Ray of Hope

The Zila Par­ishad (District Coun­cil) elec­tions in Bangladesh mark a sig­nif­i­cant mo­ment in lo­cal gov­er­nance. The process has cre­ated great in­ter­est and en­thu­si­asm among the peo­ple and if the elec­tions suc­ceed in meet­ing their ob­jec­tive, ad­min­is­tra­tion of t

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Muham­mad Ali Eh­san

Any­where in the world where democ­racy is the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem that runs the gov­ern­ment, the voice of the peo­ple must be heard. Con­sti­tu­tions are framed not as doc­u­ments to be proud of and be quoted but also as a great re­minder of why the doc­u­ment was con­sti­tuted in the first place – to share and give power to the peo­ple and there is no bet­ter way of do­ing that than to hold lo­cal bod­ies elec­tions and em­power the peo­ple right at the grass­roots level. Bangladesh just did that and held the district coun­cil elec­tions (Zila Par­ishad) and, like in any demo­cratic gov­ern­ment in the world, en­sured the par­tic­i­pa­tion of the peo­ple in the gov­ern­ment. But were the elec­tions as pop­u­lar as they were meant to be with the peo­ple? Could they be if the peo­ple were not al­lowed to vote and par­tic­i­pate in the elec­tions? The votes were only cast by the elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the lo­cal bod­ies, in­clud­ing the union parishads, up­azila parishads, mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties as well as city cor­po­ra­tions. There are 64 zila parishads

in Bangladesh. Polls in Ban­dar­ban, Rang­mati and Kha­grach­hari were held un­der sep­a­rate law and the elec­tions were also post­poned in two other dis­tricts due to the High Court or­ders. Out of the re­main­ing 59 zila parishads, the Awami League (AL) man­aged to get its chair­men elected in 21 zila parishads un­con­tested. The over­all pic­ture of the elected Chair­men speaks of the gov­ern­ment’s deep in­volve­ment in the elec­tions – 46 elected chair­men were backed by the AL while 11 win­ners were AL rebels. Only one was backed by the Jatiya party and an­other was an in­de­pen­dent can­di­date. In a bla­tant vi­o­la­tion of elec­tion rules, money was spent to win over the votes and the pres­ence of the rul­ing party’s mem­bers and se­nior rep­re­sen­ta­tives was too hard to miss.

The big ques­tion that Bangladesh faces to­day is not that the gov­ern­ment in­flu­enced the district coun­cil’s elec­tions or stage-man­aged them. The real ques­tion is the coun­try mov­ing away from the demo­cratic guided di­rect fran­chise. In Bangladesh, all lo­cal body rep­re­sen­ta­tives are elected di­rectly but not the zila par­ishad mem­bers. Why? The Bangladesh me­dia has been re­fer­ring to this elec­tion mech­a­nism as an ‘elec­toral col­leges of some sort.’ The me­dia has en­gaged in an in­tense crit­i­cism of the gov­ern­ment, ask­ing ques­tions as to why the elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the var­i­ous lo­cal gov­ern­ment bod­ies be al­lowed to de­cide on who will be elected to the zila par­ishad of­fices? Elec­tions them­selves were de­void of any op­po­si­tion as BNP and Jatiya party de­cided not to par­tic­i­pate in them. Should such elec­tions be re­ally called elec­tions wherein the op­po­si­tion par­ties don’t par­tic­i­pate and the peo­ple can’t vote? The op­po­si­tion par­ties were of one view that ‘these elec­tions won’t be fair and free un­der the cur­rent elec­tion com­mis­sion.’ They were also of the opin­ion that the con­duct of the elec­tions was con­trary to the ba­sic pro­vi­sions of the con­sti­tu­tion of Bangladesh. The of­fi­cial po­si­tion of BNP was, "It's clearly men­tioned in the Con­sti­tu­tion that all the elec­tions, in­clud­ing par­lia­men­tary and lo­cal body ones, will be held through di­rect votes. But an elec­toral col­lege has been cre­ated here for the Zila Par­ishad polls as only the elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives of lo­cal gov­ern­ment bod­ies will be able to vote, de­priv­ing peo­ple of their rights of cast­ing di­rect vote."

To make di­rect elec­tions pos­si­ble and to en­sure that the elec­tions had the con­sti­tu­tional back­ing, the Bangladeshi Par­lia­ment on Oc­to­ber 6, 2016 passed the Zila Par­ishad Act, 2000 “clar­i­fy­ing the for­ma­tion of elec­toral col­lege with pub­lic rep­re­sen­ta­tives from all tiers of Zila Par­ishad elec­tions. But what we have now is an elected body and what one ex­pects from the rul­ing gov­ern­ment is not to in­ter­fere in the func­tions of this elected body. It’s the AL lead­ers who are the chair­men in al­most all the district coun­cils. The district coun­cil be­ing the top tier of the lo­cal gov­ern­ment sys­tem is ex­pected to lead the over­all im­prove­ment of gov­er­nance. It would also im­ple­ment the de­vel­op­ment agen­das of the gov­ern­ment.

