The govt has been shown the finger in Narayanganj

Shayan S. Khan
Monday, October 31st, 2011

An elderly voter in Narayanganj flashing proof of her franchise in Sunday's mayoral election. Photo: Ashraful Alam for Dhaka Courier.


As the sorry image of our hapless chief election commissioner flashed across television screens on Saturday night, explaining how the government had paid no heed to his requests for army deployment during the Narayanganj City Corporation polls, a colleague confidently predicted that Narayanganj would turn out to be “the Awami League’s Magura”.


As things stood, one couldn’t but agree. In the annals of Bangladesh’s democratic history, the 1994 by-election held to fill the vacated Magura-2 constituency enjoys pride of place as the marker of electoral skullduggery by a sitting government. It spurred the movement that eventually led to legislation enacting the caretaker government system for subsequent elections. Back then, it was the BNP who shot themselves in the foot, and the Awami League who reaped its benefits, sweeping to power just two years down the line.


Ironically, on Sunday it was the BNP who found themselves hoping for the kind of anti-government ammunition such an election can provide. Much of the speculation, and most of the signs emanating from Narayanganj over the weekend indicated they would get it too. In the end, they only half-got it.


Because as much as Selina Hayat Ivy’s resounding victory the next day showed the proverbial finger to the government (the Awami League refused to back her candidacy ahead of the muscle and heft of Shamim Osman), somewhat disingenuously it also worked to prove a point in their favour- that free and fair elections are possible in Bangladesh under the aegis of an independent election commission, and without a caretaker government in place. No doubt, the incumbent Hasina administration will choose to focus on the election’s implications as far as reinforcing their decision to scrap the caretaker provision earlier this year is concerned. But if not an untruth, that certainly would not be the whole truth.


What is closer to the truth is that the people of Narayanganj, who visited the 58 polling stations dotted around the city in their droves on Sunday (early indications are that turnout exceeded 70 percent), collectively rejected the politics of muscle-power and “godfather” influence signified by three generations of the Osman clan. Given that the government could not find it within itself to do so, this was a rebuff the prime minister will do well not to ignore as she closes in on three years in office.


Whether you put it down to a newly assertive, more vigorous media shaping our political arena, or the people’s determination to deliver a message, what cannot be denied is that the government-backed candidate got defeated, continuing a trend that started with ABM Mohiuddin’s capitulation against Md Manjur Alam in June 2010, and through the Union Parishad elections that were scattered across the summer, which saw 92 BNP-backed candidates returned to mayoral posts, against 88 backed by the ruling party. And each one of these results has felt more like an expression of the people’s dissatisfaction with the government’s misrule, rather than any stellar showing on the part of the opposition. Although Ivy shone truly brightly over the course of the campaign, you could hardly describe her as part of the opposition.


As for the media, if it really has succeeded in defining a more informative, more independent, and more confident space for itself within the landscape of Bangladesh’s democracy, what it cannot allow is the result to be hijacked by the government’s quest to have its way in the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2013, when the real test will come. That is why it is important to not let the government regulate the narrative of the NCC election, as some including Syed Ashraful Islam, the LGRD minister, have tried to already. It would be especially shameful if the government is allowed to get away with his assertion earlier today, that the lesson from Narayanganj is how free and fair elections are possible without a caretaker government, or even army deployment.


That may or may not be the case. It isn’t the government’s headache actually, to worry about that. The government’s remit extends only as far as ensuring the independence of the Election Commission, and providing it with all the support deemed necessary for it to discharge its functions, as stated in the oft-quoted Article 126 of the constitution over the last two days.


By rejecting the EC’s request for army deployment in Narayanganj, the government has failed to fulfil its duty. It matters little that the polls eventually turned out to be free as well as fair, even exemplary it might be said. It can never fall to any government to defy the constitution in order to get a point across. In any case, the strongest point the government could really hope to make out of its defiance- that deploying the army is not a necessity for ensuring clean elections- was never part of the argument to begin with.


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