POST TIME: 25 November, 2015 00:00 00 AM
Partisan local polls and challenges for political parties
Dhiraj Kumar Nath

Partisan local polls and challenges 
for political parties

A paradigm shift in the political system took place in Bangladesh on 12 October, 2015 with the decision of the Cabinet to hold local polls on partisan basis. The century old practice of non-party poll of local bodies has been changed to first – ever partisan poll that brought major challenges for political parties of Bangladesh. Bangladesh Awami League considers demonstrating its popularity at grass-root level through this election while Bangladesh Nationalist Party spokesperson Asaduzzaman Ripon has opposed these partisan local government elections, saying it is a political trick with an ill motive. But one Adviser to the Chairperson said, “BNP is all along a pro-election party. My personal view is that the polls can be contested as part of the movement.” BNP is thus not decisive about their participation in the ensuing election of Union Parishad and Municipality. The Chief of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Col (Retd.) Oli Ahmed has expressed his desire to contest the election of UPs and Municipalities. He however, considered this change as “Politics and politicians are becoming controversial and democracy is being destroyed in a planned way.” Jatiya Party Chief said the partisan local poll will generate hatred, violence and indiscipline in the country while his wife, leader of the opposition, advised her party followers not to attach importance to the remarks of her party chief. One spokesman of Jamat-e- Islami has hinted of their participation in the local poll even BNP refrain from participating in the election as before.
The Cabinet on 12 October has decided to approve some draft amendments of 5 existing Acts, such as, 1. Local Government (Union Parishad)  (Amendment) Act, 2015; 2. Upazila Parishad (Amendment) Act, 2015;  3 District Council (Amendment) Act  2015 .4. Local Government (Municipalities) Act, 2015, and 5. Local Government (City Corporation) (Amendment) Act, 2015. Only the draft of Local Government (Union Parishad (Amendment) Act 2015 was approved in principle and other drafts amendments were approved finally.
These amendments took place since Union Parishad Act of 2009 as at present, does not allow the election of Chairman and others by using party nomination with party symbol. Equally, Upazila Parishad Act of 2011, Municipality Act of 2009, City Corporation Act of 2009 and Zila Parishad act of 2000 do not provide opportunities for using of party symbol with party nomination. It was decided to make necessary amendments of the Acts so that the party nomination and party symbol could be used as lawful practice of partisan poll. There will be however, no restriction to a person to contest in election as independent candidate with a symbol of his choice.
The Chief Election Commissioner has informed that the schedule of Municipality election is to be announced soon and thus there could be an Ordinance to be promulgated provided the Parliament is not in session. Accordingly, Government has promulgated an Ordinance on the amendment of Local Government (Municipalities) Act 2015 in view of urgency for holding election by December, 2015.
   The Chief Election Commissioner also stated there might not be any scope to allow any new political party to contest in local polls due to time constraints. He has however, informed that the process of revision of voter list started with the deletion of names who expired by this time. He has not however, stated anything about the capability of Election Commission to hold the election on party basis in a day and their preparedness for the same.
In the meantime, politicians, local government experts and other civil society organisations are in hot debate about the decision of the government to hold local poll on party- line having no discussion with political parties or arranging any referendum to elicit public opinion to make such a major shift in the political system. According to them, the practice of non-party local poll is prevalent in this soil for long time and public at large are accustomed it. Thus, this decision has generated a debate among political parties as well as local level stakeholders across the country.
Those advocating partisan polls are citing examples of India, UK, and USA where local elections are held with the identity of political parties and thus, this decision is not a departure or a new idea in the party politics.
Even in Bangladesh, local polls like City Corporations and Upazila elections were held in the recent past with clear political identity of candidates although they used no symbol of party. Thus, it was felt appropriate by the government to go for the partisan polls to bring the democracy to the grassroots level.
On the other hand, those who are opposing the decision are in view that this decision might destroy the value system cherished so long at local level. As at present, Chairman and members are elected at Union Parishad on the basis of their family background, tradition, reputation for social work. They belong to no party but elected with massive votes in cognizance of their commendable social works in the locality.
 The partisan poll will surely drive away these whistle blowers of value system in the locality to be replaced by party followers who might have controversial identity in the society. Some party candidates might be musclemen to influence the voters by force and creating conflicts and disturbing peace in the locality permanently.
Secondly, there are enough scope for reformations in local body’s governance in addition to delegation of power and devolution of authorities. As at present, at Upazila level, conflicts between MP and Chairman and authority of Upazila Nirbahi Officer should be resolved with clear mandate and terms of reference of power and authorities. In fact, Parishad is not working well rather whole administration runs at the whims and caprices of the Chairman and his sycophants. Women elected as Vice –Chairpersons are not given adequate assignments and responsibilities to perform and their voices not honored in the Parishad.
Thirdly, there is urgent need of modernization in the governance of local urban bodies in view of the massive migration of population from rural to urban localities. The financial management system is very weak and traditional, human resource management is poor and collections of taxes and revenues and assessment of holdings taxes etc demands major re-hauling to establish efficient governance. Partisan poll will not help to improve rather encourage and aggravate the mal-administration of the urban local bodies.
Fourthly, this decision could have been taken after consultations with stakeholders and other political parties or organizing seminars/workshops at different levels.  Government as observed in the past has arranged divisional level consultation /seminar while formulating a policy as done in case of National Health Policy etc. Unfortunately, in this case of major shift of the system, there was no dialogue/interaction that generated the confusion of its acceptability at the grassroots level.
Fifthly, the Local Government Division retains its power of superseding a Parishad and removal of elected Major /Chairman that demands review and reconsideration. The elected Mayor of many City Corporations and Municipalities lost their positions since they do not belong to party in power. This provision should be addressed and reviewed; otherwise partisan poll might give a negative message and signal to political party candidates in opposition.
The onus of the implementation of this government decisions lies with the Bangladesh Election Commission with the active support of general administration to make the election just and fair. If the Election Commission can justify its neutrality and efficiency, the system might be acceptable to political parties and public in general. Bangladesh Election Commission should mobilize its resources and take preparation how to create confidence that partisan poll can deliver better and could be a right approach to find democracy working well at the grassroots level.    
 The major challenges of political parties would be now to organize themselves with their dedicated supporters steering the wheel of the party at the grassroots level.  As of now, almost all parties are centrally governed and some are pocket based political parties with media coverage only having no units and supporters at the grassroots level. This decision will surely through a challenge for them to organize party base and reach to the people with their mandate. Many of them might not be able to nominate a candidate in some Municipalities, Upazilas and City Corporations. Thus, the partisan local Polls will surely eliminate so-called politicians from politics and help sustain real political parties in politics.

The writer is former secretary to the Government