Khulna city sees new model of 'manipulated polls'

Tipu Sultan and Selim Zahid, from Khulna | Update:

Votes being rigged for an Awami League councillor candidate capturing a polling centre. Voting at this polling centre was later cancelled. Photo: Prothom AloIt was a new experience for the people of Khulna city as they never saw such elections where the concerned authorities concerned were controlled by unseen forces and the opposition campaigners were kicked out of the election field.

All arrangements were in place for a fair election - police patrols, deployment of Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) personnel, and even the presence of magistrates.

But, the election was marred by the forced eviction of opposition BNP candidates' polling agents from the centres, forceful balloting, vote rigging including voting by a child, and compelling voters to vote in front of the ruling party candidates' agents. In some cases, balloting ended before noon.

The police were just silent bystanders in the aforementioned incidents. Supporters of Awami League candidate Talukder Abdul Khalek extended their 'assistance' to complete the 'balloting process'.

The elections has starkly revealed the weakness of the election commission (EC). The commission failed to control the situation despite the apparent support of the law enforcement and the administration.

The EC could not or did not respond to most of the complaints filed by different candidates before and during the polls.

The presence of voters was good despite complaints of opposition agents being forced out of polling centres at the beginning of the voting held on 15 May. The atmosphere at the voting centres was quite good in the morning.

It all started deteriorating from 11:30am when ruling party men forcefully entered the voting centres and stuffed votes into ballot boxes at various polling centres, creating panic among the general voters.

They left the voting centres within half an hour between 11:30am and 12:30pm after completing their task, witnesses said.

Only after that did the law enforcement become alert about law and order. 

The complaints came till the last moment of voting. No voters were found after noon. Some of the cast ballots were found abandoned at various polling centres.

Prothom Alo’s eight journalists, who visited around 80 polling stations during the voting hours, found the crowd of members of AL and of its associated bodies in front of almost all polling centres.

They actually took control of the entrance of the polling centres, keeping watch on voters, observers and whoever came to the centres.

According to the results of the 15 May Khulna City Corporation polls, 54 polling centres witnessed unusual voting.

The number of voters at ward no 10 of the Khalishpur’s Hazi Shariatullah Bidyapith voting centre was 1817. The results show all voters except one cast their votes. The voter turnover was 99.94 per cent.

The AL’s mayoral candidate got 1,114 votes while the BNP candidate got 373 votes.

Another voting centre at Maulana Bhashani Bidyapith of ward 10 also witnessed 'ghost' voting.

A total of 1,467 votes out of 1.503 were cast at the centre. The AL candidate polled 997 votes as against the BNP candidate's 390 votes. The voter turnout there was 97.60 per cent.

The voter turnout at Natun Bazar Government Primary School centre was 91.38 per cent.

But, the total voter turnout in the Khulna City Corporation elections was 62.19 per cent.

The three polling centres of high turnout witnessed more than 90 per cent votes while other three others saw 85 per cent turnout, another six around 80 per cent, 12 others 75 per cent turnout and 30 other centres slight over 70 per cent turnout.

Some unpleasant incidents took place during the elections, but the EC completely failed to respond.

For instance, a member of the EC observer team was assaulted by a local AL leader at Basupara Nurani Bahumukhi Madrasa centre. The victim instantly informed the higher authorities of this but there was no response at all. He later left the voting centre.

The AL had set up makeshift election offices in front of almost all voting centres. The ruling party men took position from 7:00am in the morning.

Furthermore, the BNP's polling agents were barred from entering many centres and many of them were assaulted.

These incidents had taken place before voting formally began at 8:00am.

The BNP mayoral candidate, Nazrul Islam Manju, time and again complained about harrassment and arrest of his campaigners. The BNP secretary general, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, later blamed the police for creating an atmosphere conducive for rigging the elections.

On the voting day, the supporters of ruling party candidate moved freely about on motorbikes and other vehicles with the AL boat symbol, in the voting areas.

The police did not stop them, with only one exception.

According to the final results, out of 493,000 votes in Khulna city, five mayoral candidates bagged 306,636 while 6,565 votes were cancelled.

AL's Talukder Khalek polled 178,000 while his four rivals including the BNP’s Nazurl Islam Manju got 111,000 votes. Manju, the nearest rival, bagged 109,251 votes.

A total of 411 more votes were cast for mayoral candidates than what councillors secured, results show.

Prothom Alo’s eight journalists found not even 80 BNP leaders and activists at the 80 centres they visited.

In that case, who casted the huge number of votes for the BNP when most of the voters carried the boat symbol?

The AL’s mayoral candidate Khalek himself was surprised at the results.

“Our voters were all wearing boat symbols. I didn’t find anyone who was wearing BNP’s symbol in the city. Where did these votes come from?”

Talukder Khalek claimed that the voting was free and fair except some chaos at a few centres.

The reporters talked to some of senior journalists and the civil society members who know Talukder Khalek for long.

They pointed out that in the 2013 elections, Khalek had accepted his defeat graciously without any arguments. They wondered how the same person could use state machinery and force out the opposition to win the elections.

They all agreed that the people of this southwestern city never saw such manipulated voting.

CPB mayoral candidate Mizanur Rahman regretted that it is true that Talukder Khalek has become mayor of the city, but he had damaged his own political career.

The BNP’s mayoral candidate Nazrul Islam said that the 15 May elections in Khulna was a new version of ‘vote robbery’.

"This is a rehearsal of a kind of election that the regime wants to hold -- the next national polls," he added.

Political analysts say this was an acid test for the election commission and now its role and capacity would be questioned.

Sachetan Nagarik Committee’s president Anwarul Kadir, who was member of the EC’s vigilance team and visited various polling centres, told Prothom Alo that this has created a fear about the EC's role during the national elections.

*This report, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Toriqul Islam.

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