Democracy comes a cropper


Unlike in the polls held in 2015, the by-election to the mayoral post of the Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) held on February 28 failed to generate much interest or enthusiasm among the voters. Ahead of the election, voters said the election had failed to heat up the atmosphere as there was no opposition candidate in the running, by which they meant the main opposition party, the BNP, was not fielding a candidate. Even among those running, there was a distinct lack of competitiveness. During the mayoral election held on April 28, 2015, there was a vigorous campaign from both Awami League candidate (and eventual winner) the late Annisul Huq and BNP contestant Tabith Awal.

Ahead of the election, talking to several voters of Mirpur, one of the more densely populated parts of the city that falls under the DNCC jurisdiction, our sister newsagency UNB found that many residents were simply not interested to cast their vote in the by-election, and the electioneering had not caught their attention either.

When asked about the date of the by-election, one Fakhrul Islam said, “I don’t know the exact date… but I’ve heard that the election will be held.” He added: “No candidate came to ask for my vote. And I didn’t even see any rally or campaign in our area. Just a few posters of the ruling party candidate were hanging haphazardly.”

He also opined that he has no interest in casting vote as no strong opposition candidate is vying for it. “There’s no contest because opposition BNP is not taking part in the election. So, the candidates are not holding serious campaign and eventually the voters find no interest.”

Rezaul Karim Patwari, another resident of DNCC’s Rayerbazar area, said, “I came to know about the election after receiving a notice that all educational institutions in the area will remain closed on February 28 for the by-election. Many people of the area came to know through their children after getting notices from their educational institutions.”

The DNCC mayoral post fell vacant following the death of Annisul Huq on November 30, 2017.

On January 9 last year, the Election Commission had announced the schedule of the DNCC by-polls plus election to some 36 new wards evenly split between the north and the south, fixing February 26, 2018 for the voting day.

But the election was not held as the High Court stayed the election schedule for six months. The court order came following three writ petitions filed challenging the legality of the schedule. Finally in January, the court cleared the way for the DNCC by-election and election to the new wards.

A total of five candidates vied for the mayoral post. They were Atiqul Islam from Awami League, Shafin Ahmed from Jatiya Party, Anisur Rahman Dewan from National People’s Party, Shahin Khan of Progressive Democratic Party and independent candidate Abdur Rahim.

Election to councillor posts in the 36 new wards -- 18 under the DNCC and 18 under the Dhaka South City Corporation -- were also held on February 28. In those wards, the election was held with more enthusiasm and amid a greater degree of festivity, as voting for the councillor posts was being held for the first time in these newly formed wards.

AL at a canter

In the end, the Awami League candidate Atiqul Islam won the election by a huge margin of 7,86,873 votes as he bagged 8,39,302 votes while his nearest rival Shafin Ahmed of Jatiya Party polled 52,429 in all 1,295 polling centres. Returning Officer Abul Kashem announced the results at the result collection and announcement centre set up at Bangabandhu International Conference Centre around 1:30am on Friday, March 1. He said the overall voter turnout in the election was 31.05 percent, the lowest in living memory for almost any election in the country.

Earlier, voting in the by-election to the DNCC mayoral post and polls to councillor posts in its 18 new wards and 18 other new wards of Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) concluded on Thursday afternoon amid low voter turnout. The balloting that began at 8am ended at 4pm.

Around mid-day, Election Commission (EC) Secretary Helal Uddin Ahmed had claimed that around 50 percent votes were cast in the Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) by-election.

“We primarily estimate that turnout of voters in the election was 50 percent,” Helal Uddin said this while addressing a post-poll press conference at the Nirbachan Bhaban at Agargaon in Sher-e-Bangla Nagar of Dhaka.

Echoing the Chief Election Commissioner KM Nurul Huda, the EC secretary said the commission has nothing to do for the low turnout of voters in the election. Earlier in the day, Chief Election Commissioner KM Nurul Huda said the low voter turnout in the elections was not the liability of the commission. Atiqul Islam cast his vote around 9:10 am at Nawab Habibullah Model School and College polling centre in city’s Uttara area. Singer Shafin Ahmed cast his vote at Manarat International School centre in the city’s Gulshan area around 12:20pm.

Not helping matters, it was seen that the voter turnout was poor in the morning due to rain since early morning. However, voter presence was relatively higher in the elections to councillor posts in the new wards, in line with the greater enthusiasm noted earlier.

Meanwhile, Chief Election Commissioner KM Nurul Huda said the low voter turnout in the ongoing elections to the two city corporations was not the liability of the Commission.