The im­por­tant roles that the dis­tricts per­form had their num­bers in­creased over a pe­riod of time. “In 1769, the se­lect com­mit­tee on the then East In­dia Com­pany split the en­tire Ben­gal into 19 dis­tricts, and ap­pointed an English su­per­vi­sor for each district to su­per­vise col­lec­tion of rev­enue. Of them, eight were in what is now Bangladesh. The num­ber of dis­tricts in Bangladeshi ter­ri­tory in­creased to 16 in 1916 and then to 17 in 1947 and 19 in 1969.” 64 dis­tricts were formed in Bangladesh in 1984. The suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments in Bangladesh, how­ever, did not al­low these dis­tricts to be ruled as per the con­sti­tu­tional pro­vi­sion, cour­tesy the lack of po­lit­i­cal will of these suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments ( Deputy Com­mis­sion­ers ran the District Coun­cils). “Gen­eral Zi­aur Rahman pro­mul­gated a lo­cal gov­ern­ment or­di­nance in 1976 which pro­vided for a district coun­cil in each district, to com­prise elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives. But no elec­tions were held. The DC con­tin­ued to act as an ex­of­fi­cio chair­man of the par­ishad.”

If the cur­rent zila parishads are able to cre­ate minia­ture gov­ern­ments in each district (Up­azila Parishads are fac­ing much ad­min­is­tra­tive in­ter­fer­ence and hur­dles since they were con­sti­tuted in 2009) they can be­come the plat­forms of the district de­vel­op­men­tal ac­tiv­i­ties. But with­out the given ju­ris­dic­tion to run the district gov­ern­ments, these coun­cils will only show­case cos­metic pres­ence de­void of any pub­lic util­ity and ben­e­fit. Com­ing un­der a tight spot will be the Deputy Com­mis­sion­ers who would not want their ad­min­is­tra­tive au­thor­ity to be cur­tailed by the district coun­cils.

Bangladeshi me­dia though is high­light­ing an im­por­tant as­pect about these elec­tions and that is that the peo­ple elected (most of them) are from good ed­u­ca­tional back­grounds – more ed­u­cated and peo­ple with clean back­grounds au­gur well for Bangladeshi democ­racy at the district level which hope­fully should bring in good qual­i­ta­tive changes in the way peo­ple will be gov­erned (of the newly elected

The gov­ern­ment of Bangladesh would do well to de­ter­mine why the lo­cal gov­ern­ment sys­tem that was more pow­er­ful and ef­fec­tive dur­ing the British rule is not so now.

chair­men, 35 are busi­ness­men and 9 are lawyers. The oth­ers are physi­cians, teach­ers and pri­vate em­ploy­ees). Bangladeshi me­dia is also crit­i­ciz­ing the large num­ber of busi­ness­men elected. The Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor of Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional Bangladesh, Dr Iftekharuz­za­man also made a com­ment say­ing that, “busi­ness­men are more likely to use pub­lic of­fices for prof­it­mak­ing ven­tures and the ad­vance­ment of their own busi­ness in­ter­ests most prob­a­bly by abuse of power.”

The gov­ern­ment of Bangladesh would do well to de­ter­mine why the lo­cal gov­ern­ment sys­tem that was more pow­er­ful and ef­fec­tive dur­ing the British rule is not so now. The sys­tem was de­void of any in­ter­fer­ence by the gov­ern­ment and not as cen­tral­ized as it is now – hav­ing be­come sig­nif­i­cantly weaker, the sys­tem needs em­pow­er­ment and needs to be set free from the clutches of cen­tral au­thor­ity. This Bangladesh must en­sure, but given the non-par­tic­i­pa­tion of the op­po­si­tion par­ties in the elec­tion and the uni­lat­eral and au­thor­i­ta­tive AL gov­ern­ment that con­tin­ues to rule Bangladesh, any such mean­ing­ful and peo­ple-friendly act seems far from achiev­able. To make the Zila Par­ishad (District Coun­cils) ef­fec­tive the gov­ern­ment of Bangladesh needs to en­hance their ca­pac­i­ties, de­crease their de­pen­dence on the gov­ern­ments grants, en­sure hon­ourable and cor­rup­tion-free mem­bers are elected, of­fices are not uti­lized as party of­fices to do pol­i­tics and, above all, en­sure that they be­come the foun­tain­heads of the de­vel­op­ment in their re­spec­tive dis­tricts from where should usher in not pol­i­tics but de­vel­op­ment work that ben­e­fits the peo­ple of Bangladesh.

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