In recent days, the most talked about issue throughout the country seems to be the 11th National Election scheduled to be held by the end of this year. While the participation of the country’s largest opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) under the current electoral format is still under question, the ruling party Awami League (AL) is actively preparing their fields to participate in the upcoming election to regain the power of the government for the third consecutive time.
Meanwhile, the Election Commission (EC) is going through a quite busy time as after the new CEC’s taking office several city corporation elections and re-elections were conducted throughout the country and three more city corporation elections are scheduled to be held before the next general election. These elections are playing a great role for the political parties to judge their position prior to the national election as well as in unfolding the standing of the EC in terms of its role and efficiency.
Recently on Jun 26, Gazipur City Corporation election was held with high intensity and battle of words between Awami League and BNP. The whole nation was focused on the outcome of this poll as everyone was interested to know which party backed candidate will hail. Ruling party Awami League-backed candidate Zahangir Alam, after a lot of anticipation quite easily won the Gazipur City Corporation mayoral election, amid allegations of irregularities in some polling centres. There were 425 polling centres among which the votes of 416 centres were counted and the Election Commission postponed voting at nine centres for irregularities like; snatching of ballot boxes and stuffing of ballot papers by force. According to the commission the number of voters in those nine suspended centres was around 24,000.
As the result came in, ZahangirAlam with the ‘boat’ symbol received 400,010 votes in those 416 out of 425 polling stations and became the new mayor of Gazipur city. His nearest arch rival BNP’s Hasan Uddin Sarker received 197,611 votes according to the unofficial results published by the Returning Officer. This Gazipur City Corporation election had a total 1,137,736 voters. According to the EC, a total of 648,749 votes were cast in 416 centres. Of these votes, 18,638 have been cancelled for various reasons. As a result, the total number of valid votes stood at 630,111.Around 55 percent solid votes were cast in the election. The number also excludes 23,995 votes in the nine centres where voting was suspended.
Considering the tensed moments of this election, there was tight security to make this a free, fair and credible election. Three-tier security measures were taken to ensure security during the election. Around 10,500 members of law enforcement agencies, including police, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) and Bangladesh Ansar were deployed in the city corporation area. A total of 29 platoons of BGB, 58 teams of RAB, 57 mobile forces and 20 striking forces of police worked actively to protect the election from any acts of vandalism and violence though it could not satisfy BNP as their usual demand of army deployment was not met this time also.
Despite taking several measures, the Gazipur City Corporation poll was not out of allegations. BNP and its mayoral candidate alleged the government, Awami League activists, EC and the law enforcers to work in favour of ZahangirAlam, the winner and Awami League-backed candidate. They claimed around two to three hundred activists of BNP were arrested prior to the election. They also claimed that, during the Election Day, their polling agents were thrown out from around 100 polling centres.
One of their central leaders was also arrested on the night before election. Overall they termed this election as a festival of fake votes and abuse of power. Not only in this election but also in the city corporation election of Narayanganj and Khulna, they gave the same statements. As we are approaching the next general election very soon, it is important that we regain our trust on the EC and all parties should receive the guarantee of a neutral environment in that election.
Now if we look into different aspects of Gazipur City Corporation election, we might find some important issues. BNP’s claim of forcing out around 100 of their polling agents seems to be a dubious allegation. It is a usual procedure to submit the list of polling agents with their photograph and national identity card copy to the EC or to the Presiding Officer. They are provided identity cards against those submissions. But according to reports, BNP did not follow that procedure properly as they anticipated possible arrests of their polling agents prior to the election.
It was a reality that many of the polling agents of BNP did not come to their assigned polling centres or left early of were not even assigned. From different activities of BNP during the recent months, we have seen that finding an adequate number of BNP activists when required has become quite difficult resulting from both tight grip of the government over the activists of BNP — Jamaat alliance and from BNP’s poor strategy which took them away from the people and devoted activists during the last ten years.
It is important in politics to fight against the odds while standing by the side of the people but truly it seems BNP lost that spark. Moreover, even if the allegations were right, the difference between the votes of BNP and Awami League’s candidate was so high that, winning in all those 100 centres would not make any difference to the results of the poll.
BNP also claimed that around 200 to 300 of their activists were arrested prior to the election. But even with that being true, for a party like BNP, that number should not matter. With 450 polling centres and on an average of 50 activists at each centre involved in different works of the election, there should be around 22,500 activists active only in the polling centres. There should be more of them spreading throughout the election area. But in reality that was not the case. Enough BNP activists were not there in the field and polling centres to back up their mayoral candidate.
Most importantly, considering all the allegations of BNP, if we equate the outcome of the election, the difference between the candidates were so high that even with elimination of those alleged incidents, the election results might have been the same at Gazipur. The EC made a statement on the fairness of the election as usual after the election result was declared while BNP provided their usual statements as it has become a culture during the last few years. But none actually bothered to bring out these facts though it is the responsibility of the EC to eliminate the mistrust over their role and efficiency among the people.
We feel that, the EC should provide a detailed observation in the post-election period. All the allegations that are published in different media should be addressed with authentic documents. They should address the allegations of BNP point by point. BNP’s failure to provide polling agents at all the polling centres and intentional absence of the polling agents should be highlighted which actually inks BNP’s overall failure in the national politics. Media should have a clear understanding of the happenings during the election. It will work out greatly to bring in transparency in the whole process.
There were several reports of vandalism but that were actually of only a few polling centres and the EC should clear that to the people and must inform them of the concrete actions that were taken over the incidents. The role of the law enforcers must be brought in front of the people. Lack of trusted relation between the people and the law enforcers can cause harm in the near future. Hence, the EC must play a more proactive role to introduce a neutral environment in all the upcoming elections.
Considering the upcoming national election which might be conducted through EVM system and also under the current government, the EC should take some strong steps. In GCC election, EVM was used in six centres only — very low considering the proximity of the national election. There are three more city corporation elections at Rajshahi, Barisal and Sylhet in the upcoming months and before the national election, EVM should be used in much broader aspect in these elections. The EC should start the mass campaign on EVM use at earliest. There should be nationwide coverage of training over the next few months.
BNP will protest the upcoming national election under the current government and if their allegations are not addressed in detail, they will succeed in making that electoral system a controversial one on the ground of transparency, credibility and fairness. Possibility of violence still exists over these issues. So, EC must act now to convince the voters.
The citizens need to trust both the electoral system as well as the process. They need to be assured of the election environment also. Vote is the most important right of any citizen and the EC must act efficiently to protect that right. We hope they will succeed in creating a proper election environment during the upcoming national election and hence will ensure people’s right to vote.
The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA), Editor at Kishore Bangla and Vice-Chairman, Democracy Research Center (DRC)