The Awami League has lost the Gazipur mayor election to a novice - the mother of its expelled leader Zahangir Alam - setting off a debate over how a 61-year-old woman, who joined politics weeks ago to save her son’s career, could defeat ruling party heavyweight Azmat Ullah Khan.
Former mayor Zahangir’s fanbase certainly played a role in the victory of his mother Jayeda Khaton. But analysts say other issues at play need to be looked at: the division between the Awami League’s supporters, the BNP’s absence, the electorate's sympathy for a widowed mother, Azmat’s weaknesses and Zahangir’s campaign strategy.
They also think the Gazipur vote has sent a strong message to the Awami League ahead of the next general elections, which is barely eight months away.
“It was an Awami League versus Awami League contest. The Awami League’s vote bank was split. Zahangir worked in such a way from behind his mother that I’ll say Zahangir is the winner,” said election analyst Abdul Alim.
“It was important that Zahangir was able to draw support from the voters. It’ll give the Awami League a message – the nomination process should be based on ground realities.”
The Gazipur city ballot was also the first among the five high-profile city elections before the parliamentary polls, slated to be held early next year, and the management of the electioneering in these polls by the Kazi Habibul Awal-led Election Commission will determine whether they are capable of running a more extensive show like the national election.
More than half of the approximately 1.17 million voters did not turn up to cast their ballots in the Gazipur city polls, a closely watched race, especially after the US State Department’s latest warning of issuing visa restrictions to people attempting to undermine elections in Bangladesh.
The ruling party sees the mayoral election to the city corporation as an achievement in staging free and fair polls.
“People are happy because the polls have been free and fair. The Awami League did not try to win by using force,” said the party’s General Secretary Obaidul Quader.
ZAHANGIR’S BIG GAMBLE PAYS OFF
Zahangir was once a vice-president of Bangladesh Chhatra League, the Awami League’s student wing.
He burst into the spotlight in 2013 when he announced that he was running against Azmat, the Awami League’s chosen candidate, as an independent.
After much drama and a couple of meltdowns, Zahangir announced his plan not to compete against Azmat.
But it was already too late, as the withdrawal cutoff date had passed.
Azmat suffered a heavy defeat against a BNP candidate despite Gazipur having long been considered an Awami League stronghold. Zahangir’s silence during his campaign was thought to be one of the key reasons behind Azmat’s loss.
In 2018, Zahangir won the mayoral post with the party’s nomination after defeating his rival from the BNP camp. His huge margin of victory strengthened his political turf.
After he was expelled by the Awami League in 2021, he denied the allegations of making derogatory comments about Bangabandhu. The party reinstated him as a member in January under its amnesty scheme ahead of the general election.
When the Awami League expelled him again after he filed nominations for the polls, defying its nomination of Azmat, who had worked as the mayor of the erstwhile Tongi municipality for 18 years, Zahangir made it his mission to send a signal to the central leadership that the party needs him.
After losing the candidacy due to him being the guarantor of a defaulted loan, Zahangir continued the fight by making his mother a candidate.
“This Gazipur City Corporation election was a do-or-die race for me. My mother told me that she can’t sit idlly by after I faced injustice. She wanted to save me from falsehood and she has done it,” Zahangir said after Jayeda’s victory was announced in the wee hours of Friday.
AL VS OTHERS
Zahangir secured more than 400,000 votes in the 2018 mayoral race with the Awami League’s boat symbol against the BNP candidate, who got nearly 200,000 votes.
This time, Azmat and Jayeda together polled 460,000 votes – 60,000 more than Zahangir’s votes in 2018.
The turnout, 48.79 percent, was the lowest in the last three mayoral elections in the city.
Local politicians think the turnout was low because the BNP did not participate in the election.
Some of them believe many BNP supporters voted for Jayeda, which led to the 60,000 more votes combined for Azmat and Jayeda than Zahangir’s in 2018.
“The votes of the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami were cast for Jayeda this time. Our councilor candidates won many votes, but these were not cast for the boat in the mayoral race,” said Md Saiful Islam, a joint convenor of Gazipur Metropolitan Jubo League.
Abdul Hadi Shamim, a joint general secretary of Gazipur District Awami League, agreed with Saiful. “The anti-government votes were added to Jayeda’s ones. Where are the votes for the BNP, the Jatiya Party and the Islami Andolan? The mechanism was Awami League Vs others,”
Azmat had been involved in the Chhatra League before independence. After fighting the Pakistanis as a freedom fighter in 1971, Azmat got involved in a workers’ movement.
The president of Gazipur Metropolitan Awami League, Azmat drew support from the national leadership as a member of the party’s central committee.
But many grassroots leaders alleged Azmat did not spend much time with them.
Azmat, based in Tongi, did not campaign strongly in other areas, the local leaders said.
Professor Amzad Hossain, president of Sushashoner Jonno Nagorik’s Gazipur chapter, said Azmat should have paid more attention to his campaign. “He had fewer workers than he needed. And I think the Awami League leaders focused more on the councillor candidates than on him.”
Voters said local Awami League leaders, who received help from Zahangir during his tenure as mayor, returned the favour by supporting his mother.
Awami League Office Secretary Biplab Barua acknowledged division in the local units.
“Many of the people, who wore the Awami League’s badge, worked for Zahangir’s mother,” he said.
SYMPATHY FOR A MOTHER
Zahangir picked his mother as a possible proxy, sensing that his candidacy might be declared invalid.
As Jayeda said she joined the race to fight the “injustice” Zahangir had faced, Zahangir based their campaign on his love for his mother.
In the words of SUJAN’s Amzad, the voters were driven by emotion.
“Zahangir and his mother got people’s sympathy.”
[Writing in English by Osham-ul-Sufian Talukder]