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
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.