Lowest ever voting rate in upazila polls

The first phase of the upazila polls saw the lowest voting rate in the last one and a half decades. The ruling Awami League decided to refrain from fielding party-nominated candidates to ensure a competitive polls in the face of boycott from the BNP. However, this strategy from the ruling party went in vain.

The voting rate has declined gradually in the last three upazila polls. However, the first phase of the upazila polls this time marked the lowest ever voting rate. The newly elected chairman of 81 of the 139 upazilas in the first have bagged less than 20 per cent votes.

Voting to some 139 upazilas was held in the first phase on Wednesday. The low voter turnout in the 12th national election sparked talk. However, the rate lessened even further in the first phase of upazila polls held within three months of the national polls. So the people’s disinterest in elections has come into discussion again.

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According to the figures of the Election Commission (EC), some 36.1 per cent votes were cast in the first of upazila polls on Wednesday. The voting rate on EVM (electronic voting) machines was 31.31 per cent and 37.22 per cent on ballot papers. The voting rate in the 12th general election was 41.8 per cent.

However, Awami League general secretary expressed satisfaction with the voting rate in the upazila polls. Addressing a press conference on Wednesday, he said the election was peaceful overall except some sporadic incidents. They want stress on that.

However, election experts say, people are turning away from the electoral process, which is very concerning for democracy. They also questioned who is responsible for this.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, Shushashoner Jonno Nagorik (SHUJAN) secretary Badiul Alam Majumdar said the low voter turnout is the outcome of people’s lack of confidence in the electoral system. People have lost interest in elections due to this.

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Elected chairman with less than 10pc vote

In most of the upazilas, the winning chairman candidates are going to take charge despite bagging quite a low number of votes. In the first phase, the newly elected chairmen in 81 of the 139 upazilas got less than 20 per cent votes. Of them, 10 got the votes of less than 10 per cent of the total voters. Apart from that, two candidates were elected chairman uncontested.

One of the major reasons behind the ruling party’s decision to not assign party symbols to anyone was to ensure a competitive election. However, that strategy didn’t work. There was not that much competition in 63 upazilas in the first phase. The difference of votes between the winning and defeated candidates was more than 10,000 in these upazilas.

Hardly any competition

There were close competitions only in 13 upazilas. The vote difference between the winning candidates and their nearest rivals was less than 1,000 in these upazilas, which was less than 3,000 in 31 upazilas.

The vote difference was the highest in the Keraniganj upazila of Dhaka. The total number of voters was 611,610 and the voting rate was 38.18 per cent. Awami League candidate Shahin Ahmed secured 166,836 votes while his nearest rival Altab Hossain bagged 60,293 votes. The difference of votes between the winning and his nearest candidate was more than 100,000.

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Reason behind people’s indifference

Some 68.32 per cent votes were cast in the third upazila polls held on 22 January 2009 right after the AL-led mahajote (grand alliance) came into power around one and a half decades ago

The voter turnout was around 61 per cent in the fourth edition of upazila polls in 2014 and voting was held in six phases that time.

The first edition of the upazila polls with candidates contesting with party symbols in 2019 saw some 40.22 per cent voter turnout. The upazila polls were held in five phases at that time.

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This time the voting rate has come down to 36 per cent in the first phase. So the voting rate has been gradually declining over the last four upazila polls. It was the lowest this time.

Political analysts say people have lost interest in both national and local government elections. We saw a reflection of that in the 12th national polls and upazila polls after. Even several Awami League leaders admit about people’s indifference toward the electoral system of the country.

There are debates as to who is responsible for that among the political parties of the country. However, both Awami League and the BNP feel that the lack of competition is one of the main reasons behind the low voter turnout.

This upazila poll was mainly the competition between several Awami League leaders from each upazila. Besides, relatives and families of local MPs and ministers ran for the polls defying party decisions. These issues have further enhanced the doubts of the voters regarding a fair election. Even some of the Awami League leaders admit that.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, AL presidium member Sheikh Fazlul Karim Selim said, “People have lost interest in elections as there is no strong opposition. BNP has a big hand behind this as they and the other opposition parties have been boycotting polls questioning the neutrality of the Election Commission (EC). As a result, people are losing interest.”

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Meanwhile, the BNP is blaming the ruling party over this. The party has been into a movement demanding an election under a partisan government for a long time. They also had boycotted the 12th general election to press their demand.  They also boycotted the upazila polls too. However, some of their leaders joined the elections, denying the party's decision. The BNP leaders say that people’s lack of confidence in the electoral system played a big role behind the low voter turnout.

However, the BNP leadership refuted the claims of the political analysts that all parties have some liability behind the growing indifference of people towards election.

BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir told Prothom Alo, “Awami League has ruined the entire electoral system. This is the main reason behind people turning away from elections.”

“The government has been holding one-sided elections at all levels, which prompted the growing trend of refraining from casting votes.”

However, the Awami League leaders did not accept the claims. They say the election is being held in four phases this time. They will try to increase voter turnout in the next phases.

However, experts have referred to people’s lack of confidence in the electoral system and the Election Commission as the main reason as people have doubts whether they will be able to cast votes for the candidates of their choice or whether their votes will be counted or not. For this reason, people have turned away from the elections.

*This report appeared on the print and online versions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ashish Basu