Scripted Election! A Mockery of Democracy By Md. Hasanuzzaman

Cover Story

It was an election drama. All the programs were scripted. The movement, actions, expression and dialogues has been staged successfully. And what the result is! The Awami League party and its alliance ended up bagging 288 seats, winning a whopping 96 percent of the seats, leaving just seven seats for the Jatiya Oikko Front, the major opposition alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). There were constituencies where the ruling party won 99.9 percent of the votes, and hardly any ruling party candidate lost the contests. This is the outcome of overnight play, stuffing ballot papers before starting the poll.
News coverage, reports from human rights organisations, confidential party documents leaked by journalists, and unusually candid public pronouncements by ruling party members, some of which went viral on social media ahead of the polls, revealed the government’s elaborate plans for voter suppression, aggressive policing, systemic arrests and detentions of opposition activists – all with the singular objective of managing the election in the ruling party’s favour.

Before the election, many observers concluded that the vote, conducted under the country’s increasingly authoritarian conditions, would be a managed affair. It was clear to many that the ruling Awami League party would tilt the election process in its favour utilising coercive mechanisms.

Stuffing Ballots Overnight

A BBC correspondent reported seeing a ballot box already full of votes prior to the polling station in Chittagong opening. Allegations of voting irregularities including polling booths inexplicably closing for “lunch breaks”, voters being turned away and ballots being counted unrealistically quickly were widespread.
The Daily Star published (Headlined ‘Police-aided ballot stuffing’) accounts by correspondents who claimed to have witnessed Awami League members stuffing ballot boxes in the presence of police and election officials. According to Daily Star, The ruling party supporters were seen stuffing ballot boxes from 1:45pm to 2:15pm at Gulshan Model School and College in Dhaka on election day. They did it at booth no. 1 on the first floor while law enforcers and election officials were present. After seeing this at 1:45pm, the correspondent left the scene and returned again at 2:15pm. Al Amin, a sub-inspector who was blocking the entry, allowed him access without a camera. The police officer followed the reporter and signalled the youths stuffing the ballot boxes with a shout, “Go out… go out…”. Police on duty at Government Titumir College, which housed three centres, held back voters in long queues for hours saying the centres would be crowded otherwise. The voters in the queues said they were waiting for more than three hours at the college gate. The correspondent entered the college at 3:15pm and found only a few voters inside with the polling booths empty. Abul Hashem Md Farid, presiding officer of centre no. 85, said, “Voters’ entry is controlled by police. What can I do?” Noor-E-Azam, presiding officer of centre no. 86, echoed him. When the correspondent reached booth No. 201, he found three people wearing badges of “boat” symbol there. One of them quickly left the booth, while two others were seen stuffing the ballot boxes. Long queues of around 1,000 voters were seen in front of Monipur School and College branch-3 under Dhaka-15. Many of the voters alleged that the booths of the centre were empty.Scripted Election
Voters also complained about getting the ruling party’s symbol stamped on their ballot papers and being instructed to vote for the ruling party in polling centers. In the presence of the voting officers, some voters had to vote for Awami League candidates and refused to accept, yet their ballots were also dropped into the ballot box.
The BBC correspondent said, “we went from polling booth to polling booth, one pattern became clear. People who were supporters of Prime Minister Hasina’s party were vocal, and happy to answer our questions on camera, about what issues they’d voted on. The others were mostly too scared to speak out. One man told us that several members of his extended family found that their votes had already been cast when they went to the polling booth. He said he didn’t think it was a fair election but didn’t want to be identified. It wasn’t hard to see why he felt intimidated. Outside every polling booth we went to, there were dozens of workers from the prime minister’s party, listening intently when anyone was interviewed. No-one from the opposition parties was visible.”
A DW report shows, “I went to a polling center to cast my vote in Narayanganj, a district in central Bangladesh, yesterday morning, but a polling officer told me that my vote had been cast already by someone else,” Rehana, a photojournalist told DW. “It’s not happened just with me. I have seen hundreds of frustrated voters standing outside polling centers who were not able to cast their votes due to the same reason,” she said.

