The Khulna City Corporation election arrived with all the typical fanfare of an election in Bangladesh: the air was festive, voters were restless, officials looked nervous. Initially twinned with Gazipur to hold the first big polls of 2018 that could shine a light on just what sort of year we could expect going forward, all the while our principal focus not once veering off the big one slated to be held right at the end: the 11th Jatiya Sangshad or parliamentary elections, that may just push us into 2019. In the end, Gazipur as we know ran into a legal quagmire, from which thankfully it was relieved by the High Court late last week, allowing the election to now go ahead on June 26 according to the new schedule announced by the Election Commission.

The Khulna poll was thus important for a number of reasons besides the result itself. Paramount among these would have been the performance of the Election Commission led by its chief K.M. Nurul Huda. Despite its wholesale achievements on the development front, will public support for the AL's program hold, even after a decade? Just what sort of elections can we expect in the end for the all-important JS?

The KCC did provide some answers to those questions, but they are not likely to flatter too many people. In the end it turned out to be a blowout for the opposition. As Dhaka Courier went to press this week, at least unofficially the Awami League's candidate Talukder Abdul Khaleque has been elected the next mayor of Khulna City Corporation, beating his closest rival BNP-blessed aspirant Nazrul Islam Monju by nearly 68,000 votes.

The voting was held on the day (Tuesday, May 15) from 8am to 4pm at 289 polling centres across the city, wfor an electorate numbering 493,107 in 31 wards, amid allegations of irregularities and vote rigging, although that is really par for the course in Bangladeshi elections.

The results from two polling centres where electronic voting machines (EVMs) were used on an experimental basis arrived almost immediately, foretelling a closer contest than it turned out in the end. Khaleque bagged 777 votes at those centres and Monju 710.

The AL candidate's vote, and his lead, really started swelling as results started streaming in from across the city. By the 100 out of the 289 centres (voting was suspended at three centres due to irregularities, according to Election Commission officials) were reporting, Khaleque had secured a huge lead securing 57,322 votes against Monju's 35,762 votes.

Unofficial disclosures later in the evening showed Khaleque had bagged a total of 176,902 votes from the 286 polling centres while Monju got 108,956 votes. The official announcement was not issued on the night.

Yet if the unofficial results hold, it would represent a huge swing away from the incumbent (remember the last KCC election was won by the BNP amidst the political turmoil of 2013) and towards the ruling party that has many observers somewhat stumped. Even just a week or so ago, when the controversy was raging over the stay that had been declared on the Gazipur poll, the forecasters were out in force convinced that something underhanded was afoot. The way some people saw it, the court's stay was an act of the government, prompted by what they termed quite literally fear of being blown off the ballot by a resurgent BNP.

They even speculated similar designs on the part of the government for the KCC, only the grounds for proceeding did not exist since the KCC was not in anyway tied up in any complex legal matter such as the two Dhaka city corporations and its immediate-neighbouring ones are, with the LGRD Ministry's move to create some new wards in and around the capital. Although at that stage the momentum did seem to favour an opposition wave, the mood discernibly shifted in the last few days preceding the campaign.

"Building a Khulna city free of drugs, waterlogging and terrorism will be my first job," Khaleque, a seasoned AL man who don't forget gave up his parliamentary seat to come back and play a clutch innings for the party at leader Sheikh Hasina's request, told reporters in his immediate reaction.

The ruling party leader also said he would work together with Monju for the betterment of their city. Returning Officer Yunus Ali, who was thrust into the limelight just days ahead of the election by the AL launching an extraordinary attack (see below) on his suitability for the job of RO, disclosed the voter turnout to have been 62.2 percent - which while certainly not very high within the context of Bangladesh, is certainly respectable.

Khaleque cast his ballot at a polling centre set up at Pioneer Girls' High School polling around 8:07am, and Monju at the Rahima Government Primary School centre around the same time.

Meanwhile, seeing signs of victory with a big margin, overzealous supporters of the Awami League-backed candidate brought out a procession in the Station Road area in the metropolis around 7:10pm.

On the other hand, supporters of the BNP candidate alleged that activists of the ruling party stuffed ballot boxes with fake votes after forcing Monju's polling agents out of the polling centres. They also assaulted Monju's activists and supporters, the BNP men further alleged.