“It’s the responsibility of candidates and political parties to bring voters to polling centres,” he said while talking to reporters after casting his vote at IES School and College Polling Station in the city’s Uttara area.

In the DNCC, five candidates vied for the mayoral post, while there were 116 contenders for 18 general councillor posts and 45 aspirants for six reserved seats exclusively for women. Of them, one general councillor candidate was elected unopposed in the city.  In the DSCC, there were 125 contestants for 18 general councillor posts and 24 women for six reserved seats.

Ringing hollow

If the low turnout wasn’t bad enough, the EC was also confronted with the obligation to observe National Voters’ Day the very next day, Friday, March 1 for the very first time, as if to mock the concept behind the day’s message. President M Abdul Hamid there asked the Election Commission to consider enlisting Bangladeshi expatriates in the voter list so they can cast their votes in any election.

“Consider voting rights of the expatriate Bangladeshis. Take necessary steps so that they can get national identity (NID) cards,” the president said while addressing an event at the Election Commission auditorium at Agargaon on the occasion of National Voters’ Day.

Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Anisul Huq, Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) KM Nurul Huda, Election Commissioners Mahbub Talukder, Md Rafiqul Islam, Kabita Khanam and Brig Gen (Retd) Shahadat Hossain Chowdhury, Secretary Helaluddin Ahmed and secretaries concerned to the president were present at the program, among others.

Noting that about one crore Bangladeshis are working abroad and most of them have no NID cards, he said having NID cards would help the expatriates get different state facilities, including citizenships in foreign countries.

“The question of voting rights for Bangladeshis, now staying abroad, is getting vigorous. Expatriate citizens of 120 countries, including US, Indonesia and Philippines, are exercising their voting rights,” the president mentioned. The head of state sought help of the local representatives, journalists, teachers, civil society members, imams of mosques and imminent personalities in the society, to gear up the voter enlistment process.

The Election Commission should continue updating the voter list all year round and take special programs in this connection for the people of remote, coastal and hilly areas, Hamid suggested.

“NID Database has become one of the programs under the ‘Digital Bangladesh’ platform at present,” the president stated. He lauded different ICT-based initiatives of the commission, including biometric features and NID database system. He said these facilities ease and modernize work.

“This NID database system is now helping to provide salaries of government employees, as well as pensions, different works under social safety net coverage like allowances for freedom fighters, elderly people and widows,” he mentioned.

“I am very glad to know that Bangladesh is still among the top-ranking countries in South-East Asia in terms of using ICT in polls here,” he added. President Hamid also put emphasis on creating awareness among voters, saying: “The election will be fairer, the voters will be more aware of their rights.”

Referring to the need of efficient and qualified leaders from the grassroots to national level, the president said there is no alternative to qualified leaderships for development and election is a great system in this regard. President Hamid urged all, irrespective of party affiliations and opinions, to extend their hands of cooperation to the Election Commission so they can hold free, fair and credible elections. But if the public don’t respond, can any Election Commission succeed?

Speaking on the same day, BNP leader Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain said observing the National Voters’ Day after “robbing the people of their voting rights” is a mockery with the nation, reported UNB. “The people’s voting rights were snatched through the December 30 national election and yesterday’s (Thursday) by-election to Dhaka North City Corporation mayor post,” he said.

Mosharraf, a BNP standing committee member, made the remarks after placing wreaths at party founder Ziaur Rahman’s grave marking its 40th founding anniversary.  He noted how the people did not go to vote in the by-election. “They went to polling stations where the councilor election was held,” he said, adding that it was “surprising the Awami League candidate got over eight lakh votes.”

He accused the government of ballot stuffing, saying the voters protested against “vote robbery by the ruling party and administration in the national election” by not showing up.

“People have lost their confidence in the government and the election commission. That’s why they didn’t cast their votes,” he said.  The BNP leader said it is now a big challenge for their party to restore democracy and give people their voting rights back.

“We are reorganizing our party and associate bodies. We believe the BNP will make a comeback and restore democracy and people’s voting rights,” he said.

That remains to be seen. People may well point to the BNP’s own failure to instigate a movement using democratic means to fight the government over the last decade or so. Theirs is just one more failure, in a long list of failures that now sees democracy, the principal component of the rallying cry that ushered in an independent Bangladesh in 1971, reduced to such a  cropper in 2019.

  • Democracy comes a cropper
  • Issue 35
  • Courier Briefing
  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier

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