Former secretary Abu Alam Md Shahid Khan had been in various key positions of the government, including the post of secretary, local government ministry. With the elections to five city corporations in the offing, he spoke in an interview with Prothom Alo’s Sohrab Hassan on the nature of the local government ministry, the election system and more.
Our constitution speaks of autonomous local government, but is that reflected in reality?
The constitution does speak of autonomous local government and several laws and rules have been put in place to that end. All political parties also speak strongly in favour of an autonomous local government. In their election manifestoes, particularly, they say a lot of good things about local government. However, once elected or when they go to power, they forget about all these pledges.
It is the function of those who become members of parliament to establish good governance and draw up plans and policies for national development. But instead of doing that, they carry out unwarranted interference in all local development work. They create a sphere of influence to ensure victory in the next election.
So are members of parliament a big obstacle to strengthening local government?
Political parties are the first obstacle. There is not too much difference between the ruling party and the opposition in this regard. When the upazila act was first put in place, the local members of parliament were made advisors of the upazila parishad. Advisors don’t just give advice, they determine everything. When this law was passed, no members of either the ruling party or the opposition opposed it. When it comes to empowering the members of parliament, they are all one. No one opposed the facility for availing duty-free cars either. The market value of the car they buy for Tk 10 million (Tk 1 crore), is Tk 30 million (Tk 3 crore). They sell the vehicle for Tk 20 million (Tk 2 crore) after two years.
Does that mean all parties are in cahoots about keeping the local government powerless? No one wants local government to become strong.
Basically, it is the role of the political parties that is key here. There has been some work, a commission has been formed. It is no longer like the subservient local government of Ayub Khan. Some good people have come up through the election. They too have had to file cases and so on. Neither the civil servants at the centre nor the political parties want the local government to be empowered. They want everything to be in their control. They will draw up the budget, make the allocations and keep everything Dhaka-centric.
Is the uni-centric state system mentioned in our constitution an obstruction to the empowerment of local government?
No, the obstruction is the mindset. India has Lok Sabha members, Rajya Sabha members and members of the Vidhan Sabha members. They can’t poke their noses into affairs of the local government. The local government works independently there. That is the difference.
Another major difference is the system of local government election. We carry out the city, upazila and union parishad election in the presidential system. The mayors and chairmen are elected directly by people’s votes. This is akin to Ayub Khan’s Basic Democracy model. Yet at the centre we are running the government in the parliamentary system. That is why perhaps the MPs feel that the mayor or the upazila chairman there may become powerful and so they take on an even more aggressive role. If we could run the election in the parliamentary method, it would not be a problem. For example, councilors would be elected from every ward and then the mayor would be elected from among them. The chairman in the union parishad would be elected in the similar manner. There would be no difference between the councilor candidates and mayoral candidates in the parliamentary system. The manner in which the upazila parishad election is held at present, it is not a parishad (council). Just three are elected, the others come by virtue of their office. If everyone had to first be elected at the grassroots, we would get more competent candidates.
There is controversy over using the political party symbols in the local government elections. Previously it had been a non-partisan election.
The party symbol issue had been a part of the local government reform proposal. This proposal had been submitted when I was the secretary for the local government ministry. The government accepted it on principle. But then in reality it was seen that party symbols were used for the mayor and chairman posts. That created the controversy. The objective of having the party symbol in the system I wanted for the election was so that no one could influence any representative in the mayor or chairman election, using coercion, pressure or enticement.
When the election was not held with party symbols, BNP-backed mayors would win during the rule of Awami League and Awami League-backed supporters would win during the BNP rule. There was a balance of power. That is almost non-existent now.
There was a balance of power in the past, but the system was not correct. If the system had been correct, the mayor would be from whichever party had the majority of councilors in a city. Such elections are held in neighbouring India, the UK and many countries. It is meaningless to use symbols without the parliamentary system.
In 2013, Awami League lost in five cities. You were the local government secretary at the time. What was the role of the administration in that election?
BNP candidates won with popular votes in the five cities. In the Delhi Vidhan Sabha election, the BJP candidate Kiran Bedi lost to the Aam-Aadmi Party candidate. Kiran Bedi had won much renown for her reforms in the Tihar jail. When journalists asked her the cause for defeat, she replied, “The election was political. I did not lose, BJP lost.”
In 2013, the ruling party candidates were qualified and popular. In particular, the mayor of Rajshahi, Barishal and Khulna had accomplished a lot. They had changed the face of the cities. Many did not believe they could have lost. Personally, neither did I. There were, of course, doubts about the Sylhet mayor. In Gazipur, Azmat Ullah was a very talented candidate. But the fact remains that Awami League failed miserably in all five cities. This was a warning to Awami League.
There was another factor at work here. Force had been used to drive Hefazat away from Shapla Chattar. The Islamic parties exerted all their power in the elections. They campaigned from door to door.
Did those results exacerbate the political crisis later on?
