On April 28, 2015 Bangladesh held municipal elections for mayors and ward councillors in Dhaka North, Dhaka South, and Chittagong. The city corporation elections, as they are called, were important for many reasons. They were the first municipal elections held in Dhaka City since 2002, and the most significant elections since the national election held in January 2014. Unfortunately, the elections failed to live up to the expectations of the opposition.

The BNP announced their boycott of the elections around 12pm on the polling day. They defended their position by saying that their polling agents were intimidated and evicted and ballot stuffing had begun early on in the day. The Awami League candidates thus ran out winners in all three city corporations. Nearly five years on, on December 23, the Election Commission announced that the next elections to Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) and Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) will be held on January 30, 2020. The election for mayor of Port City Chittagong may be held later in the year, possibly in March.

That the elections to the capital's two city corporations would be held on time certainly came as good news. The main opposition BNP declared that it would take part in the elections, despite its rather bitter experience of recent elections. However, neither of the two AL candidates who won the election in 2015 will be on the ballot this time around. While the winner of the DNCC election in 2015, Annisul Huq, unfortunately passed away before he could complete his term, the man who was serving as the DSCC mayor since 2015, Sayeed Khokon, has been overlooked by his party this time around in favour of Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh, who is giving up his seat in parliament to take part in the mayoral contest.

Along with electing the mayors, DNCC voters will also elect 54 ward councillors and 18 reserved women councillors while DSCC voters will elect 75 ward councillors and 25 reserved women councillors. DNCC Returning Officer Abul Kashem declared the candidacies of six mayoral candidates, including that of Awami League's Atiqul Islam and BNP's Tabith Awal - who lost to Annisul Huq last time around - valid after scrutinising their nomination papers.

Meanwhile, DSCC Returning Officer Abdul Baten declared the candidacies of seven candidates - including that of AL's Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh and BNP's Ishraque Hossain - valid following scrutiny at Bir Muktizodda Sadek Hossain Khoka Community Centre in the city's Gopibagh area. A total of 14 mayoral candidates filed nominations to contest the two city elections within the deadline. Besides, over 1,000 aspirants filed nominations to contest the election for general councillor posts and reserve seats.

The seven DSCC mayoral valid candidates are Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh (AL), Ishraque Hossain (BNP), Mohammad Saifuddin (Jatiya Party), Maulana Abdur Rahman (Islami Andolan), Bahrane Sultan Bahar (NPP), Akteruzzaman alias Ayatullah (Bangladesh Congress) and Abdus Samad Sujan (Gano Front).

The six DNCC mayoral valid candidates are incumbent mayor Atiqul Islam (AL), Tabith Awal (BNP), Ahammad Sazedul Haque (CPB), Shahin Khan (PDP), Fazle Bari Masud (Islami Andolan) and Anisur Rahman Dewan (NPP).

The entire election will be held using electronic voting machines (EVMs) instead of traditional ballot papers and two army personnel will be posted at every polling station to safeguard the voting machines.

Some 5.4 million people (54 lakh) --3,035,621 in DNCC and 2,367,488 in DSCC-- will have the opportunity to exercise their franchise under the two city corporations.

The number of possible polling stations is 1,349 under 54 wards in the DNCC election, and 1,124 under 75 wards in the DSCC polls.

Tale of the tape

According to affidavits submitted with the Election Commission, of the four front runners, the Awami League's candidate in the south Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh is financially far more solvent than the three others.

When it comes to highest amount of bank loans, the name of the ruling party's candidate in the north Atiqul Islam tops the list with Tk 591 crore. He runs 16 organisations, but apparently does not own a car in his own name.

On the other hand, the BNP's candidate in the south Ishraque Hossain's yearly income is the lowest among the four. Meanwhile the BNP's mayor candidate in the north Tabith Awal amassed a good fortune over the past five years, growing his business entities from 17 to 37.

Taposh is a lawyer by profession and the other three are businessmen.

The information was gleaned from their affidavits, containing financial records, information on income and details of their movable and immovable assets, submitted to the Election Commission along with their nomination papers. These four are among 13 mayoral aspirants whose candidatures were cleared by the commission.

Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh completed his education in law from the UK between 1996 and 1997. He is currently a lawyer in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh. Taposh is the youngest son of Awami Jubo League founder late Sheikh Fazlul Hoque Moni. His elder brother Sheikh Fazle Shams Parash is the chairman of Jubo League.

According to Taposh's affidavit, he has an annual income of Tk9.81 crore, which is the highest among the four mayor candidates fielded by Awami League and BNP.

His overall income, however, has slightly decreased over the past one year. According to the affidavit he submitted before the 11th general election in 2018, Taposh's annual income was Tk10.04 crore.

Taposh owns three cars worth Tk1.66 crore and his wife owns one worth Tk1.63 crore. The mayor candidate, however, did not mention the brands or models of the cars in the affidavit. He also possesses Tk26.03 crore in cash. Within last one year, Taposh's movable wealth increased by Tk 4 crore as his last submitted affidavit of 2018 national election stated 104.71 crore movable wealth.

Taposh's opponent, Ishraque Hossain, is the son of late Sadeque Hossain Khoka, who was a senior BNP leader and mayor of the undivided Dhaka City Corporation. He completed his bachelors and masters in mechanical engineering in the UK, and currently serves as the director of Sadeque Finance Management Limited, Buriganga Equity Management Limited, Buriganga Industries Limited and Diganta Prokaushali Limited.

According to his affidavit, Ishraque's annual income is Tk91.58 lakh, which comes from house rent, salaries, businesses and investment in the stock market. His income has jumped by Tk45.85 lakh in just one year. According to the affidavit he submitted before the 2018 national polls, his income at that time was Tk45.73 lakh. Ishraque has movable and immovable assets worth Tk5.76 crore, and apparently possesses Tk33,109 in cash. He owes different banks Tk65.46 lakh in loans. He is also facing a corruption case.

Atiqul Islam, who recently resigned as the DNCC mayor (having replaced Annisul Huq after he passed away) to contest the upcoming election for a second time with Awami League's ticket, owns 16 organisations, but no car, shows his affidavit. A BCom graduate, Atiqul's business organisations owe Tk591 crore to different banks; while he possesses only Tk8.75 lakh in cash.

His current annual income is Tk1.29 crore, a Tk20 lakh increase from last year's income. He has movable assets worth Tk4.87 crore, nearly the same as last year according to the affidavit he submitted before the 2018 DNCC by-polls, and immovable assets worth Tk6.99 crore. His wife has Tk2.99 crore as movable assets and 30 tolas of gold. It was Tk2.76 crore and same amount of gold in 2018.

Tabith Awal, son of businessman and senior BNP leader Abdul Awal Mintoo, has a Lexus car worth Tk7.60 lakh. In the past five years, Tabith's wealth, assets, business entities and bank loans have increased, according to his affidavit.

In 2015, when he contested the DNCC mayoral polls for the first time, he had 17 business organisations, and the number is now 37. Back then his annual income was Tk4.13 crore, and within five years, his annual income has increased by Tk2.52 crore. Tabith possesses Tk 1.49 lakh in cash. He also has movable assets worth Tk45.60 crore and his wife has movable assets worth Tk 4.61 crore.

In the past five years, Tabith's movable assets have increased by Tk14.50 crore. At the same time, the amount of his loans also went up. His business entities owe Tk302.45 crore to various banks. Five years ago, he owed Tk174.43 crore to banks in loans.

Aspirations abound

Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh has said he would work for crafting a 'new city' if he is elected in the January 30 polls.

"If I am elected, I along with the Dhaka North City Corporation Mayor and DSCC's former Mayor Sayeed Khokon will work together aiming to build a new Dhaka," said Barrister Taposh after the announcement of his name as the ruling party candidate for the DSCC polls at party president's Dhanmondi political office.

Since the population of the city has increased over the years, the people are not getting their desired services from the city corporation, he said, adding, "Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina split the Dhaka city corporation into two independent city corporations after taking these problems into account."

Under the situation, Taposh said, "I have decided to take part in the city polls with a target to resolve these problems."

Referring to the tragic fire incident in the old city, he said such incidents are frequently taking place in the city as all modes of transport are plying the same narrow roads in the old city. "I want to make a 30-year master plan ahead of 2041," he added.

