Despatch from Dhaka | International

Amidst a bitter battle for Dhaka’s top post, a curious sideshow

A campaign poster for Atiqul Islam, the ruling Awami League’s mayoral candidate for Dhaka North.

A campaign poster for Atiqul Islam, the ruling Awami League’s mayoral candidate for Dhaka North.  

The date originally fixed for mayoral elections, also a festival day, led to protests and legal petitions and caused its postponement

A tide of emotions marked the beginning of the year in Dhaka as political rivals geared up for the mayoral election. And, amidst the heat of campaigning, a fight over the voting date turned into a curious sideshow, leading ultimately to postponement of the poll.

The bone of contention here was the fact that the original voting day, January 30, was coinciding with Saraswati Puja, a Hindu festival dedicated to the goddess of knowledge. This issue first found its way into the nation’s judiciary when a lawyer, Ashok Kumar Ghosh, filed a writ petition in the High Court seeking a deferral. Dismissal of the petition galvanised a group of students to occupy Shahbagh, a popular rallying point that had served as a staging ground for intense demonstrations in 2013, with calls for the election to be rescheduled.

As these demonstrations progressed, on January 15, a man, later identified as Alif Rusdi Hasan, wanted to drive through the area with his family. When the protesters refused to disperse to give way, Mr. Hasan allegedly pointed his licensed pistol on one of the demonstrators, leading to a street fight after which he was detained for a brief period. The episode succeeded in bringing more attention to the protests over the polling date.

Appealing the verdict

For his part, Mr. Ghosh sought a remedy from the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. In the meantime, Atiqul Islam, the mayoral candidate fielded by the ruling Awami League for Dhaka North, backed the protesters and sought a deferral of the election. “No-one should be barred from performing their religious duties. I urge the Election Commission to defer the voting day, if possible,” Mr. Islam said as he rallied for votes. The local mayoral election of Dhaka, one of the world’s most densely populated cities, became doubly interesting after the government split the city into two in 2011, creating two corporations.

The city of Dhaka, which accounts for about one-fifth of the country’s GDP and half of its formal employment, has an important role to play if the country is to achieve the government’s vision of upper-middle income country. But the capital is also considered notoriously unlivable, with residents facing many difficulties in their everyday lives due to inadequate infrastructure, lack of public amenities and severe traffic congestion.

The metropolitan area has been the city’s engine of job creation, drawing unemployed youth from rural areas. However, its role as an economic hub has also led to rapid population growth and brought new challenges to the two Mayors and their teams.

The Mayors were especially criticised for their failure to control mosquitoes after a colossal outbreak of dengue in 2019. The disease has now morphed into a full-year worry for urban residents. In the aftermath of the outbreak, Dhaka South Mayor Sayeed Khokon fell from grace and failed to secure an Awami League ticket to this year’s race.

Corruption charges

Amid the election fever sweeping the city, Ishraque Hossain, the mayoral candidate for Dhaka South who is backed by the Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, faces his own set of woes as he has been charged by the Anti-Corruption Commission. A Dhaka court will open proceedings against him on February 9 for witnesses to testify in a case that accuses him of hiding his wealth.

Mr. Hossain, son of Sadeque Hossain, the last Mayor of the undivided Dhaka City Corporation, has pleaded not guilty. “There’s no bar to his election campaign. He is allowed to continue his campaign as he did before. And he is allowed to participate in the election,” Md. Alamgir, senior secretary at the Election Commission, said at a media briefing. However, the court decision on January 15 had come as a huge distraction for Mr. Hossain’s campaign, whose legal battle mirrors the difficulties faced in the past by his father on similar corruption charges. A Bangladesh court had sentenced Sadeque Hossain, popularly known as Khoka, to 10 years in jail in 2014. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader died in New York in November last year after a long battle with cancer.

As these themes took shape, both the protesters and the candidates kept an eye on the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court and the Election Commission for a possible change in the voting date.

With candidates ratcheting up door-to-door campaigns, the Election Commission rushed into a meeting on Saturday amid a mix of excitement and anxiety and rescheduled the polls to February 1.

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 9:26:46 PM |

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