The maladies that poisoned the UP elections
The elections of 1,198 union parishads (UPs) were held in two phases. We have noticed five notable features in these elections. First, the main opposition party BNP boycotted these elections, which were held using the party symbol. However, some BNP activists contested these elections as independent candidates. Second, there were no contests or nominal contests in many UPs. So far, 253 chairman candidates have been "elected" unopposed. In many cases, rival candidates were forced to withdraw their candidatures.
Uncontested elections cannot be called elections. Election means choosing from alternatives. In the absence of alternatives, elections degenerate into a meaningless game where voters are deprived of their voting rights.
Third, there are allegations of massive "nomination trade"—buying nominations with money or influence—in these elections. Consequently, the most competent candidates were deprived of nominations in many cases, making these local government bodies at the doorstep of the people extremely corrupt.
Fourth, independent/rebel candidates of the Awami League have been winning at a high rate in these elections. Based on available information, although 28 percent of the chairman candidates with the boat symbol were defeated in the first phase, in the second phase this rate increased to 42 percent. In the second phase, the boat symbol was not even competitive in 131 UPs. This is because the nomination trade has reached an alarming level. We have observed in the past that in local elections, held with party symbols, the number of candidates and their quality drastically declined, and the voters, given the opportunity, rejected these undesirable candidates. Rising commodity prices, diesel price hikes and many recent unpopular decisions made by the government have also contributed to these results.
Another important feature of these elections is violence and the consequent loss of lives. Although only seven people were killed in the first phase, at least 39 were killed in the second phase. It should be noted that almost all victims of these conflicts were the members of the ruling party. Why such violence despite the absence of the BNP in the elections?
In our view, the interlinked problems of election of many candidates unopposed and the growing violence in these elections are merely the symptoms of the disease, not the disease itself, which needs to be identified and treated for good. As paracetamol can cause temporary remission of fever of a malaria patient, law enforcement agencies and other authorities, too, can provide temporary solutions to the problems—especially during violent elections—but for the patient to truly get better, the disease must be treated with appropriate medications.
On closer examination, it will be obvious to anyone that the widespread violence within the ruling party during the UP elections, nomination trade and uncontested elections are the fruits of the poisonous tree we have planted in our politics. Politics is a noble profession, the goal of which is public service. But the purpose of politics in our country has become the well-being of individuals, coteries and the parties in power. In fact, we have turned politics into a profitable business. People in our country now join politics aiming for personal gains, instead of public service. Receiving a party portfolio or winning an elected position increases the winner's profile and ensures the flow of goodies. In fact, it is through these portfolios and positions that they become connected to a patronage chain and receive continued illegal benefits and get rich. Because of their positions, they can also get away by committing crimes. This is possible because the difference between the ruling party and the government has disappeared in our country, and almost all corrupt activities take place under the protection of the ruling party. The higher the position, the greater the amount of patronage. In fact, being a member of parliament (MP) is like having a golden deer at your disposal.
It is no wonder then that the activists of the ruling party are in an all-out competition to get these positions. Since the benefits are finite, each aspirant ruling party candidate leaves no stone unturned to make others leave the electoral arena. The relatively powerful candidates do not even hesitate to resort to violence, if they are unable to make their opponents disappear through nomination trade, threats and other influences. Therefore, the prevalent culture of self-interest in our politics—rather than politics driven by public interest—is really the disease behind the continued violence. In addition, winning unopposed makes the pay-offs from investments made through nomination trade certain.
In modern states, a system of checks and balances is instituted through the creation of certain institutions to prevent the abuse of power and benefiting from it. To this end, several constitutional, statutory and non-state institutions, such as political parties and civil society, are created to provide safeguards. Such a system to prevent the abuse of power by politicians and illegally benefitting from it reflect the accumulated wisdom of scholars over centuries, that unlike in monarchy, a democratic system needs an adversarial system. In states where this adversarial system becomes ineffective—that is, people enter politics for personal benefits instead of public service—the democratic system becomes non-functional. In an undemocratic system, people capture power to benefit themselves and create a nexus of cronies, and compromise institutions to hold on to power. With such an arrangement in place, the incumbents are unlikely to ever voluntarily relinquish power.
Conducting local government elections under the party symbol—which spreads factionalism and divisiveness at the grassroots—is another problem fuelling the ongoing violence and uncontested elections. Due to flagrant partisan biases of the bureaucracy, law enforcement agencies and other institutions, the winning—sometimes without contest—of the ruling party nominated candidates is almost guaranteed. As a result, the candidates belonging to the ruling party use every means possible, even violence, to oust each other to get the party's nomination. Therefore, if the local government elections continue with the party symbol, violence and uncontested wins are likely to continue.
Another disease behind the growing violence and uncontested elections is the inaction of the Election Commission. The present EC has not only sent our electoral system into exile, but the election commissioners themselves also appear to have gone into exile. This is evidenced by the fact that the commission does not give exemplary punishment to those who engage in violence and intimidation, nor does it debar the candidates supported by the offenders, which it has the power to do. Even when the situation turns unmanageable, the commission does not postpone elections or cancel the election results in the event of tainted polling. It goes without saying that criminals are encouraged if they enjoy impunity. Therefore, the Election Commission, a constitutionally independent body with enormous power, cannot avoid the responsibility for all the anomalies and violence in the ongoing UP elections.
Dr Badiul Alam Majumdar is secretary of SHUJAN: Citizens for Good Governance.