Voters' Day: Voters but no proper voting

In addition to the right to vote, the secrecy of the vote is not being protected. Failure to protect the secrecy of the vote is a punishable offense. But the EC has not taken action against anyone

Clashes between two groups in Chattogram's Patia during the municipality election
File photo

Although the citizens of the country are guaranteed to be the voters, the Election Commission (EC) cannot ensure that the voters will be able to vote for the candidate of their choice. This constitutional institution cannot protect the secrecy of voting either. This is the image emerging in the analysis of the environment and situation during the recent municipal elections held in five phases. Failure to protect the secrecy of voting is a punishable offence.

It is under these circumstances that the EC is observing National Voters' Day today, 2 March. Concerned persons are saying there are voters and Voters' Day, but there is no fair environment for election. It is the duty of the government and the EC to ensure that.

The theme of this year’s Voters' Day is -- “If you are 18, no delay to be a voter”. This day is organised mainly to encourage the people to be voters and exercise their voting right. In 2019, the theme of Voters' Day was -- “I will be a voter, I will vote”.

Last year's motto was -- “I will vote as a voter, I will take part in building the country”. This is the third time that National Voters' Day is being observed. Analysts say it is not pleasant to observe Voters' Day without ensuring the right to vote.

In recent times, 42 eminent citizens sent letters to the president twice, bringing about allegations of serious misconduct against the EC. The letter said there were severe discrepancies and inconsistencies in the centre-based results of the eleventh parliamentary election. In 213 polling centres, 100 per cent votes were cast, which is impossible. In 590 polling centres, 100 per cent legal votes have been cast for one symbol. There have been inconsistencies between the preliminary and centre-based results too. Legal votes have increased in 32 constituencies. Electronic voting machines (EVMs) and paper ballots had a 30 per cent gap in turnout, which seriously questions the results of the election.

In fact, after the 11th parliamentary election, there have been voter 'droughts' in different local government elections. However, the voter turnout increased in the five-phased municipal election on pen and paper

In fact, after the 11th parliamentary election, there have been voter 'droughts' in different local government elections. However, the voter turnout increased in the five-phased municipal election on pen and paper. According to the election commission, the overall turnout for the mayoral elections in five phases is 64.38 per cent.

However, there were irregularities and violence in every phase. In many places, supporters of the ruling party took position in the secret booths. In some places these supporters cast votes for the boat symbol instead of the actual voters.

A voter from Raipur in Lakshmipur district has termed these persons as “ghosts of boat in the voting booths”. However, these political activists termed themselves as "assistants'' of the voters in different places.

The EC has not taken any effective action regarding this. After every phase of election the EC took the same stance. However, in many places the irregularities were pre-announced. The scenario was the same in the Chattogram City Corporation election too. BNP candidate Shahadat Hossain filed a case against nine including the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) alleging irregularities in the poll.

Looking at the results of the municipal elections, it seems to be that the election wants to go into exile. It raises the question of whether the election was predetermined or not
Mahbub Talukdar, Election Commissioner

Concerned persons are saying the parliamentary elections 2014 and 2018 have demolished the electoral infrastructure of the country. After taking over in 2017, the current election commission was praised for holding some fair city corporation elections. However, the scenario changed gradually. Especially in the last parliamentary election, the opposition parties alleged that the votes had been cast the night before the election day.

Former election commissioner M Sakhawat Hossain told Prothom Alo that it is a good initiative to observe Voters' Day. People are interested in enlisting their names in the voter lists, as it is essential for getting their national identity cards. However, there have been questions regarding the exercise of voting rights and the environment of polls for a long time. Not only the current election commission, a fair environment for the election could not be created since 2014.

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There were clear indications of what the municipality polls would be like, in the speeches of local Awami League leaders in different areas. Videos of the speeches by the local leaders during the election campaigns went viral on the 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. A leader of Thakurgaon Mahila Awami League openly threatened that there is no need to come to the polling centres, if you do not vote for Awami League. An Awami League candidate of Mirpur in Kushtia and a local Awami League leader of Patharghata in Barguna told the voters to cast their votes for boat symbol openly. A leader of Lakshmipur district Awami League said in an electoral campaign in Ramgati that anyone who votes for anything other than the boat symbol can be identified through EVM.

Reflections of their speeches have been observed on the day of election. Voters have been obstructed in Thakurgaon municipal election. Voters of Akhaura in Brahmanbaria have been pressured to cast their votes openly.

These sorts of irregularities have been observed in every phase of the election along with violence, fake votes, ballot snatching, driving away the agents of opposition parties, inability to vote for the candidate of choice, and occupation of the secret booths by supporters of the boat symbol. The occupants in the secret booth in some places including RK State High School said that they were just "helping the voters." In many places, the EC has failed to protect the secrecy of voting.

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According to the law, votes should be cast in secret. 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 five phases of municipal elections in different places.

When asked whether the EC was successful in protecting the secrecy of ballot and the right to vote given the scenario of the municipal election, election commissioner Rafiqul Islam said that the EC had stern instructions that any kind of mismanagement would not be tolerated. This would be a clear violation of the law. The EC has been taking opinions from the concerned officials regarding the reports published in the media. Action will be taken if the allegations of occupying the secret booth, negligence or affiliation with illegal activities have been proved.

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In politics, BNP is the main opposition to the ruling Awami League. Awami League has won in 185 municipalities in the five-phase election. BNP has won only in 11 municipalities. The difference in votes between the two parties is also huge. 60 per cent of the votes have been cast in favour of Awami League, and BNP got 21 per cent votes. Awami League achieved an absolute majority in the parliamentary election of 2008. The difference between two parties in vote was 16 per cent. This difference was below 10 per cent in the previous elections.

Observing the situation of the municipal election, election commissioner Mahbub Talukdar said, “Looking at the results of the municipal elections, it seems to be that the election wants to go into exile. It raises the question of whether the election was predetermined or not.”

When asked about this former adviser of the caretaker government M Hafizuddin Khan told Prothom Alo that there is actually no right to vote nowadays. In many ways people have been deprived of the right to vote. To observe Voters' Day in this situation is just a show. This day will become meaningful only when everyone’s right to vote has been established literally.

This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ashish Basu.