In the Dhaka city corporation elections held on 1 February, Awami League candidate and mayor-elect of Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) Atiqul Islam secured support from only 14.84 per cent of the total voters.
In Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC), Awami League candidate and mayor-elect Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh secured support from only 17.30 per cent of the voters.
In DNCC, the voter turnout was 25.30 per cent and in DSCC, it was 29 per cent. The two ruling party candidates are to take over as the city’s mayors through an election with the lowest ever voter turnout. There has been a steady fall in public interest in casting their votes, but the extreme low voting percentage this time has raised questions.
Analysts have said that people’s interest in voting waned since the 2014 election when public confidence in the election and the election commission (EC) was marred by various irregularities and use of force. Feeling that their votes had no importance, the people were disinclined to cast their votes.
Another reason for this apathy towards voting, according to analysts, is that people are also losing their expectations in democracy. They are not too bothered about the election results as they do not expect anything and also do not want to get involved in any complications. A sense of insecurity is turning people away from exerting their democratic rights.
Not even one-third voted
DNCC has 3,012,509 voters and the voter turnout was 763,188. That means around 75 per cent of the people did not turn up at the voting centres. Awami League candidate Atiqul Islam secured 447,211 votes. That means he won only 14.84 per cent support of the total voters. However, he secured 58.67 per cent of the total votes cast.
BNP did not participate in the DNCC mayoral by-election held in March last year. Even so, the voter turnout was 31.5 per cent. And prior to that, in the 2015 DNCC mayor election, 37.3 per cent of the votes were cast. BNP boycotted the election midway.
There were 2,453,159 voters in DSCC this time and 713,050 votes were cast. That means, 71 per cent of the voters desisted from voting. Awami League’s Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh won the election with 424,595 votes. He won only 17.30 per cent support of the voters. However, he secured 59.54 per cent of the total votes cast.
Both BNP and Awami League, the country’s two main political parties, were active in the election field this time. Though both sides campaigned vociferously, not even one-third of the voters turned up to vote. It was a controlled election with the use of the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) for the first time. Ruling party activists entered the voting booths where the voters were to cast their secret ballot. They have sarcastically been dubbed as ‘voting assistants’ on the social media.
Despite all the controversy and debate, Awami League’ joint general secretary Mahbubul Alam Hanif has said that this was the most free, fair and peaceful election in 100 years. The fact remains, with the exception of the Chattagram-8 by-election last month, such a low voter turnout has been unprecedented. There was a 23 per cent voter turnout in that by-election.
Former election commission Sakhawat Hossain told Prothom Alo that the people lost their interest in the elections since the 2014 polls in which all parties did not contest and which saw an outbreak of violence. A large number of candidates in that election won uncontested. The local government elections from 2014 to 2018 saw mismanagement, irregularities and rigging. The EC was totally unconcerned, the voters were dismayed. Sakhawat Hossain added that if things continue in this manner, the country’s liberal democracy will become a controlled democracy.
According to a recent survey, Sakhawat Hossain said, 85 per cent of the people support Awami League. "Does that mean the Awami League supporters did not go to vote? Have they lost interest or did they take it for granted that their party would win?", he asked.
Elections have meant festivity in Bangladesh, but the tides have changed. The EC is spending huge amounts on arranging the elections, but the voters are not turning up to vote.
Even the EC is not pleased with the voter turnout in the elections to two Dhaka city corporations. Election commission secretary M Alamgir on Sunday told newsmen that the number of votes cast was far less than expectations. They were not fully satisfied with the percentage of votes.
He said ruled out lack of voters’ interest, saying that at least the ruling party supporters would not be disinterested in the polls. He said that there may have been an attitude among the voters that ‘if I don’t go to vote, it won’t matter.’
Former caretaker government advisor M Hafiz Uddin Khan, speaking to Prothom Alo, said people have lost interest in casting their votes because they feel it makes no difference. The people lost their confidence after seeing the last election.
He feels that the laws should be amended incorporating a provision that a fresh election would have to be held if the voter turnout is not at least 50 per cent.
There are questions whether the elected mayors of Dhaka city with a population of about 20 million, actually represent even 70 per cent of the people. This is extremely harmful, M Hafiz Uddin Khan said.
*This report, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.