Tabith has said the Election Commission should not use Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) in the polls to avoid controversies. He has also voiced doubts about whether the election will be free and fair. "People also have many questions about the election as they aren't sure whether they'll be able to cast votes and their votes will be counted."

Tabith, however, said he will remain there in the election race till the last moment unlike the last DNCC polls. "We were forced to boycott the last election due to the prevailing situation. We'll be there in the race till the final moment this time." He also said they will try to hold a dialogue with the Election Commission to share their observations so that city polls can be held in a credible manner. If elected, he has stated that his priorities will include a pollution free environment; safe and open footpaths and public spaces; freeing Dhaka from water logging; and proper road management for controlling traffic congestion. He has also said he wants to introduce three separate zoning systems -- commercial, residential and mixed -- in the areas under DNCC's jurisdiction.

Talking to reporters, Ishraque too touched upon the chances of a fair vote: "We'll tackle the situation with united efforts, and ensure our victory." He said the Election Commission has got "a second chance" to earn people's confidence in the upcoming city polls after having lost it in the last general election.

Going electric

One of the arrangements for the upcoming mayoral election that has been drawing a lot of controversies, and is sure to continue to do so, is the use of electronic voting machines, or EVMs.

After a meeting with the CEC, the BNP alleged that the EVMs would be used in the Dhaka north and south city corporation polls for "silent vote rigging", while the CEC said they wanted to ensure no irregularities take place in the elections.

"As EVM is an offline system, there is no scope for hacking. There is no scope for silent vote rigging. We had used the EVM in the parliamentary, local government, and city corporation elections. Voters or candidates did not raise such allegations," the CEC said.

Defending the EC's decision to use the voting machine at all polling centres in the DNCC and DSCC polls, the CEC said there were allegations in the past that votes were rigged, and cast ballots were thrown into ponds, even burnt. "For getting rid of such irregularities, we are using the EVM," he said, adding that a voter could not cast more than one vote in the EVM system.

The voting machine will not function before and after the polling time, the CEC said. "We don't have any plan to backtrack on the decision of using the EVM in the elections. We have made all preparations. We are fully ready," he said.

Before the CEC talked to journalists at the commission, BNP Standing Committee member Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury said they urged the commission to refrain from using the EVM in the city polls.

"EVM is a method for stealing votes silently. EVM's programming will be controlled, and election results will be manipulated," he said.

"We don't know anything about the programming, and there is no paper trail system for verification [after casting votes]. The use of EVM is dependent on presiding and assistant presiding officers. It cannot ensure people's voting right," Khasru added.

The Bangladesh Machine Tools Factory (BMTF) imported parts of the EVMs and assembled them in Bangladesh. Prior to the 2018 parliamentary election, the EC sat with 39 political parties over the course of a to seek their suggestions regarding a number of issues, including use of EVM. Twenty-three of those parties expressed their views on EVM, with 12, including BNP, opting against it. The ruling Awami League was one of seven parties that wanted the EVM while three wanted partial use and one suggested using it provided some conditions are met.

The machines were first used in the Chittagong City Corporation election of June 2010. However, the Election Commission stopped using the technology in 2015 due to some errors. The machines were later reintroduced in the Rangpur City Corporation election in 2016.

During 2018's city corporation polls, EVMs were used in three polling centres in Khulna City Corporation with 10,000 voters; two centres in Sylhet City Corporation with 5,413 voters; 11 centres in Barishal City Corporation with 25,000 voters; and two centres in Rajshahi City Corporation with 3,383 voters.

Subsequently, despite the opposition of most political parties, the EVM technology was used for the first time at the national election level, eight years after being introduced in local government elections in the country. EVMs were used in six seats selected through lottery. These were: Dhaka-6, Dhaka-13, Chattogram-9, Rangpur-3, Khulna-2 and Satkhira-2. The six seats comprised over 2.1 million voters. Various irregularities were reported, but these got somewhat overwhelmed in the flood of allegations over even larger, more egregious irregularities that generally plagued the election that year.

Whatever the controversies are, people have great expectations this time.

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