As a party, Awami League had become inactive. The party and the government became one. After that, Awami League took up a strategy to tackle BNP. Perhaps their strategic decision was to hold the election without BNP. I can tell you with all certainty that the administration did not interfere in that election. I tried to ensure that the election was free and fair. The Gazipur City Corporation election was held later. Awami League went all out to win that election. They had to keep the head office of their election management committee this side of Tongi Bridge. They were not allowed to cross the bridge. Awami League then decided their strategy for the 2014 election. I feel their strategy was to keep BNP away from the election and they managed to successfully pitch BNP into a trap.
BNP refused to take part in the election under the Awami League government and tried to resist the election. Their movement was not a success. The administration at the time took a stand in favour of ensuring constitutional continuity. In no way did they want another 1/11 to crop up. They wanted to uphold the constitution. The prime minister made a telephone call to the leader of the opposition and proposed to hand over four ministries. BNP rejected the proposal. They took it for granted that the government would fall. Had BNP not walked into that trap and contested in the election, there would have been balance in the results.
After that, in 2018 five city elections were held. How would you evaluate that?
The two cannot be compared. Though BNP took part in that election, there was intervention. In 2013, the administration and the election commission wanted a fair election. We did not see that reflected in 2018. In this case, the field level officials worked in accordance to the directives of the political leadership and the senior officials of the administration. Officials in the field cannot ignore political, bureaucratic and law enforcement agency pressure. Local elections have link with the national elections. The local government elections in 2013 were good because the 2008 national election had been good. It was because the 2014 national election had not been good that the next city elections were not good either. If the national elections are not proper, the local elections cannot be proper either. In the national elections if the members of parliament win by rigging, they cannot call for fair elections at a local level.
In this backdrop, how are you viewing the 2023 elections to the five cities?
This is a different context. BNP is not taking part in this election. Even if some of BNP leaders do contest, they are not contesting under the party’s ‘paddy sheaf’ symbol. Meanwhile, Awami League contestants will compete under the party’s ‘boat’ symbol. This election is reminiscent of the 2013 election. At that time, the national elections were held with a gap of just a few months.
This time too, the national election will be held at the start of 2024. The national election is facing a challenge. The government is facing pressure from the international community. It is a big challenge for Awami League and the election commission to hold the city elections in a fair manner. The opposition is not even recognising the election commission or holding talks with them. Under such circumstances it will not be possible to hold an election as was held in 2018.
BNP says it will not participate in this election. If so, how will there be a free and fair election?
Even if they don’t join the election, there will be candidates of various parties. The commission and the administration will make an effort to ensure free and good elections.
If BNP does not join the election, will we see an Ukil Abdus Sattar model in the city elections?
It is not time as yet to comment on this. Ukil Abdus Sattar was a model. Then again, if Ariful Haque Chowdhury contests in Sylhet, that will be a different matter. Even in adverse conditions of the 2018 election, he won on his own merit. In Rajshahi and Khulna, the Awami League candidates are strong. Even so, I would say that if BNP participated in the election, there could be a repetition of 2013. If the anti-government forces support the Islami Andolan candidate in Barishal, the results just might be different. Khokan Serniabat is a new candidate. Awami League’s candidate in Sylhet is weak too.
BNP did not merely say it would boycott the election, but said it would take up a strong movement. So what will the situation be then?
If they take up a strong movement during the election, there may be clashes. But I feel the government’s law enforcement agency has enough capacity to carry out the election.
BNP did not talk about resisting the election, but about creating a situation where people would not be willing to go to the polling centres. What situation would arise then?
You must remember that the people are election-oriented. They will go to the polling centres if the conditions are congenial. Other than the mayoral election, there are the councilor elections too. So the people will be enthusiastic about this. We do not have any precedence of resisting the local government election. If BNP and its allies do manage to keep 75 per cent of the voters away from the polling centres, then we must realise that their mass movement has clout.
Whether local elections or national, the administration would play a sort of neutral role. How has that changed so radically?
The reason for that too is because the elections at a national level were not good. If there is a strong opposition in the country, the government cannot carry out politicisation so easily. They are held accountable in parliament. In 2014 the top officials of the administration had agreed to uphold the constitution. In fact, it was even said that since the election hadn’t been inclusive, another one would be held. Even the foreign quarters were told that another election would be held. Through the 2018 election, the administration was politicized. But I also feel that those presently in the administration whom you all term as party loyalists, will also be able to hold a free and fair election if the government so wants. There would be no need to make changes in the administration. All that is required is political will. If the government wants, a free and fair election is possible with this administration too.
Do you think the election commission is being able to perform its duties independently?
To say that the election commission is independent and sovereign would be empty words. Our constitution has given the election commission ample authority and independence. There are many laws in place for the election commission to carry out its duties independently. Any foreign national seeing these laws would also say that the election commission is independent. But they will only be able to exercise their independence when the government does not intervene.
It takes 1.2 million to 1.4 million people to run a national election. Their security and their functioning all depends on the government. The present election commission talks about taking a test, but I would say they failed the test in Gaibandha. The commission failed to take any action against those for whom the election was foiled.