Local government is one of the most essential institutions of democracy. In the modern world, it is almost unthinkable to design the administration of the state without transference of power to local government. The history of local government in Bangladesh is extensive, yet it is still struggling for the right structure to work on. Though the legal basis and responsibilities of local government in Bangladesh are incorporated in the constitution in which article 59 specifically states that "local government in every administrative unit of the Republic shall be entrusted to bodies composed of persons elected in accordance with law." According to the provision of this article, the government of Bangladesh is supposed to establish local government institutions at all levels of administration below the centre. Unfortunately, we have had continuously the local government institutions only at Union Level since Bangladesh was formed. In addition, local government of Bangladesh experienced dramatic changes in its nature based on the defining characteristics of the ruling regimes.
On last October 12, 2015 the present cabinet approved the drafts of five laws on local governments which allowed registered political parties to nominate candidates in the local body elections. It also permitted candidates to use party symbols and even the portrait of their party leaders while campaigning. There had a lot of debate on this hasty decision on local government. Even local government experts as well as opposition political leaders expressed their anxiety on this issue and remarked it as a 'dangerous decision.' Their worries, to not an insignificant extent, came true in the last four phases of UP polls, e.g. 22 March, 31 March, 23 April and 7 May elections. At least 84 people were killed and scores were injured as violence, rigging, ballot stuffing and terrorization, mostly carried out by ruling Awami League activists. Many polling centres were allegedly captured by AL activists who stuffed the ballot boxes or forced voters to cast their vote for AL candidates. Most surprisingly, some election officials were also alleged to have been involved in vote rigging in certain polling centres. Eleven polling officials were detained on charges of committing irregularities during the last phase of election.
In addition, it was revealed in the dailies about the scenery of irregularities that in some particular UP poll regions, especially at Belchari union of Matiranga, Khagrachari, the total number of voters was 3,128 where the number of casting vote was 6,135. Similarly, at Chandannagar union of Niyamatpur, Naogaon, the number of casting vote was 20,694 while actual voters were 19,310. All these irregularities were absolutely shocking in quest of proper justification and credibility of UP polls.
On the other hand, Shushashoner Jonno Nagorik (Shujan), a civil society platform, has marked out the total number of deaths were 71 in violence over UP polls till 5 May which by now has reached 84. Badiul Alam Majumder, Secretary of the Shujan, has termed this Union Parishad election as 'distorted'. He, in a press conference at Dhaka Reporters Unity recently, criticized the present election commission by saying it ruined our entire election system and it was an ominous sign for the nation. The observers also termed the four phases UP elections as unacceptable due to massive casualties, violence where several thousands of people were injured on the Election day and the following times. It might trigger further fear among voters, putting a harmful impact on the subsequent polls of the smallest unit of the local government. The deaths as well as violence in partisan UP polls might well raise doubt over the credibility of the new procedure of local government election. Experts believed the recent scale of violence was not seen in the previous local body elections. They also said that violence in the local government elections is increasing due to holding of polls under political banners and the entire electoral process is on the verge of destruction as the EC has reportedly lost its control over violence and irregularities.
It is true that one of the basic democratic norms is to show tolerance and respect to political opponents and dissenting voices. But in Bangladesh, our political parties quell the opponents and are also engaged in aggressive politics and efforts to destroy each other. Even, they do not respect people's right to vote freely. As a result, these partisan elections only can promote and spread 'party-archy,' reflected by blind loyalty to parties, rather than strengthening our democratic system. In addition, many studies show that conducting credible elections in a partisan manner is always a challenge in developing countries around the world as there are a lot of scopes to manipulate the election by the party in power. Recent four phase partisan UP elections in Bangladesh may well be referred to as good examples in this regard.
Likewise, the appointment of administrators at Zilla Parishad is now under the absolute control of the ruling party. The ruling party MPs already practise supremacy over the upazila parishads. Now, if the remaining local government bodies are also captured by means of partisan elections, ruling party will avail the opportunity to have control over all political institutions, which would be absolutely threatening for sound democratization. It will also increase the criminalization of politics in all strata of society.
The politicians, local government experts and other civil society persons opine that the new system of partisan UP polls might obviously destroy the value system cherished so long at local level. As observed in the past, chairmen and members were elected at union parishads on the basis of their family background and reputation for social works. They belonged to no party but were elected with massive votes in cognizance of their worthy social works in the locality. The partisan poll surely drives away these whistle-blowers of the value system in the locality to be replaced by party followers who might have controversial identities in the community. As well it is reported in many dailies that there has happened a big business to get the party support to compete in current UP elections, by means of which the door of corruption has got opened.
The huge number of violence, big business of getting party nomination and questions of the last UP polls make us raise eyebrows at the real motives of introducing such election system in Bangladesh. Was it to improve the performance of the system or an attempt to decisively bring local government system under the supreme control of party in power? The authorities have to understand when local government will be subsumed by the 'party-archy,' it will affect local government system. Besides this, extreme polarization will also affect locally decision-making process, which also worries even the experts as well as concerned persons. Recently, in a seminar, former adviser to the caretaker government of Bangladesh M Hafizuddin Khan said "with the partisan elections, the local government would become even weaker than what it was before as violence would intensify over holding of its leadership in the days to come."
For holding party-based local elections, we must also have democratic, transparent and accountable political parties. Unfortunately, we have not been able to foster such political parties in Bangladesh so far. The democratization process is still going on a snail's pace in our politics.
For an effective local government, we generally mean significant autonomy of local bodies and partisan system of UP polls may not be able to provide such autonomy in our context. For strengthening the functions of UP, polarization as well as politicization should be away from the debate as it realizes national development goals without proper and accelerated local development. Research shows that when conflict or violence occurs, it is not as a result of an electoral process, it is the breakdown of the same. Hence, all the electoral stakeholders should keep in mind that the nature, large extent of violence and rigging associated with elections in this country create a serious threat to the national quest for a stable democratic transition.
Md Fouad Hossain Sarker is Assistant Professor and Faisal Akber is Lecturer at
Daffodil International University