"Activists and leaders of Awami League drove out my polling agents from 40 centres," Monju alleged, adding that his agents were obstructed from entering the polling centres in different wards. Refuting the allegations, Khaleque claimed, however, that the election was held in a peaceful and fair manner.

"BNP has been raising such false allegation from the beginning to spoil the electoral atmosphere. These are unfounded allegations. He [Monju] has been saying this every day. The Election Commission would have taken steps had it found them true."

On this matter though, of the EC taking appropriate, timely steps to address opposition concerns, one cannot be so sure.

Capturing hearts and votes

While one is ready to concede there was no widespread 'ballot-box stuffing' or simple rigging in the traditional sense of the term at the KCC polls, election observers in Bangladesh today must be cognisant of a less direct, more pervasive method for manipulating election results. Sometimes referred to as 'polling booth capture', it has some similarities to what is called 'booth capture' in the politics of South Asia, particularly India, where it is long documented. But there is a crucial difference: whereas polling booth capture has been always understood as part of the means to an end (once captured, the party activists would engage in mass festivals stuffing ballot-boxes after sealing the ballots as they wished), the more sophisticated art of polling centre capture being developed in Bangladesh actually precludes such primitive behaviour.

Some overzealous activists will still do it, unable to resist the temptation of a polling centre under their control, but capturing the booth is only the final piece of a puzzle that starts first of all with the rhetoric geared towards turning elections into an 'on-field battle', with the constituency in question assuming the image of a battleground.

And so polling centre-capture is really only part of the picture as we have seen in the last three years from the way it is being practised by the government and its front organizations. A regular feature of elections these days in Bangladesh is to find Chhatra League, Jubo League activists out on the streets in force, which is in no way conducive to a healthy electoral process. Particularly vulnerable segments of the population can be easily intimidated into staying at home by the sight of party activists asserting their domination over any neighbourhood in the country. The AL proper's activists will be less engaged in this task due to restrictions in electoral law, that somehow don't extend to the front organizations.

These allegations have emanated from Khulna as well, and no doubt will be more detailed in the days ahead.

Turning the tide

The most alarming episode regarding the role of the EC in this election was its accommodation of the wily PM adviser H.T. Imam's intervention just days out from the vote. In a meeting with the CEC at its Secretariat, Imam alleged that the "activities and behaviour" of the Returning Officer for the Khulna City Corporation (KCC) elections Yunus Ali is biased towards a particular party.

The co-chairman of the AL Election Subcommittee made the allegation talking to reporters after concluding a meeting with Chief Election Commissioner KM Nurul Huda at Nirbachon Bhaban. Voicing no-confidence in the activities of the RO assigned by the Election Commission, HT Imam said, "His (KCC returning officer) past is very dark. He had been a cadre of a particular political party which is evident in his behaviour and activities."

HT Imam said they (AL) earlier urged the Election Commission to take measures towards making the RO act impartially in conducting the May 15 poll.

Coming to specifics, Imam said provisional lists of presiding officers, assistant presiding officers and polling officers were not made public for the political parties' feedback before the preparation of the final lists. In Imam's view, the final lists the RO published are not acceptable to anyone except one particular party, which he said "proved that he (RO) is biased to a party."

No other party however has made a similar complaint. Mentioning that the situation had improved, he hoped that the RO will refrain from his "unfair activities" and accept opinions from all during the election. Imam also alleged that propaganda and falsehoods continued to be waged against the AL mayor candidate. It is extraordinary that the AL pulled off a win with the list of complaints reeled off by Imam.

He said his party wants the Election Commission to hold a fair and free election. When his attention was drawn to the complaint of the BNP mayoral candidate that many BNP activists had been arrested, Imam branded it "a complete lie", pronouncing those arrested as "identified accused and terrorists".

Later, EC Secretary Helaluddin Ahmed confirmed that the AL team had placed a complaint against the RO. The party had earlier done so as well, he added, informing that a joint secretary had already been dispatched by the EC secretariat to "assist" the RO.

This extraordinary admission of an unprecedented step by the EC to have an RO looking over his shoulder to find a joint secretary assigned to keep him under control, rather than remove him, was later revealed to have been the AL's idea as well.

If one can be similarly accommodating with their idea and understanding of democracy, none of this will leave you incredulous.

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