The Union Parishad elections, that concluded over a whopping 7 rounds spanning - thanks to Covid delays and cancellations - more than half a year, were a bruising and brutal affair this year, yet infinitely interesting for the shifts they signalled in the political sands of the country. The UP provides our lowest tier of elected government. They are the units around which Graam Bangla is organised. Their jurisdictions may be small, in both size and the number of people, but they also provide the opportunity to work most closely with the people.
Following a change in the rules around the middle of the last decade, the top post in each UP is contested along party lines - I.e. the registered political parties can officially take part in the race for UP chairman. Armed with the evidence from two electoral cycles now, it may be a good time to revisit this decision, given the fact that it has led to t two most violent UP elections in the country's history.
During the elections that just ended, at least 115 people were killed in election-related violence across the seven rounds. In the 2016 elections, at least three dozen were killed on what was then six polling days, while over a hundred people were killed in polls-related violence during the course of the elections.
In another dubious record for the just-concluded election, some 371 union council chairs were in all 'elected uncontested' - that oxymoron that has nevertheless become a mainstay of the electoral process in Bangladesh since 2014. The corresponding figure in the 2016 UP election was 212.
That all being said, the unexpectedly strong showing by independent or 'rebel' candidates of the Awami League in this year's election made for far more interesting viewing. It was a characteristic that became visible fairly early on, by the second phase itself, and the momentum was maintained right the way through. Try as they might to stem the flow of these rebel candidates, resulting in a record number of expulsions from the party, ultimately they were unsuccessful in their efforts to instil a degree of discipline in the ranks. Nothing breeds success like success, and once a critical mass of these rebel candidates found success in defying the party's wishes, there was no stopping them, as AL general secretary and senior member of the cabinet Obaidul Quader found to his chagrin. A breakdown of the results through the seven phases reflects this well:
In the first phase, out of 369 chairman seats, Awami League candidates won 289 or 73 percent of the seats. At that stage, there was still no indication of what was to come. In the second round, the ruling party still won more than half of the chairman seats. Out of 733 UPs, AL won in 485, while the rebels won in 207 - their first substantive upswing.
In the third phase, out of 1,006 UPs, AL won 525 while the rebels, in another strong showing, won 260.It was in the fourth stage that the AL's share of victory fell below 50 percent for the first time. Awami League won in less than half of UP. Ruling party leaders secured victory in 396 out of 840 constituencies, while the rebels won 196 chairman seats.
Coming to the fifth stage, the AL kept winning the most number of chairman seats, but once again they fell short of the 50 percent mark, with 341 out of 707. Once again it was the rebels' fault, as they helped themselves to 160 chairmanships. In the sixth phase the ruling party recovered somewhat to get over the 50 percent mark once again, winning 117 out of 219 chairmanships up for grabs. But in the seventh and final phase, the rebels finally did what they had been threatening to do for a while now: they won the most number of seats up for grab, and beat the AL into second place. The concept of party discipline will have taken a severe beating, but if the leadership is smart, there is much they can learn from this experience too.
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