The latest Dhaka City Corporation elections were expected to have the lowest turnout. It trends that people have lost their confidence in the Election Commission (EC) and the electoral system. The past few elections have given people the impression that they may be faced with harassment at the polling centers when they turn up to vote. The strength of a democracy is demonstrated through free and fair elections, and one with low voter turnout and different kinds of irregularities is bound to create doubts around the legitimacy of the polls and those in charge of ensuring it goes well. Despite that, every time the EC says, this election is the best one yet.
However, on 1st February elections, there have certainly been a number of irregularities. Firstly, voters were given very little information by the EC on how exactly to use the newly introduced electronic voting machines (EVM). While the media and candidates themselves tried to make the information available, those in charge of doing so failed to make it available to the masses. We have seen that the Chief Election Commissioner himself was not able to vote with only his fingerprint and had to use the national ID instead. Did the common voter have this sort of access? For voters who were not able to use the EVM, the EC had no plan or alternative arrangement in place for them. Many are reported to have left without being able to exercise their right to vote.
In the past, elections in Bangladesh came with a festival feeling and people spontaneously turned up to vote. This environment has now been replaced with one of fear. This has been so easily achieved because of the EC and their willingness to turn a blind eye. We know the reality of why voters are not turning up to exercise their democratic rights. The EC is responsible for creating a space where voters feel safe and included; where they are not afraid of their democratic rights being taken away from them. However, the EC has evaded this responsibility and instead said that the candidates are responsible for bringing in voters, while the candidates have said the EC is responsible.
Lower turnout marks apathy to voting system
The continued low turnouts in elections, largely caused by the failure to make the political institutions effective and strong, could spell disaster for the country. People were staying away from voting and other political activities as the political parties—both ruling and opposition—failed to maintain the interest of the common people in politics. This reluctance in polls mainly stemmed from the one-sided January 5, 2014 general election in which 153 lawmakers of the ruling Awami League were elected unopposed. On January 13, in the by-election to the Chattogram-8 constituency, less than 23 per cent of the voters turned up to cast their votes and more than 80 per cent of the votes cast were in favor of the AL candidate.
On 1st February, two Dhaka City Corporation has witness of same kind of lower voter turn out. According to the EC, the total turnout in the Dhaka North city was 25.30 per cent and 29.02 per cent in the South. Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh, AL mayor candidate for Dhaka South City Corporation, bagged 424,595 votes, while his rival Ishraque Hossain of the BNP got 236,512 votes, according to results from the 1,150 polling stations in the DSCC. In Dhaka North City Corporation, AL mayor candidate Atiqul Islam secured 447,211 votes. His rival Tabith Awal of the BNP bagged 264,161 votes, show results from the 1,318 voting centers in the DNCC.
Less than 30 percent turnout in the elections to the Dhaka north and south cities was the latest manifestation of people’s lack of interest in voting. EC is not agreed to bear responsibility for the low turnout as the voters should have come to the polling centers. EC secratary M Alamgir said, ‘The commission’s duty is to invite the voters only, not to ensure their presence.’ But they failed to assure the people of their safety and security to go to the polling stations. The recent trends in non-participatory and controlled elections have also scared voters away the prevailing culture of voting.
The trend towards ignoring the elections is alarming for democracy and the ultimate result of this trend would not be good. Voting was the first step of democracy and democracy would fail if the first step was obstructed continually. There has been an allegation that people were barred from casting their votes in the December 30, 2018 general election, which is also a reason for the loss of people’s interest in the vote. People naturally found no interest in going to polling stations when they came to believe that their votes had already been cast. People became angry over voting after the January 5, 2014 general election. The controlled elections and the dependence of on undemocratic systems like caretaker government destroyed political institutions.
In other city corporation elections since 1994, the turnout ranged from 60 to 80 per cent. According to available data, the Dhaka city corporations are the only local government bodies that have witnessed a fast decline in turnout. In the last elections in 2015, the turnout in Dhaka North was 35.87 per cent and in Dhaka South was 48.57 per cent. The turnout in Rangpur city polls was 74.23 per cent, Rajshahi city polls 78.86 per cent and Sylhet city polls 62 per cent, held in 2018, while the Cumilla city polls saw a 65.59 per cent turnout in 2017 and the Narayanganj city polls 62.33 per cent in 2016.
The city administration became Dhaka Municipality Corporation in 1976. In 1990, it became Dhaka City Corporation. In 2011, the Awami League government dissolved the Dhaka City Corporation and split it into two corporations, North and South, with the southern wing holding more territory than the north.
