, commentators say that those who will not get the party's blessings in the upcoming polls may follow the "Zahangir model" to make the election more inclusive and participatory.
And one wonders if that could well be the Awami League strategy in a BNP-less election – to create an environment where disgruntled aspirants take the field, by themselves or through their proxies.
Mohammad Al-Masum Molla is chief reporter at The Daily Star.