Manifestation of Apathy or De-facto Disenfranchisement?
Amartya Sen characte-rised "argumen-tative Bengalis" also take avid interest in politics. In 2013 the Pew Research Center found that Bangladeshis are the most politically engaged nation. 65 percent of Bangladeshis were in the "high level" political participation category and a further 29 percent at "medium level". It is perplexing for the analysts to reconcile with the transformation of a polity that seven years ago prized itself with having almost 90 percent active citizens, could only mobilise less than 30 percent voters in the recent municipal elections in its largest metropolis, the hub of nation's political activities.
The election results reveal a few interesting facts. In the two city corporations less than 30 percent of a total of 58,00,000 registered voters cared to vote. This is in contrast to the turnout figures of previous elections. In 1991, 1996 (June), 2001 and 2008 national elections the voter turnout was in the range of 55 to 87 percent. In several local government elections, the voter participation rate was quite high: in the 2014 upazila election it was 60 percent, in 2017 municipal election the figure stood at 74 percent and in 5 city corporation elections it ranged between 57 to 78 percent. In the latest round of two Dhaka city corporation elections the figure dropped to 25.3 percent (for Dhaka North City Corporation) and 29 percent (for Dhaka South City Corporation). The figures further inform that as low as 16 percent of the total electorate of the two city corporations voted for the ruling party (Prothom Alo, February 3, 2020).
On the polling day the Information Minister claimed "voters were exercising their franchise freely in a festive environment" and "polls environment was much better than ever in the past". Excited over the success of the elections at a press conference the AL's Joint Secretary General noted that the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) dependent elections have been "more free, fair and peaceful than any election in the last 100 years". Glorifying the success of EVM usage, a well-known AL presidium member opined there will not be any need for polling agents in future elections as the"machine itself will work as the guard".
The low voter turnout appeared to have caused a little concern in the AL leadership. Some blamed the cold weather; others thought preceding holidays were responsible. Grassroots leaders' failure to mobilise voters was also held responsible. Some leaders of the party thought the opposition party's campaign against the EVM made the election questionable and dissuaded voters. They claimed that the BNP was planning to mobilise as many as 500 cadres to each of the voting centres to disrupt voting. No evidence was provided to back such an outlandish claim. In his reaction to the city polls the AL Secretary General also thought campaigns against EVMs and the ruling party might have turned off the voters. One wonders if the AL Secretary General ever pondered what held back his own party supporters to turn up to vote.
The myth created by the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) and staunchly endorsed by the ruling AL and its cohorts that EVM would be a panacea of electoral ills (such as fake voting, ballot stuffing and wrong counting) have been belied through these polls. Reports of investigative journalists representing credible media organisations, voters' testimonies and election observers' accounts all have pointed to a range of gross irregularities centring the use of EVMs. The failure of the fingerprint scanners to identify the voters was a major problem faced by a section of the voters, including the CEC. While one may appreciate that machines can fail, other factors centring the voting process constituted flagrant violation of electoral rules, reflecting crass insensitivity of the EC to uphold those rules.
Privacy of the voting booths, a cardinal attribute of fair elections, stood desecrated. Testimonies of aggrieved voters inform that see-through lowly hung screens were widely used which compromised the privacy of the voters. The ubiquitous presence of unwanted "helpers", some sporting the identity card of the ruling party, in the voting areas, including the voting booths, was a matter of great consternation. Some "helpers" directed voters to vote for a particular symbol, if anyone dared to vote for other party, they were subjected to abuse and ill treatment. Their unsolicited "advice and help" and even pressing of the EVM button (that completes the casting of the vote) deprived umpteen number of voters their right to franchise. The voters were dismayed that the Presiding Officers and law enforcement agencies did little to stop such harassment and intimidation that in effect amounted to aiding and abetting those acts.
Presence of polling agents is a precondition to offset fake voting and counting. The independent polls observers as well as testimonies of voters and journalists have validated the claim of opposition candidates that their agents were forcibly deprived to perform their tasks; some were denied entry, others were evicted. When his attention was drawn to the incidents of expulsion of the opposition polling agents the CEC's remark is worth noting. He stated "the (polling) agent must have the strength to stay put…. they shouldn't leave (the centres) if anyone asks them to do so". CEC's trust on the "survival of the fittest" mantra simply betrays his intent and capacity to deliver free and fair elections.
The claim that BNP agents failed to turn up or vacated the polling centres on their own volition and not because of intimidation by the ruling party activists does not hold ground. It begets the question why after withstanding so many odds in the preparatory phase of the elections would they abdicate performing such an important duty.
Quite pertinent is the clarion call of an AL presidium member (former BCL General Secretary) to "drive others out, occupy and control". Days before the election at a meeting held at Dhaka University to introduce the party's candidate of DSCC he told the students league activists "you will go to the polling centres, cast your vote and keep the centres under your control". He went to say, "you all have to be prepared to drive them (BNP-Jamaat supporters) out". The Presidium Member was not reprimanded either by his party nor the EC. Can one be blamed to construe that the CEC's reticence to act against the perpetrators of wrong doing over elections also stems from his loyalty to the blueprint articulated by this senior AL member?
Holding the city polls by depending only on the EVM the EC has breached its earlier commitment to use EVM only after a national consensus has been arrived at. Its inability to institute Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (a printed receipt-like document which shows voters that their votes have been cast and for whom) ignoring the recommendation of the Chair of the Technical Committee, its failure to investigate into the allegations of electoral code violations including those of serious intimidation and use of violence, its inaction to investigate into the allegations in the massive vote rigging of the 2018 national elections (that resulted in 100 percent casting of vote in 213 centres, zero vote for BNP in 1,185 centres, and 100 percent for the AL in 686 centres), and till date its inability to hear any of the 74 cases that were filed before the Election Tribunal, all point to the fact that the Commission has failed to preserve its integrity, neutrality, and impartiality, and in the process lost its credibility.
It will not be fair to apportion all blame of the compromised city polls on the EC. The political leadership also bears a fair share of responsibility. Jettisoning the process of holding elections under a non-party caretaker government (that was arrived at through national consensus) and arbitrary suspension of that process brought the polity back to a condition where the electoral process remains at risk to be manipulated by the ruling party. The gross irregularities that have been committed in national and local polls since the re-introduction of the old system has contributed to the growth of a sense of apathy among the voters that the system does not work for them and any attempt to influence it would be an exercise in futility. Needless to say, such a mood neatly fits with the blueprint of the powers that be that view election as a chore which needs to be ticked off in running the state.
It is the sense of disenchantment with the system that leads to "political depression". Apathy reflects lack of concern, enthusiasm and interest. In circumstances, when intrepid citizens refuse to be overwhelmed by apathy and venture to exercise their right to franchise against all odds, but are denied to exercise that right, are they not effectively disenfranchised? The city polls have laid bare that stark reality.
C R Abrar is an academic and rights worker.