There were clear indications of what the municipality polls would be like, in the speeches of local Awami League leaders in different areas. Before the fourth phase of the 55th municipal election on Sunday, three Awami League leaders openly threatened the people to vote for Awami League, obstructed voters before from reaching the polling centres and evicted the BNP activists from their areas.
The Election Commission (EC) took no action in this regard and the statements of these leaders were manifest in the pourashavas (municipalities) on the day of election.
The EC said that there would be no irregularities or violence in the fourth phase of the election. It was said that instructions had been given to ensure the security of the secret voting booth. Election commissioners held meetings with the concerned polling officials, police and administration. However, the situation did not change. Several irregularities including violence, killing, BNP agents not being allowed to enter the polling booths, people not being able to cast their votes as per their choice and Awami League supporters taking positions in the secret voting booth, were observed.
Videos of the speeches by those three ruling party leaders regarding the municipal election in Alamdanga in Chuadanga, Ramgati in Lakshmipur and Thakurgaon went viral on social media. An Awami League leader of Chuadanga taught the party activists about the ‘strategies’ of voting by intimidating the supporters of the opposition parties and other irregularities.
The ruling party leaders of Lakshmipur said that anyone who votes for anything other than the boat symbol can be identified through EVM. And a leader of Thakurgaon Mahila Awami League said that there is no need to come to the polling centres if you do not vote for the boat symbol. Instead of taking action, the EC remained silent in all the three incidents.
Regarding these issues, former election commissioner M Sakhawat Hossain told Prothom Alo that this year’s municipal election led to the complete decline of the election commission. What action has the EC taken regarding the speeches made by the ruling party leaders publicly? How do these happen if the EC has control, he asked.
He said several media outlets published news that persons sat in the secret booth to 'assist' the voters. Why hasn't there been any action against the polling officials of the centres where such incidents have been reported? If no action is taken, the situation will remain like this, he added.
During the municipal election of Thakurgaon on Sunday, voters were seen to be obstructed in the streets. In Akhaura of Brahmanbaria, there have been allegations of forcing the voters to cast their votes publicly. People were seen casting their votes for the mayoral candidates in an EVM machine placed outside the secret booth there. In many places supporters of the ruling party were illegally staying in the secret voting booths. In several polling centres of Thakurgaon including the centre of RK State High School, the people who took over the secret voting booth said they were just ‘assisting the voters’. The same kind of scenario was also observed in the previous phases of municipal elections.
However, the joint organising secretary of Awami League and the information minister Hasan Mahmud told Prothom Alo that there were certain electoral rules which were rather discriminatory for Awami League. The ministers and MPs cannot take part in the election campaigns due to the electoral code of conduct. In that case, BNP is enjoying extra benefits. He said that BNP is participating in the election just for show. For example, none of the top leaders of BNP took part in any of their campaigns in the politically important Chattogram City Corporation election. Even the local senior leaders of BNP were not on the streets. In this way, they are taking part in every election just for show.
We claim that almost all the elections have been free, fair and peaceful, but all these claims are not in line with the perception of the people.
According to the law, votes should be cast in secret ballots. Any failure in protecting the secrecy of voting is a punishable offence. There is provision for six months to maximum five years of imprisonment if any returning officer, assistant returning officer, presiding officer, assistant presiding officer, polling officers, polling agent or any candidate present at the polling centre fail to protect the secrecy of voting or help protect the secrecy of voting. This provision was not exercised despite the allegations of breaching the secrecy of voting throughout the four phases of municipal elections in different places. In the fourth phase of the municipal election, voting was suspended in a total of seven centres mainly on charges of ballot snatching.
Election commissioner Rafiqul Islam told Prothom Alo that EC has as much control as it should in an election. Voting was suspended where there have been allegations of irregularities with evidence. Voting was not suspended where no evidence has been found. Some complaints are being heard now. If anyone complains with evidence before the results are gazetted, the EC will look into it. He said if evidence of an officer’s failure to protect the secrecy of voting is found, action will be taken.
After the 11th parliamentary election, lack of voters has been observed in various local government elections and parliamentary by-elections. However, the number of voters has increased in the municipal election, so are the incidents of irregularities in the voting. According to the EC, in the fourth phase 65.68 per cent votes have been cast in mayoral election. The highest turnout was in Banaripara, Barishal, at 92.60 per cent. The lowest turnout was in Patiya, Chattogram, at 47.06 per cent. One person was killed in poll violence there. Earlier, 65 per cent votes were cast in the first phase, 61.92 per cent in the second phase and 70.42 per cent in the third phase. Similar irregularities have been observed in all those elections too.
Awami League has won in 155 municipalities in this four-phase mayoral election. BNP has won in 10 municipalities while independent candidates have won in 30. Apart from these, one candidate of Jatiya Party and one from the Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) have been elected as mayor.
Regarding municipal elections, Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, the senior joint secretary general of BNP, told Prothom Alo that violent elections were being held where the people are deprived of their right to vote. EC, the chief election commissioner (CEC) in particular, has encouraged this. He said Awami League is killing people by fighting among themselves. BNP is taking part in these elections only for democratic space. There is not even a minimal electoral environment. The EC is completely under the control of the government.
The candidates of Awami League have got 60 per cent of the votes cast in the four-phase elections. In several municipalities, candidates of BNP have lost their security deposits. Many people have raised questions about the results too. Among them is election commissioner Mahbub Talukdar. He said, “Looking at the results of the municipal elections, my idea is that the election wants to go into exile. Election means choosing one among many through voting. It raises the question of whether the election was predetermined or not.”
Mahbub Talukder further said, “We claim that almost all the elections have been free, fair and peaceful, but all these claims are not in line with the perception of the people.”
This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ashish Basu