Democracy in a country requires more than elections, but no country can be a democracy without holding genuine elections. However, the most fundamental principle defining credible elections is that they must reflect the free expression of the will of the people. Keeping this in view, any conscious citizen would argue that a number of elections to different layers of local government in Bangladesh, like the city corporations and municipalities, took place in recent times amid festivity and fanfare and were duly regarded as participatory and hence acceptable with the January 16 Narayangonj City Corporation elections being the latest.

During the recent elections to Narayanganj City Corporation (NCC) and a number of municipalities, voter turnout has been deemed satisfactory to the conscious section of the society as citizens were seemingly able to exercise their rights to franchise peacefully, which has been a sign of growing hope of exercising the citizens’ voting rights. Voters turned up in good numbers at polling centres to cast ballots amid a festive and peaceful atmosphere, with no reports of violence and clashes taking place in any part of the NCC, which is a pure rarity in comparison to any election with party symbols.

As for example, the NCC election was held this term consisting of 192 centres. Everyone has been expressing the view that the election was free, fair, participatory and hence credible. Even the competing candidates claimed the election was acceptable. Ruling party Awami League-nominated candidate Dr. Selina Hayat Ivy received 1,59,097 votes with ‘Boat symbol and secured the mayoral election for the third consecutive time. On the other hand, ‘Independent’ heavyweight candidate Adv. Taimur Alam Khandaker obtained 92,166 votes with ‘Elephant’ symbol. Other five candidates were Maulana Md Masum Billah (Hand-fan) with 23,987 votes, ABM Sirajul Mamun (Wall-clock) with 10,724 votes, Md Rashed Ferdous (Wristwatch) with 1,927 votes, MdKamrul Islam (Horse) with 1,305 votes, Md Jashim Uddin (Banyan tree) with 1,209 votes. The voter turnout was not below 50% despite the Election Day being a hectic working day (Sunday) in pandemic.

The NCC polls appeared as a remarkable illustration of a free and unprejudiced poll. Additionally, the responsibility of the Election Commission (EC) and the local administration for an unbiased poll also attracted the attention. Both Ivy and Taimur did not mention any considerable objections during weeks-long campaigning and poll irregularities on the day of voting. Hence, the EC termed the voting as “free and fair” like the previous two terms of elections. Individuals in that area believe that the lenient approach of the nominees, their faith in public and rigorous supervising of the management had created a fair voting ground in Narayanganj. The latest election process is considered peaceful and transparent, and it falls in line with Narayanganj’s legacy of non-violent polling previously in 2016 and 2011.

Dr. Selina Hayat Ivy is the first female mayor in Bangladesh from 2011 and she has not misused her power in affecting the results in any elections. She said to journalists, “I will continue working for people regardless of their political identities. I will try my best to fulfill the election pledges and talk to Taimur ‘uncle’ whether we can work on promises he made to voters.” According to political analysts, Dr. Ivy’s clean image, personal charisma, vigorous standing against local criminalization, uncertain role of the local politician Shamim Osman through the election movement and the well-organized implementation of a clearly planned out campaigning worked as the x factor for the elected Mayor.

For the first time in, 100 per cent polling stations in Narayanganj used the electronic voting machines (EVMs) for casting votes and no voter had left the centre without giving their precious polls. A significant number of women voters were noticed waiting to vote and there were four voters from the third gender community out of 517,361 total voters in the Narayanganj city corporation election. Three members of the local third gender community were seen casting their votes on election morning. Despite being the winter of biting Magh month, voters were seen assembling at the voting booths ahead of schedule. At the middle of the day, the line of voters became longer outside the centre. There’s a wind of change in typical polling centre scenario. Therefore, every rightful civilian could participate in casting vote and choosing their preferred candidate in future elections.

While talking of the ruling party Awami League’s local politics, there was a strong but non-dominant rivalry between Ivy and Shamim Osman. Every single citizen residing over there can very well feel the heat of dynasty and influence of Ivy and Shamim in Narayanganj politics. Though Ivy was declared as Awami League candidate, there was hardly any sort of support from Shamim and his supporters. It took a serious turn when Ivy put all the allegations against Shamim directly or indirectly In front of media citing Taimur as Shamim’s candidate. Even some electronic media were bullied by Ivy for their one-sided broadcasting. As Awami League Central Committee officially declared Ivy as their candidate at a press conference, the ice started melting between Ivy and Shamim. The latter declared ‘Boat’ will be the ultimate winner in Narayanganj and nothing can stand before it. He also said that he was there for ‘Boat’ and that candidate hardly matters in such case. In fact, this sort of dispute can always be there in a big political party like Awami League. But the fact of the matter is that they should take lessons from such cases and applicable strategies can be applied in ensuing elections.

However, Union Parishad (UP) polls last year saw 113 deaths logged in five phases. Consequently, the elections were largely ruined by boycotts, low voter turnout and allegations of fixing. Political observers and analysts often see an increasing concern over the next general elections scheduled for the end of December 2023 or early 2024. Regardless of such voting experience and background, Narayanganj polls appeared to be an exclusion and an illustration to follow. Strict security measures were put in place at every NCC voting centre to guarantee that voters vote in an organized and peaceful manner. Moreover, the Home Ministry had given five instructions to ensure fair and peaceful NCC elections. The mayoral candidates did not engage in the mudslinging during the electioneering. They refrained from using harsh words against each other by attacking one other’s character. Political analysts said both Ivy and Taimur had determined their victories, but were not frantic for it and they even maintained the environment during polling.

From the announcement of the election schedule, the NCC election had been at the centre of discussion in the country’s political arena, although the BNP boycotted it saying that free and fair election is not possible under the current EC and the incumbent government. BNP had taken a ‘tactical’ and unclear position during the polls. The party had initially approved Taimur’s decision to seek nomination during election despite announcing a boycott of all elections under current regime and the EC. Therefore, Taimur had to compete in the vote individually as he could not participate with the symbol of the “Sheaf of Paddy”. BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir had allowed him to work in NCC election as an independent candidate. EC official earlier on 30th December 2021 said that there would be no party ban on working in the NCC polls. However, Taimur had to compromise his adviser role and seat in district the committee after the election. Exactly what caused the change in decision from not participating in any elections to approving the BNP leader’s participation as independent candidate and thereafter removing him from the party camp, are set of ambiguous decisions taken by BNP.

Did Taimur go against the party decision and decided to run for mayor? Or, is removing Taimur from his party positions was just a show for BNP? Is it a new strategy the party is taking? The independent mayoral candidate was seen campaigning with the local BNP leaders and activists. Even the BNP leaders were seen working for him openly. The leaders of the party were acting as his election agents. Although Taimur had participated with the symbol of “Elephant”, the leaders and supporters were carrying the “Sheaf of Paddy” symbol throughout the candidates’s ‘independent nomination’. Hence, it won’t be exaggeration to note that Taimur’s presence in the field was nothing but the shadow of BNP’s campaign. Then, questions arise as to how come Taimur get terminated from his BNP positions? How could other leaders of BNP support him despite BNP’s claim of non-participatory stand in any election? Was it a stunt of BNP to remain in the city corporation election implicitly?

Furthermore, Taimur being the so-called ‘independent mayoral candidate’ in the NCC election claimed that 10 leaders, activists, and election agents from his end were arrested in the lead up to the election day. He said, “They have been arresting and harassing my party leaders only to obstruct my election”. He even wished his own arrest at the cost of releasing other activists in his camp. Replying to the claims, Narayanganj district Superintendent of Police Zayedul Alam said to a newspaper, “We’re busy doing the election duties now. I’m not sure what they’re complaining about. There were charges filed against those who had been arrested. They did not even seek bail.” This creates confusion about Taimur’s statement of showing care for his party members as bail for them were not even sought. According to the local leaders, some of the reasons behind the defeat of Taimur in the NCC polls was not being able to be a BNP-nominated candidate with the symbol of “Sheaf of Paddy”. However, he was seen receiving the full support from other BNP leaders, which was in notice too. Moreover, the local affluent community also believed that Timur could not win the confidence of voters and that is yet another key reason behind his failure.

Finally, Taimur blamed the EVM method for not being able to win the mayoral race and thus tried to defend his failure. All his accusations were targeted at the incidents of pre-election arrests and EVMs. Complaining due to losing is part of our electoral culture for many years now. Even if all the allegations of Taimur were to be true, still the latest NCC election would logically be an example of a good election. No fight, violence and vote rigging were seen to occur, and the citizens’ sincere choice of a mayoral candidate was honoured with Dr. Ivy coming out as the clear winner in the race.

Even upon her victory, Dr. Ivy had gone with sweets to Taimur’s residence as results got published. At that time, Ivy also sought blessings from her ‘uncle’ Taimur, who in turn had given his blessings by putting hand on the mayor-elect’s head. They fed each other sweets in front of the media. Thus everything went fair and transparent in the Narayanganj polls apart from some small confusions and allegations by Taimur and BNP as his apparent camp. Even if taken into account, the complaints are negligible as it did not affect any voter or the voting process. This election has, indeed, turned out to be a true example and a shining hope for the next elections.

Meanwhile, elections to Banshkhali in Chattogram, Noakhali Sadar in Noakhali, Jhikargachha in Jashore, Natore’s Bagatipara and Natore Municipality were also held on the same 16th January. At the polls, 26 candidates contested for the posts of mayor while a total of over 200 candidates were in the fray for the posts of councilor and reserved councilor. Awami League nominated candidates won all but one of these five municipality elections. BNP-backed independent candidate won the Bagatipara municipality election while the Awami League-nominated candidates won in Natore, Jhikargachha, Banshkhali and Noakhali municipalities.

In these elections, Awami League-backed candidate and incumbent mayor Uma Chowdhury Joly won Natore municipality by defeating BNP-backed independent candidate Sheikh Emdadul Haque Mamun. BNP-backed independent candidate AKM Shariful Islam Lelin won the Bagatipara municipality polls defeating Awami League’s rebel candidate Mamunur Sultan. Awami League candidate Mostafa Anwar Pasha Jamal was re-elected as the Jhikargachha municipality mayor. He defeated BNP-backed independent candidate and joint convener of Upazila BNP Advocate Imran Hasan Samad Nipun. Awami League’s Tofail Bin Hossain won Banshkhali municipality polls by defeating BNP-backed independent candidate and former mayor Kamrul Islam Hossaini. In Noakhali municipality, the Noakhali district Awami League’s joint convener Shahid Ullah Khan Sohel was re-elected.

Earlier in Sylhet city polls, BNP candidate Ariful Haque Choudhury came out as winner four years back by defeating heavyweight Awami League candidate Badar Uddin Ahmed Kamran. Back in 2017, Jatiya Party’s mayoral candidate Mostafizar Rahman Mostafa won the Rangpur City Corporation election defeating the Awami League and BNP contestants by a big margin. In the same year, BNP candidate Monirul Haque Sakku retained his office in Cumilla City Corporation polls by defeating Awami League-backed Anjum Sultana Sima. These were all examples of acceptable and participatory polls.

As we know, the essence of democracy is equality with the elections giving the opportunity to every adult citizen of the country to choose his/her representative. In case of democratic governance, elections make a fundamental contribution. In view of these notions, the Narayanganj city elections, with the some other city and municipality polls as stated above, present before us an encouraging scene in terms of voter participations and voting enthusiasm. It is thus well-proven that fair and credible election isn’t a mythical proponent – rather it’s a reality even in the year of 2022. However, Bangladesh can bank on hope for even a greater voter turnout in the elections to come subject to strong commitment in this regard by ruling and opposing camps alike. Improving voter participation requires broader actions by election stakeholders, such as the EC, the government agencies, the political parties as well as the civil society members. As for now, we can sign off saying that the recent Narayanganj and municipality polls will spur hope for and confidence in a further free, fair and participatory polls in the years to come.

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