Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Eight takeaways from the Mayor elections

Courtesy of the Daily Star: Vote rigging in plain sight
Here are eight key take-aways from yesterday's Mayor election.

1. Now we know what the Prime Minister means by 'free and fair elections'.

In January 2014, the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina promised there would be 'free and fair' national elections, even without a caretaker government. The BNP and opposition parties boycotted it, arguing that there could be no such election under a political government  In 2015, she promised the same in the city mayor elections. This time the BNP did not boycott. Now I suppose we know what would have happened had the BNP taken part in the 2014 elections and is likely to  happen in the 2019  national elections: widespread ballot box stuffing along with police and election commission complicity (see here for just one such example). Despite all the evidence, this morning the prime minister has stated: 'The city corporations elections were conducted in a free, fair and peaceful manner. The police administration has discharged their duties responsibly.” Were these elections a dress rehearsal of what will happen in 2019 national elections?

2. Winning is the only important thing.

For the Awami League right now (and no doubt it would be the same were the BNP in power), winning power is the only thing that matters. The Awami League could have taken a different view, allowing the election to be free and fair, and letting the most popular candidate win. Were the Awami League to have done this and lost, then they could have argued, 'Look we are capable of holding free and fair elections. The BNP should have no worries for the future.' But no, it does not matter to the government right now how they win, as long as they do win.

3. Anisul Huq's reputation seriously besmirched.

Anisul Huq, the AL backed mayoral candidate who by all accounts is an honorable person, has had his reputation seriously stained by this election. He has won on the back of a heavily fixed election, an election in which ballot boxes were stuffed by Awami League cadres. And what has Huq said and done. Nothing. He, like the Awami League, will take the victory. The smell of power seems to be too great for even the likes of Anisul Huq to say, or do, the right thing.

4. The BNP boycotted too soon.

Read today's newspapers and there is article after article about election rigging. There is no doubt that the BNP had reason to question the election - but to boycott it so early at just after midday was the wrong thing to do. At the press conference at noon, rather that announcing its boycott, it should have set out all the concerns that it had, called for its supporters to come out and vote despite the rigging, and say that it would make a further announcement later in the day. The BNP supported candidates could still have won despite the rigging, or had they lost, they would have had much more evidence to support their contentions.

5. The Election Commission played a corker for the governing party.

The Election Commission - which we should note has been heavily supported by international aid - has through this contest shown its true colors. There are many examples but these three are illustrative: the way it refused to allow Abdul Awool Mintu to be a candidate, on the basis of an error that was easily correctible; its decision not to ask the army to be present on the streets - the presence of which these days is essential for a proper turnout, and no violence; and finally yesterday and today's 'I see nothing, I hear nothing' attitude to the widespread rigging all around it, which in fact its own officials are alleged to have taken part. The reputation of the Chief Election Commissioner, Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmed is in tatters, and must be as low as the BNP appointed election commissioner in 2006. One thought that was not possible.

6. International community, a busted flush.

The US and the UK both brought out statements. The US one quite rightly stated 'We are disappointed by widespread, first hand and credible reports of vote rigging, intimidation and violence' but then puts that on an equal footing to its disappointment with the 'BNP's decision to boycott the city corporation poll.' Quite why the United States seems to think it appropriate to put these two issues, 'Vote rigging' and 'BNP's boycott' on the same level is bewildering. Sure there is a question about the BNP boycott, but please, which of these two issues does the US government think are more important.

The UK's statement is though truly remarkable. It starts of criticizing the BNP for boycotting the election, nowhere acknowledges the widespread and credible reports on vote rigging, simply stating that any allegation should be investigated, and then accepts the results of the election by calling upon those elected to govern well. It is kind of Orwellian in its analysis. And yes the British government has actually given aid in support to 'fair elections' - I wonder now what that means. If this is the UK government's response to obviously rigged elections, can you imagine how it would have responded had the BNP taken part in the 2013 election, which, going by yesterday's experience, would no doubt would have been similarly rigged. I am looking forward to hearing the British High Commissioner huff and puff over coming days about the need for the election irregularities to be investigated 'swiftly' and 'impartially' - which is what he called for. A sad day for British diplomacy.

7. Nonetheless, the elections were a god send for the BNP.

How so, you may ask? Before the elections were announced, the BNP were lost in a quagmire of its own making, from which it did not know how to escape. It had instigated two months of violence, resulting in over 60 people being murdered by petrol bombs. It was on the receiving end of the full might of the Bangladesh state who was arresting all of its activists, and many of its leaders, on any criminal charges it could find, and killing nearly 50 of them in apparent extra judicial killings. The BNP was a totally defeated party, and moreover did not know how to remove itself from its increasingly irrelevant programme of sieges. …. And then the elections came along. The elections gave it an opportunity to segway from the violence and defeat back to democratic elections. Who remembers the violence now?

And of course, the way in which the elections have been rigged with the tacit support of the election commission helps to support the party's arguments on the lack of democracy in the Awami League government. And Tabith's candidature in Dhaka North has finally brought out some new younger politicians, which the party desperately needs.

8. The country's independent media played a blinder

From Prothom Alo to the Dhaka Tribune, from the Daily Star to New Age, and even bdnews - reporters were writing what they saw. No holds barred. As I have written elsewhere:
"Other than the media, there is I think no other power base in Bangladesh that has elements of it which are entirely independent from government. The police, captured; the administration, captured; the election commission, captured: the judiciary … no comment. Much of the media is of course pro-government, (and there are parts of its which are pro-opposition) but there remains a steely core that is independent, and the importance of this is no better illustrated in Bangladesh than in moments like election day. It is this independent media that sometimes seems to be just about the only thing keeping the country from an unaccountable authoritarian state. And, when it is this independent media that has now conclusively shown - and proven, in fact - that the Awami League is unwilling to hold free and fair polls, one must be very concerned about about what pressures will be exerted upon it in days to come"

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