The message from Gazipur city polls
The just-finished Gazipur City Corporation election can be termed "fair." It was generally peaceful; there were no major incidents of violence. The ruling Awami League's mayoral candidate Azmat Ullah Khan lost to independent candidate Zaida Khatun (read: former mayor Zahangir Alam, since Zaida is his mother and has been placed as his proxy). This was a surprising turn of events, seeing as most news outlets reported not finding any of Zaida's polling agents at the majority of polling centres.
Before delving into the hows and whys of this result, and what this means in the long run, a little context is in order.
Major contenders of the Awami League began flexing their muscles as soon as the schedule for the five city corporation elections was announced, but the party decided to bet on its seasoned old horse, Azmat Ullah. Then Zahangir Alam emerged as an independent candidate. He collected nomination papers for his mother too, which, in hindsight, was a clever move. He might have anticipated obstacles to his own candidacy – which he did face. The Election Commission disqualified him saying that he was a loan defaulter. But his mother's nomination went through, and she became Azmat's main rival in an election that would otherwise have been an unexciting event.
From the outset, the polls were set up to be a three-way race. But with the BNP boycotting the election – not an altogether unpredictable move – it basically turned into a contest between an AL veteran and a former AL leader. Although Zahangir was expelled for life from the ruling party, his followers remained loyal to the individual, rather than the party.
As with any other elections, journalists went out to get a feel of the atmosphere. I spoke to rickshaw pullers, teachers, students, street vendors, and office-goers. The more conversations with the common people I had, the more it became apparent that all was not well for the Awami League on the ground. Slowly but surely, it became evident that the 61-year-old was going to give a tough fight to her more politically seasoned competitor.
On the surface, the situation remained calm up until and throughout the election day. Zaida's polling agents could hardly be found at the polling centres. The AL men had an overwhelming and vocal presence both inside and outside the polling centres. The voters were silent. They came and cast their votes peacefully. And when the result was announced, Zaida came out to be the victor – on the back of a silent revolution, becoming the second female mayor in Bangladesh.
This twist left everyone in an apparent quandary. How could Zaida, a homemaker with no affiliation with politics, possibly beat a powerful political veteran, backed by one of the oldest and most popular symbols in the country? When Zahangir did not get the nomination, Gazipur citizens seemed to think that the ruling party had been unfair to him. The ballot was the only means for a fitting reply. So people voted for Zahangir's proxy. The attack on Zahangir's motorcade before the election did not go down well with the people either. Zahangir's uncompromising attitude and refusal to let Azmat have a walkover seemed to have appealed to the people as well.
This government's main selling point for any election campaign is development. People know that if the Awami League loses the mayoral race, then the city is unlikely to see much development. Yet, the people of Gazipur voted against the ruling party candidate.
If we look at the voter turnout, it was 48.75 percent – more than half the electorate did not vote. Traditionally, in any local election, voter turnout is high. This is also an indication that people didn't have enough faith in the Election Commission or didn't feel encouraged to vote.
The most important message that the voters have sent out is that they are aggrieved. The anti-government sentiment is quite evident, which the central leadership of the ruling party did not likely realise. They thought Azmat was a better candidate than Zahangir. In terms of politics, Azmat is certainly more seasoned, but Zahangir is seen more as the people's leader – a darling of the streets, so to speak. Besides, voters did not seem to appreciate the domineering style of Azmat's campaign, which was rife with the attitude that the mayoral race was all but won.
The result was not a shock for the local ruling party members, however. Awami League leaders in Gazipur confided that they were sceptical about people actually voting for the boat inside the booth no matter what they said outside. The results clearly point out that many apparent party sympathisers ended up voting for Zahangir.
Zahangir's charisma paid off and got his mother to the mayor's office. This should not be taken lightly. Bringing in a newbie as a proxy, fighting against a veteran who has the support of the ruling party, and actually winning the race is quite a gargantuan achievement. There could have been only one motivation for the voters. They wanted to beat the boat.
Mohammad Al-Masum Molla is chief reporter at The Daily Star.