Voting in an appalled and monopolized space
By all credible indications, voting in the two city corporations of the capital has taken place in an uneven playing field—an electoral space that has been intimidating patrolled to ensure its monopolization. To be sure, the elections have been held in a context that had hardly any reason to create any reasonable amount of trust among voters. So they didn’t think their efforts to cast their vote would make any sense.
At the core of the factors that led to this lack of trust amongst voters is not only the experiences they have gone through during the last national election and a series of local elections held before and after that, but also the unprecedented impotence of the EC), which has subjected itself to self-inflicted humiliations through loss of dignity and credibility. The full-fledged introduction of EVM could be viewed as an opportunity to take the challenge to restore some semblance of trust. The Commission has acted just the opposite, demonstrating an all-round insensitiveness to a series of complaints of violations of electoral rules and codes since the announcement of schedules till date. The potential gains of EVM have not only been overshadowed by well-designed and strategic moves to monopolize the electoral space, but also by creating an atmosphere of subtle and not-so-subtle intimidation and deterrence against voter turnout, polling-centre patrolling and booth capture, including the supposedly covered space meant to ensure the confidentiality of the voter while voting.
The low voter turnout is a symbol of lack of trust in the capacity of the EC that has eroded the value and dignity of people’s right to vote, and apathy to a political culture where only a handful of the high and mighty—not the voters—determine who goes to power. The main burden of failure to conduct genuinely free and fair elections lies with the EC. The electoral laws, despite some deliberately created deficits, are still good enough to deliver nationally and internationally acceptable elections as shown in the not-so-distant past when the present regime came to power to start with. There is no doubt that the difference is made by the wrong people being entrusted with state functions that are too important. This must change—the EC must be headed by people competent enough to understand the sanctity of the power they are entrusted with, deliver their job without fear or favor, and at least not let the commission be dictated by its biased and partisan staff. They must be courageous enough to realize that it is the degree of trust and credibility of the EC that determines the rate at which people are motivated to come to the polling centre.
No less important is the bigger issue of de-politicization of the law enforcement agencies and administration that play a crucial role in elections. Finally, despite growing intimidation and a shrinking space, the media, civil society, and people in general must raise their voices loud and clear about the constitutional right of the people as the source of all power.
Caused of Lower turnout
The voter turnout in City election would not be satisfactory was a foregone conclusion, given that people in general have lost confidence in the electoral system. The manner in which the last general election as well as some of local elections in recent years was significantly eroded people’s trust in the idea of an election. So, people did not go to the polling centers, not in large numbers anyway.
Electioneering was almost dominated by the candidates of one party. In the area where I live, I haven’t seen much activity from the opposition candidates. There were no posters of the opposition candidates and people could see that there was no level playing field. It was evident that an environment in which people would be inspired to vote willingly, for the candidates of their choice, could not be created.
It’s not just that they did not go to vote due to their lack of trust in the system; they were also annoyed at the way the campaigns were held. The wastefulness of the campaigns was visible everywhere you turned. While the mayoral and councilor candidates made promises to improve the city’s environment if elected, during their campaigns they did things that were completely opposite to their pledges. The way posters, especially laminated ones, were hung all over the streets and loudspeakers were used was harmful to the environment. It continues to be. We need to understand that Dhaka has become unlivable and those who will be elected should be committed to making the city livable again. Sadly, through their campaigns the candidates have given the public an impression that they are not capable of taking up that challenge.
Moreover, people had doubt about the use of EVM in the election. They did not have prior experience of using the technology. There was also doubt about the efficacy of EVM—whether proper machines were bought, whether there is any mechanism to oversee it, etc. EVM came with a questionable reputation, and the Election Commission has made sure that question mark was never erased. The manner in which the EVM issue was handled from the start raised questions in people’s minds, which could potentially be a reason for the low voter turnout.
Overall, I would say, the performance of the EC was very unsatisfactory. It was clear that the EC was not functioning properly. The rules of electioneering were not maintained by the EC and they also made some irresponsible comments. They did not take into account violations of the electoral code of conduct by candidates and their supporters. No one was held accountable for the violence during the campaigns and for attacking some of the candidates. People expect the EC to work independently, without the influence of the government. The EC should take responsibility for everything involved with the election and the administration should listen to them and provide all kinds of assistance. Sadly, they failed to do their duty and lost people’s trust.
Elections have to be genuinely free, fair and robustly contested. Institutions have to be clean and empowered to do their job without political let or hindrance. The greater powers that be—including the national government—need to be willing to get out of the way when city governments take stern measures to fix the city ills—it will invariably have to step on some pretty influential toes.