What about the voices of the absent voters?

Presence of voters was sparse throughout the day in Dhaka's polling centres in the 12th parliamentary election on 7 December in 2024Prothom Alo

Over the past few months Awami League's general secretary Obaidul Quader has been referring to the same survey repeatedly, saying that 70 per cent of the voters support prime minister Sheikh Hasina and that she will be reelected. The survey had been released in August last year by the US-based International Republican Institute (IRI). In that much-discussed survey, 92 per cent of the voters said that they wanted to vote.

Now even if the chief election commissioner's statement that there was a 41.8 per cent voter turnout is accepted as correct, that still means that these 50 per cent of the eager voters did not go to cast their vote. There are many questions about the figures quoted by the chief elections commissioner. After all, just an hour or so before the end of voting, the turnout had been 26 per cent. It hardly seen possible for over half the votes cast in the first seven hours could be cast within just a single one hour.

No one has claimed, nor will they claim, that such a large number of people refrained from voting because of the hartal (strike) called by BNP and the other parties boycotting the polls. After all, none of those who had called the hartal took any action whatsoever to enforce the hartal. They neither held processions or picketing, nor were there any explosions or attempts to create fear.

Such a blatantly boycotted election took place only twice before -- on 15 February 1996 and on 5 January 2014. The first was run by BNP when Jamaat-e-Islami was not allied with them but was one of the major opposition parties. The major political party at the time was Awami League. Then in 2014 when Awami League held a one-sided election, Jamaat-e-Islami was BNP's ally in the opposition camp.

From experience Awami League should know by now that repression and suppression of the opposition does not deter them from opposing the government. On the contrary it strengthens their resolve and consolidates their organisational unity

If we look back in retrospect at those elections, we can see the similarities and differences with the election this time. An Ittefaq report of 16 February 1996 said that on the day of the election, the opposition at the time, Awami League and Jamaat-e-Islami separately held countrywide general strikes. They called the strike a "people's curfew". On the day, 10 people were killed and over a 100 injured in clashes all over the country. The election commission had to suspend voting in 2,800 polling centres. The percentage of votes cast was 26 per cent.

In the 2014 election, due to the boycott by others, Awami League's victory was ensured uncontested in 153 seats even before the voting. On the day of the election, the BNP-led 18 party alliance called for a countrywide general strike. In a news report of Samakal on 6 January it was reported that there was widespread violence on the day and 22 persons lost their lives. The turnout in 146 seats was shown to be 40 per cent.

No one pointed fingers at the opposition this time for whatever violence that occurred on the day of the voting. BNP, Jamaat or the left-leaning parties did not resort to violence. All the violence that took place was part of Awami League's factional conflicts. There were deaths this time too and injuries too. But all this was the result of Awami League doing away with party discipline in order to portray the election as a competitive one.

There was no dearth of attempts to bring the voters to the polling centres too in order to give the election a semblance of inclusivity. It was heard that threats were being issued to halt various state allowances and benefits for those who did not go to vote. There were news reports of incentives arranged in various places to bring the voters to the centres. A correspondent of the foreign newspaper Financial Times wrote that when he went to a polling centre near a slum area in Dhaka, he saw a large crowd. The people told them they were waiting for the packets of biriyani as promised. There are videos and pictures of money being distributed in some areas too.

Even after so many incentives, why was the voter turnout so low? The answer to that can actually be discerned in the IRI survey where 69 per cent of the respondents said that they were not in favour of elections under any partisan government. A total of 44 per cent said that they supported elections under a caretaker government while 25 per cent were in favour of an all-party government. The debate and allegations centering the 2014 and 2018 election clearly has had an impact on most of the people in the country. Who would want to take part and repeat their bitter experience of a boycotted election and an election controlled by a party government even with all parties joining?

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One of the major reasons for the election not being inclusive must surely be the election being boycotted by BNP and other parties because this left no alternative before the voters. But that is not the only reason. The seat sharing between Awami League and its allies and the fielding of dummy candidates, virtually rendered the election meaningless. No one could really appreciate this. Why would they want to bear the liability of lending legitimacy to the results that were predetermined? And anyway, two thirds of the people had expressed their no-confidence in an election under a partisan government.

By no yardstick can this election be called participatory or representative. Had there been a box to tick on the ballot paper, as in some countries of the West, to say they did not support any of the candidates, surely the voter turnout would have been much higher. In the last competitive election held in 2008 where Awami League came to power, the voter turnout had been 87 per cent. It would be relevant to turn to two more bits of information from the IRI survey here. One is, support for the opposition has increased to 63 per cent and the other is, 53 per cent of the respondents said they felt the country was going in the wrong direction.

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There is no doubt that by holding a one-sided election to fulfill constitutional obligations, we are headed towards a new political crisis. The crisis may not be too extreme right now, but it will not be long before it is tangibly felt. There was no real opposition in the parliament for the last 10 years. The party that would play the part of the opposition, is now on the brink of extinction. Those who won as independent candidates are mostly members of Awami League. So, needless to say, the 12th parliament is unquestionably to be a one-party parliament.

The despondence of the majority of the people at being deprived from their voting rights for three consecutive times, is not likely to dissipate any time soon. From experience Awami League should know by now that repression and suppression of the opposition does not deter them from opposing the government. On the contrary it strengthens their resolve and consolidates their organisational unity. BNP and its partners have pledged to continue their movement to restore people's voting rights and it is not likely that they will relinquish their demand for a caretaker government either.

The ruling party may have a sense of self-satisfaction when it forms the government for the fourth time, but suffocating democracy never bodes well. The crisis created by the 1996 (15 February) election was resolved by means of political compromise and another election held soon after. No steps were taken to resolve the crisis that ensued after the 2014 election and so it just lingered on and grew. The 7 January election has added a new dimension to the crisis. In order to find a way to resolve the crisis, at least talks should commence on reaching a new political settlement.

* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir