MonitorsPublished on Mar 28, 2014
The ongoing upazila elections in Bangladesh are a move to deepen democracy at the grassroots. Since the election came just after the parliamentary polls that took place in January and was boycotted by main Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP),
Bangladesh: Political implications of 'upazila' elections

The ongoing upazila elections in Bangladesh are a move to deepen democracy at the grassroots. Since the election came just after the parliamentary polls that took place in January and was boycotted by main Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP), it provides an opportunity to test the support for different political parties, starting with the ruling Awami League. The outcome of the upazila elections can influence the future course politics in the country.

Soon after independence, the country adopted a Westminster-type of parliamentary government but with a centralised political system. For a smooth delivery of governance, the country is divided into six administrative divisions, and each of division has districts or zilas. There are 64 districts which are further divided into upazila or sub-divisions, totaling 487.

The election for the upazilas was introduced during the regime of military ruler H M Ershad in the 1980’s.The first election was held in 1985. But upzila elections remained defunct even after democracy was re-established in Bangladesh in 1991. It was reinstituted by the Awami League government in 2009.

The chairman is the head of the Upazila Parishad and elected through direct election for five years. Each Upazila Parishad has a vice-chairman and members. It is mandatory to have at least one woman vice-chairman and women members in the committee. The Upazila Parishad is important to Bangladesh’s administrative structure as it provides a bridge between the central government and local governance, especially to carry out various government programmes.

In many respects, the upazila Parishad plays a crucial role in the performance of the central government as it is an important link in the delivery of various government benefits to the people. The major function of the Upazila Parishad is to supervise the public works, maintenance of public order, preparation and implementation of plans relating to public services and economic development in the respective upazilas.

Gauging the voter-mood

Through this year, elections is being held for all 487 upalizas in several phases. Till date four phases have already been held. The first phase took place on 19 February, the second on 27 February, the third phase on 15 March and the fourth on 23 March. After these four rounds, the ruling AL is leading the race by winning 171 posts of chairman. The BNP-backed candidates have won 140 posts, and the BNP’s ally Jamaat-e-Islami won at 33.

In the initial phases, though the BNP took a lead, fortunes changed in favour of the ruling Awami League after the third phase where it took over the lead from BNP. Although there have been some stray incidents of violence during this election and the Opposition BNP has accused ruling party of foul-play, the Election commission has described the polls as more or less peaceful.

This election thus far has witnessed a large voter-turnout. This is a positive trend for the country’s democracy, especially where holding of elections is seen as a major indicator for democracy by the people. This has become more important as a large number of voters didn’t get a chance to vote during the January national election since many of the candidates were elected unopposed due to the boycotting of the election by the BNP and its allies. Bangladesh is a country which is known for large-scale participation of people in the election. This trend could well be seen as a people’s assertion of support for democracy.

Free and fair

Analysing the poll results after fourth round, it is evident that both the Awami League and the BNP enjoy more or less similar support among the people, which demystifies the opposition BNP’s claim that the ruling party does not enjoy any popular support. This has also given a ground for the Awami League to hold on to power and the party seems in a mood to complete the full term in office.

The BNP’s participation in the upazila election has also meant the party’s approval of the new Awami League Government. These elections also proved that the Awami League Government can conduct free and fair elections, a scepticism often expressed by the BNP, based on which it declined to participate in the election. For, the BNP participation in the upazila election helped it to showcase its image as a party which supports democracy.

The upazila election has been win-win for the two political parties. Considering the political trend, it can be assumed that both the parties will work on improving their image among the people by shunning the confrontational nature of politics and will bring back political stability in the country.

(The writer is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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