The city corporation election arrived with much fanfare, the streets being festooned with posters and banners galore. There were songs and slogans all over. But the election simply was not a box office hit. Around three-fourths of the voters did not turn up at the centres and those who did, returned home with mixed reviews. Some termed it as a comedy, others as a tragedy. And now in retrospect, the election is being dissected at home, in the office and the roadside tea stalls. All this will soon fizzle out as something else looms up to take centre stage.
Let me share my own experience. I had already been asked to give my opinion on a couple of TV channels. So instead of going early to cast my vote as I had wanted, I rushed off to a TV station and found my co-discussant to be Sakhawat Hossain. He is a former election commissioner and someone whom I like. And coincidentally, he was my co-discussant in the next TV channel where I went to share my wisdom.
On the way, he decided not to take the direct route, but to go via a number of polluting centres. It was the same in all the centres. People of one particular party were walking around, sitting around, their badges hanging from their necks. They had set up tents too. There was no sign of anyone from any other party.
As we proceeded, the driver shared his experience with us. He said he had given his fingerprint on the machine and was about to press the EVM button. But before he could do so, someone from behind reached out and did it for him. “Why did you do that?” he asked. “Why did you cast my vote?” “It doesn’t matter,” the other man replied, “I’ve given my fingerprint, you go and vote.” But I understood that he had cast my vote for me.
After speaking at the two TV channels, I was a bit tired and decided to cast my vote on the way home. I wasn’t really concerned about who would become the city mayor. Both of them had pledged to make Dhaka a pristine city. I was more interested in the EVM and how it worked.
I had already found my polling centre, my voter number and serial all though an SMS on my mobile phone. Digital Bangladesh, after all! The election commission deserves thanks for this at least.
I climbed three floors to the polling centre and found the same situation there – persons of a certain party hanging around. I entered the room and found someone sitting there in front of a machine. He was the polling officer. There were about 9 or 10 young men there too, with the badges of a certain party around their necks. They probably recognised me and said, let the gentleman vote. They were quite respectful and I went ahead and placed by thumb on the machine. My ID card face appeared on the screen.
I entered the space enclosed with a black cloth. The polling officer explained what I was to do. One of the young men accompanied me into this ‘booth’ to ‘assist’ me. I thanked him and said I wouldn’t be needed any assistance. There were three machines in the booth. My problem was selecting who to vote for in the women’s seat. I didn’t know any of the candidates and their parties couldn’t be ascertained by the symbols. Then I remembered the blaring campaigns, the names of the candidates, and their symbols. It was around 3pm then.
I returned home and heard my wife’s experience. She had been to a different centre and had no problem, though the ‘volunteers’ there were quite bothersome. They all wanted to ‘help’. She had to scold them. But she saw these volunteers cast the votes for many of the people.
Not many votes were cast. The winners were jubilant. They really couldn’t care less about the low voter turnout. They said this was only normal. After all, governments don’t change through city polls and also many people had gone home for the weekend. A certain leader said there hadn’t been such a good election in a hundred years. That implied the past elections were bad.
Simply put, the winning party’s strategy had worked. They had realised, the more the votes, the less chance they had of winning. They aimed at a low voter turnout. Crowds were unnecessarily formed outside the polling centres. This strategy had been tried and tested during the DUCSU election and was repeated here again. Even after casting their votes, these people remained outside the centres. This was nonviolent ‘booth capture’.
The losers did not quite catch on to this strategy. And even if they did, they didn’t bother. They assumed it was the duty of the people to elect them. My question is, why didn’t them turn up in large numbers at the polling centres? I know many staunch supporters who simply spent the day at home. What would have happened if they went? Clashes? Half a dozen or more journalists were injured. Some of them were admitted to hospital. They were not cadres of any party. They were injured in the line of duty. How many party people were injured, coming to cast their vote?
They lost and then called a general strike. This tool of protest, hartal, is defunct. Those who live off the rent of their property or off extortion money, have no problem with hartals. But others have to earn a living. Why will they observe hartal? Why will they stage a hartal over the issue of winning and losing in this election?
The failure of the hartal does not mean the success of the election. This is a kind of apathy. It really makes no different to the people who wins or who loses.
All four mayoral candidates were presentable. They were educated gentlemen. They were not hoodlums or miscreants. If fact, the two defeated candidates of the opposition can be assets to their party. They are rising stars. But then there are those who will not let them rise, or else why would they hurriedly declare a useless hartal? They could look for different innovative action.
I personally believe EVM is a good system. This could be developed further. In fact, polling agents are not even required in this system. Just the polling officer can remain in the centre. The voters will enter, cast their votes and leave. If this could be ensured, it would be good. Our problem is that our election commissioners are not farsighted. They simply are doing their job. They simply aim at pleasing their bosses. And to the political parties, elections are a free-for-all brawl.
The EVM is like a knife. In a surgeon’s hand it can save lives. In a butcher’s hand it can sever a head. The machine is not at fault.
* Mohiuddin Ahmad is a writer and a researcher. He can be contacted at email@example.com. This piece appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir