The election commission has declared 1 March as national voters’ day. Their slogan this time is, ‘I’ll be a voter, I’ll cast my vote.’ Prior to the last parliamentary election, the commission had 104 million citizens registered to be voters, but could not ensure that they could cast their votes. And there are no signs that they will be able to do so in the future.
When a mistake is admitted, there can be closure. But the election commission refuses to admit any mistake. They claim to have presented the nation with one of the best elections on 30 December. So, observing national voters’ day is nothing but a farce.
And now, on 28 December, the mayoral elections for Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) are being held. And Dhaka University Central Students Union (DUCSU) elections are to be held on 11 March. DUCSU elections are being held after 28 long years. These elections are not under the election commission’s jurisdiction, but are conducted by university administration. We hope the university administration will at least uphold the students’ franchise.
The Dhaka city corporation election is to be, in all senses of the word, an uncontested one. It is a by-election, one and a half years after the demise of mayor Annisul Huq. The election was to have been held within 90 days of the office falling vacant, according to the rules. But perhaps even our voluble chief election commissioner Mohammad Nurul Huda has no idea why this election was not held till now. He only knows as much as the government needs him to know.
Local elections are held only if the government wants it. Again, there is no guarantee that those elected can carry out their duties. In 2013, the opposition-nominated candidates won in five cities. Four of those five were kept behind bars. And the charges brought against them were nothing short of ridiculous.
I saw a newspaper report about a demonstration held in Sylhet. As their city corporation problems remain unresolved, a certain organisation organised a protest programme with a dummy coffin of mayor Ariful Huq. Sylhet town is relatively cleaner and orderly compared to the other cities in the country, but even so the organisation was protesting. Only the suffering citizens of Dhaka, Chittagong, Rajshahi, Barisal and Khulna can imagine what sort of demonstrations they should be holding in protest. But we know that no such protest will be permitted. After all, the mayors of these cities are all from the ruling party.
The mayoral elections should be the most festive in the cities where the most well-to-do people of the country live, where our state, society, politics and economy are controlled. But the people’s interest in this election is lacklustre at the most. They say there is no contest in the election, so what is the point in voting? Everyone knows the results already.
There are five contestants in the DNCC elections, but there are only posters of the ruling party’s candidate, that is, the ‘boat’ candidate Atiqul Islam, visible. Election commissioner Mahbub Talukder has termed the upazila elections as dull. In that case, the Dhaka North City Corporation polls are lifeless. Even the left wing parties, who jump up at any chance of an election, are not participating. The BNP had already announced that they would not contest. Jatiya Party has put forward the singer Shafin Ahmed as their contestant. There are three other candidates, Shaheen Khan, Abdur Rahim and Anisur Rahman. No one can imagine such a low-key election in the high-end locale of the city.
As for the upazila elections, any visible activity is the confrontation with ruling Awami League’s rebel candidates. A member of parliament in Rajshahi was effectively ensured that the rebel candidates do not even raise their heads. An MP in Narayanganj has said, ‘I will contest in the upazila election. No one else can be a candidate.’ It is thus clear what the state of the upazila elections can be.
However, all student organisations are participating in the DUCSU elections, being held after 28 years. The people of Bangladesh, so dedicated to democracy, grasp at these DUCSU elections as the last straw in a sinking ship.
Despite the other elections, people hope that at least the DUCSU elections will be free and fair. At least the leaders and activists of all the student organisations are being able to go to the campus and campaign. We hope that this environment prevails up till the afternoon of 11 March and beyond. The students hope that when they turn up at the voting centres, they will not be told that their votes have already been cast. If that happens, then even the glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel will flicker and fail.
The DUCSU election can be fair, no matter what discrepancies there were in the national elections. There are instances of this in the past. Even the BNP and Jatiya Party leaders will not claim that the national elections during the respective rules of Ziaur Rahman and HM Ershad were fair. But the elections to DUCSU and other student unions were fair. Only once were the DUCSU elections unfair, when the ballot boxes were snatched away in 1973 in face of the government-backed student front’s defeat. In that election, even with a joint panel of Chhatra League and Chhatra Union, they could not pass. It was the JSD-backed Chhatra League that won. This time it is different. The allies of those days are no longer allies. And opponents are now friends.
All the student organisations have announced their panels. Chhatra League’s VP and GS candidates are the organisation’s president Rezwanul Huq Chowdhury Shovon and general secretary Golam Rabbani respectively. The Chhatra Dal candidates are its president Md Mostafizur Rahman and general secretary Khandakar Anisur Rahman respectively. Candidates of the left student alliance are Chhatra Union’s central general secretary Liton Nandi as VP and Chhatra Federation’s Dhaka University unit president Umme Habiba Benazir. Those who launched the movement for the quota reforms under the banner of the council for the rights of the general students, also have a panel in this election.
No matter who wins, the election must be held in a proper manner. The teachers in charge of the election have a grave duty to perform. The opposition student organisations opposed the elections to be held in the halls as the hall administration is under control of the government-backed teachers. They said the government-backed students could do anything with the backing of these teachers.
The 33,000 students of Dhaka University do not want any mishap. All they want is a free, fair and peaceful election.
*Sohrab Hassan is joint editor of Prothom Alo and a poet. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This piece, appearing in Bangla in the print version of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten here in English by Ayesha Kabir.