Sometimes silence is louder than words and this couldn’t be more poignantly expressed than by the absence of voters in the recent elections of Dhaka’s two city corporations and also the by-election of a Chattogram seat. In the Chattogram by-election, voter turnout was 23 per cent and in the Dhaka city polls it was between 25 and 30 per cent. This was according to the election commission. The public and the media say it was less. Many people expressed their concern about this low turnout. The ruling party’s general secretary, also an influential minister, echoed this sentiment. The chief election commission also expressed regret, to an extent.
There is a general feeling that a low voter presence does not bode well for democracy. The Chattogram by-election was important too as there is still nearly four years left of the parliament term. Both the candidates for the by-election were politicians from the grassroots and campaigned strongly. The four candidates for the two mayoral posts in Dhaka were also well-known and qualified persons. The ruling party’s campaign outdid the opposition by far, but the opposition’s campaign was not negligible either. And the support which the two winning candidates got from the voters has given our election culture a sharp shake.
The city corporation is a local government institution. It is obvious that local government elections are more competitive than national ones. The councillor candidates are active at the grassroots and the people often have to go to them for all sorts of work. Even old and infirm people are helped by their relatives to come to the voting centres, as is seen in the media. But now the voters have lost that enthusiasm.
The mayors were elected with support from 15 to 17 per cent voter support. Both were nominated by the ruling party. And yet even in the party’s darkest days it secured over 30 per cent of the vote. Why did the supporters not go to the polling centres? Is this a reflection of our disinterest in the election culture or anything else? These matters must be looked into.
Winning the 2008, the Awami League government amended the constitution and abolished the election-time caretaker government system. And an order of the Supreme Court facilitated the move. In light of this, BNP and its allies boycotted the 2014 election and a suicidal violent movement broke out. It was suicidal in the sense that it gave the government leeway to unleash a policy of repression. And the public too did not go with the flow of hartals and blockades. So the one-sided election ushered Awami League into power once again. This was certainly questionable, but the public’s silence lent legitimacy to the parliament and the government.
The major opposition party became weak, as was evident in the last parliamentary polls. They took part in the election, but with a weak organisational base, weakened further with direction intervention of the government. The election commission was a silent onlooker. And the opposition failed to drum up a movement again.
In the first Awami League government term, the city corporation election was relatively free of government influence. But from the next term, there was no such free rein. The activists and supporters of the opposition candidates were harassed by the law enforcement agencies. And the results were inevitable. That is why now people take the results for granted.
In the recent city corporation election, there were not many incidents of the opposition polling agents being forcefully evicted from the polling centres. Actually their agents or activists were not really visible near the centres.
It is evident that voters will only go where they feel their presence will make a difference. It is the election commission that is responsible for creating an environment that instils confidence in the voters. A biased commission cannot be given such a responsibility.
Under the circumstances, a large percentage of the voters did not turn up to vote. Some did and they voted too. The candidates of the opposition camp secured a considerable number of votes too. And we have also seen elections in the country where voters did not go to vote at all. The referendums of 1977 and 1985 and the 1988 election were such elections. The voters took for granted that even if they didn’t vote, those who were to win, would win.
Voters no longer imagine themselves to be kings on the day of the election. When the democratic system is harmed, the people as well as the politicians are harmed the most. If the democratic system is strong and active, there is more scope for the politicians to serve the state. The people’s trust is won.
The opposition should also realise that the government is not going to consolidate them. Even if the senior leaders are incarcerated or are in exile, the others could be active and the situation would not have deteriorated to this extent. The opposition’s way is never without thorns. The people are feeling the absence of a strong opposition.
There is not much to say about the acute absence of voters at the recent Dhaka city corporation polls of the Chattogram by-election. However, it is now up to the politicians to find a way out of this predicament. The voters want to vote. Elections are like a festival in this country. Politics is a people’s game. Their absence makes it weak. It was not out of any whim that the voters did not turn up to vote, nor did they prefer just to rest at home on the holiday. After all, they are used to standing in line for hours to cast their votes. But unfortunately this time a large chunk of the voters had all reason to believe that their vote would not make any difference. That is why they remained silent. This was a very loud silence, much louder than any speech, statement or rally. The politicians must learn to decipher this silence.
* Ali Imam Majumder is a former cabinet secretary and can be contacted at email@example.com. Thus piece has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.