Why did the AL-backed candidate lose the mayoral elections?

Why did the AL-backed candidate lose the mayoral elections?

The recent results of elections of Mayors of four cities in the country reflected a nationwide erosion of support for the ruling Awami League (AL) party six months ahead of general elections, while the centre-right Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) won by big margins in the major cities of Khulna, Sylhet, Rajshahi and Barisal. Even some senior ministers of the government have not taken it lightly and view the results as an ominous turn of event for the AL.

Although the local elections are not held strictly on the party-basis, candidates had the full support of the AL and BNP. But one thing is very significant that the victorious and defeated candidates have demonstrated their respect for the people’s decision and the defeated candidates congratulated the winning candidates and even embraced each other. This has been a very healthy sign for democracy in the country.

In my view there are several reasons for the loss of AL and some of them deserve mention below:

First, there is unpopularity on the incumbency factor for the candidates. Voters psychologically want to see a change and one of the main reasons is that the performance of the incumbent mayors cannot satisfy people and there were huge perceived gaps between promise at the time of election campaign and performance when elected. The mayors get bogged down with their duties and as a result, they are perceived as disconnected from people.

Second, in the local elections, the ruling party shows poor results because voters want to send a “wake-up” call to the ruling party that they are not happy with the performance of them. In Britain, the ruling party always loses local elections and they take it as a warning to improve their performance.

Third, the recent poll published in some media showed that AL has lost 20% of its popularity from its peak 48% in 2008 when the parliamentary elections were held in December 2008. And therefore it is no surprise that AL-backed candidates lost elections.

Fourth, although the local elections are ordinarily fought over the local issues, the mishandling of some of national issues of the AL- government appears to have an adverse impact on the local elections and many voters believe that the ruling party is not listening to them.

For example, the vacillation by the ruling party on the start of a dialogue with the opposition BNP party on the mode of the government under which the next parliamentary elections will be held in 2014 did not help the ruling party which is perceived as “arrogant” by voters.

Fifth, the mass arrests of top leaders of BNP without bail for some weeks are seen contrary to the spirit of multi-party democracy and were considered as harsh. On the other hand, the government has failed to protect the temples and pagodas of religious minorities in the country. As a result, AL may have lost the support of the minorities.

Sixth, the Quami Madrasahs are privately funded.. The number of such madrasahs has increased dramatically between 1999 and 2005 and there are reportedly about 20 thousand in the country.. Many of the students are reportedly orphans. Hefazate-e Islam represents the Quami madrasahs which came up with 13-point demand..

Although on May 3rd the Prime Minister, clarified the government’s position on the 13-point demand stating that some of their demands could not be accepted as they are contrary to the Bangladesh Constitution, the response appeared to be too late, according to many observers. Many people who support the government on the issue feel that the Prime Minister was not advised properly to deal with the sensitive religious issue in a country where almost 90% of people are Muslims. Many suggest there should have an open dialogue much earlier with the leaders of the Hefazate-e-Islam.

When supporters of Hefazate Islam gathered in Dhaka to press their 13-point demands on 5th May, it turned out to be extremely violent and the government dealt with them firmly with some deaths for which no truths has yet emerged. The Islamists including the Hefazat-e-Islam seem to have been successful in branding the AL as being anti- Islam for this action and this perception has worked among voters.

Seventh, the Jamaat –e-Islami has been able to project that the trial of their leaders for crimes against humanity as “revengeful” and is to destroy the party. After the verdict of the International Crime Tribunal, the unprecedented violence including burning of private cars, buses, auto-rickshaws including train bogies have dismayed ordinary people as the government is seen to have failed to foresee and protect private and personal property.

Eighth, there have been a few scandals, such as share market, Sonali Bank’s loan, as well as allegation of corruption-conspiracy on the Padma Bridge during the term of the government. In addition, the undesirable activities of some of the AL- allied organisations have not helped the ruling party. Although. AL-government can justifiably claim many substantial achievements in the country, (reduction of poverty, self-sufficiency in food, empowerment of women ) and at the multinational forums, they did not play any role in the minds of voters. What is important is not reality but the perception of the people.

However, some analysts say the loss of the mayoral candidates could turn into a positive gain for the AL in the fact that it can robustly argue that the that the BNP’s demand for the non-party care-taker government to hold the next parliamentary elections is unjustifiable and unconstitutional as the mayoral elections were held in a free, fair, and credible manner.

Finally it is important to note for all political parties what constitutional expert Sir Ivor Jennings said: “Tyrannical majority and recalcitrant minority are enemies that destroy democracy”.

By Barrister Harun ur Rashid
Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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