A Managed Mechanism

Before the election, many observers concluded that the vote, conducted under the country’s increasingly authoritarian conditions, would be a managed affair. It was clear to many that the ruling Awami League party would tilt the election process in its favour utilising coercive mechanisms.
According to a report of the Economist, “Since winning independence from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh has held 11 national elections under radically different circumstances, ranging from absolute dictatorship to relatively open and free contests. The flawed general election of December 30th represented a sharp reversion to the less democratic end of the spectrum. This was not merely because election-day violence left at least 17 dead. The Awami League, which has has been in power continuously for ten years, flagrantly wielded the full power of state institutions, from police to courts to the Election Commission, to promote its chances. Sheikh Hasina’s party also resorted to virtually every electoral trick in the bag.”
During four prior elections held under neutral caretaker governments between 1991 and 2008, no winning party ever won more than 48 percent of the popular votes. In this election, the winners bagged more than 90 percent of the total votes cast, raising serious doubts over the fairness of the polls. Given that no credible independent political polling exists in Bangladesh, analysts were left with reviews of spontaneous public engagements in political processions, social media sentiment analysis and online polling as the only tangible measures for gauging popular support towards any political party. However unscientific, they showed that there was underpinning momentum towards voting for the country’s major opposition alliance during this election cycle. Even the most partisan of estimates coming from government-affiliated pollsters, some prepared by nebulous characters and organisations, allotted at least 49 parliamentary seats for the opposition out of the 298 contested. However, as the results came in, it seemed as though the government’s elaborate machinery ended up over-managing the election and lost its grip on its own script along the way.Scripted Election
Calling it a “managed election,” Badiul Alam Majumder, who leads the country’s largest volunteer-based network named SHUJAN, said, “There have been a lot of complaints about voter fraud. These need to be documented.” Based on the information he got from the volunteers throughout the country, he told DW that many voters had complained about their inability to cast their vote and that there had been cases of fraudulent voting. Majumder pointed out that there was a widespread perception nationally and internationally that the ruling party was going to return because of all the pre-election developments that took place before the election day, including the arrests of tens of thousands opposition activists as well as attacks on opposition candidates. Many nominations were rejected at the last moment. “Unfortunately, the election commission, which is a constitutional and independent body mandated to hold free, fair and credible elections, failed to create the right atmosphere for a free and fair election this time,” he told DW, adding, “That led to a managed election that went out of control.”

Mockery of Democracy

The Washington Post writes in an op-ed column, That kind of margin of victory — 96 percent — was a result one might expect in a place like North Korea, not a democratic nation such as Bangladesh. That is exactly the problem: Hasina, Bangladesh’s increasingly authoritarian leader, consolidated her grip on power but at the cost of her own electoral legitimacy.
After the election, Bangladesh has become a “one-party democracy,” wrote Kanchan Gupta, a political commentator in New Delhi. Hasina “faces no opposition worth its name.”
The sweeping nature of Hasina’s victory raises “serious doubt” about the fairness of the election, said Ataur Rahman, president of the Bangladesh Political Scientist Association. The opposition’s tiny number of seats also means there will be no mechanism for political accountability, he said.Scripted Election
Activists and journalists describe a climate of fear in which criticizing the government can have dangerous consequences. In September, Hasina’s government passed a new “digital security” act that imposes prison sentences on certain types of “propaganda,” a law that editors say cripples press freedom.
In Bangladesh, “the development story is an upward curve, and the democracy story is a downward curve,” said one longtime observer of the country’s elections, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the political climate in Bangladesh.
Ali Riaz, professor at the department of politics and government at Illinois State University in the US, said: “It was a travesty of an election. What happened throughout the country, polling centre by centre, from driving out the polling agents to ballot stuffing, can’t be called an election, let alone a credible election. The sheer scale of the victory, as of now, reveals the nature and scale of the rigging. It cannot be described as the verdict of the voters,” Riaz told Al Jazeera over the phone.
Asif Nazrul, a professor of law at Dhaka University, said, “The election will destroy people’s remaining faith in election system in Bangladesh. It was not an election at all. It was an ugly and brutal hijacking of people’s right to choose their representative by all the state apparatus in alliance with ruling party goons. It would lead into tyranny and hurt the dignity of the society very deeply.”
The Economist comments, A rival alliance dominated by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) appeared unlikely to muster more than a handful of the 300 parliamentary seats. But the embarrassingly skewed tally suggested that the BNP was not really the biggest loser. The biggest loss was for democracy itself.

However, who said what, it is open secret and all the people know this kind of election with widespread intimidation of voters, polling agent ouster, centre grabbing, massive ballot stuffing is nothing but the mockery of democracy.

Writer: A Political Analyst