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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

LOCAL GOVERNMENT POLLS: PARTISAN VS NON-PARTISAN

On October 12, the cabinet approved the drafts of five laws on local governments which will allow registered political parties to nominate candidates in the local body elections. It will also permit the candidates to use party symbols and even the portrait of their party leader(s) while campaigning. Moreover, similar to parliament elections, party leaders and ministers might be allowed to take part in the campaign. 
There are five types of practice for electing or selecting representatives for the local government: (i) no elections are held, local representatives are appointed by the party in power; (ii) elections are held on a partisan basis and candidates compete in the elections as a party candidate; (iii) elections are held on typical non-partisan schemes but parties are allowed to endorse, support and oppose candidates; (iv) elections are totally non-partisan and parties are not allowed to endorse, support and oppose candidates; and (v) elections are held for a few positions while there are reserve seats to be nominated by the government. 
In Malaysia, no local government elections are conducted. During the British rule, local structures were governed by commission members who were appointed by the Governor or High Commissioner of British. However, in 1857 and 1858, municipal elections were held to replace the appointment process and thus, municipal commissioner positions were filled by the elected people. But in 1965, the federal government suspended local government elections due to the emergence of several issues such as the Malaysia-Indonesia confrontation. Therefore, there have been no local elections in Malaysia since 1965. Till today, local councilors are appointed by the party in power. 
In the UK, all local government elections are partisan. Political parties nominate candidates, selected candidates submit nominations, party leaders participate in the campaigns, parties are accountable for a violation of the code of conduct and submission of election expenditure return, etc. On May 22, 2014, elections in 162 local councils were held in the UK, where the Labor Party received 31 percent of the popular votes, while the Conservative Party received 29 percent of the popular votes.
Most local elections in the USA are non-partisan. Until 1986, local elections in California were typically non-partisan with provisions for political parties to endorse, support or oppose the candidates. In a survey conducted in 1986, voters said that the parties' participation in the elections in this manner defeated several goals of non-partisan electoral system. Hence, the legal framework of California was amended with the provision that all local elections shall be “absolutely” non-partisan and no party or central party committee shall endorse, support or oppose a candidate for non-partisan office. 
In Bangladesh, till today, all local body elections have typically been non-partisan. The main characteristics of such elections are: (i) candidates cannot submit nomination along with an authorisation from his/her party (ii) Office bearers such as ministers, state ministers, speakers, etc. are not allowed to conduct the campaign (iii) candidates cannot use the party symbol or the portrait of party leaders while campaigning. However, parties are seen endorsing and supporting candidates as well as opposing other candidates. Moreover, party chiefs are also seen announcing the name of party-backed candidates openly, as they are introduced to the public by senior party leaders. Senior party leaders often work as campaign coordinators for party-backed candidates. Furthermore, during the election campaign, party slogans and even the name of the party are often used.
The debate on partisan vs. nonpartisan elections is not new. Supporters of partisan elections argue that the absence of party labels confuse voters; in the absence of a party ballot, voters will turn to whatever cue is available, which often turns out to be the ethnicity of a candidate's name. They also argue that non-partisanship tends to produce elected officials who are more representative of the upper socio-economic strata of society than the general populace, thereby aggravating the class bias in voting turnouts, because in a true non-partisan system, local party workers are not allowed to motivate voters from lower class households to visit the polls on Election Day.
Proponents of non-partisan elections suggest that all the issues in local elections are local issues and thus, participation of political parties here is irrelevant. Ideologies connected with political parties cannot be allowed to wrap voters' judgment. They also argue that partisan local polls create the scope of “unhealthy influence of political parties”. They believe that party labels lead to unnecessary party alignments and conflicts, and solutions to local problems should not be subjected to party-line political squabbles. 
Globally, partisan and non-partisan elections do not necessarily create barriers in conducting credible elections. In the UK, there is no question about the credibility of partisan local elections. In Norway, the local elections are conducted by the local government. However, studies show that conducting credible elections in a partisan manner is always a challenge in developing democracies around the world. 
Firstly, election results are frequently manipulated by the party in power. Local elections are always more politically charged. When candidates lose in their own village, there is more of a direct face-to-face rejection by their neighbours, especially if their party is in power. Many studies in developing democracies show that partisan local elections always create a scope for electoral manipulation for the party in power. 
Secondly, candidates from opposition parties are often not allowed to compete in local elections in developing countries, especially when there is a chance for the party in power to lose the elections. In 1999, opposition parties were not allowed in nearly three-quarters of the seats after the local elections in Azerbaijan, on the grounds that they were not qualified to compete in the elections. 
Thirdly, it always becomes difficult for the election commission to ensure a level playing field for all candidates in partisan local elections. Candidates and leaders from the party in power always try to interpose a “code of conduct”, which destroys the level playing field, thereby changing the election outcome.  

If we want to ensure democracy in Bangladesh, it is of utmost importance that the government and the EC consider these issues while determining the fate of local government polls. 

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