Voter disinterest is a symptom, not a disease

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The first of the four-phase sixth upazila election was held on 8 May. According to election commissioner Md Alamgir, there was a 36.1 per cent casting of votes for the post of chairman in 139 upazilas in this phase. The voter turnout in the four upazila elections held under the ruling Awami League were 68.32 per cent in 2009, 61 per cent in 2014 and 40.22 per cent in 2019. In other words, the voter turnout has been on a steady decline and the voter turnout in the first phase of this election was the lowest.

What is the reason behind the declining voter turnout at the upazila elections? And how can this be overcome?

Past experience has made many citizens doubtful that they can go to the polling centres even if they want to, that they can cast their votes even if they do reach the centres, and that their votes will actually be counted even if they do cast their votes

While participating in recent regional meetings with volunteers involved with Shushashoner Jonno Nagorik (SHUJAN), I had the opportunity to exchange views with around a thousand or so conscious citizens. From these meetings it became clear to me that the main reason behind the low voter turnout in the upazila elections was lack of confidence. There was a lack of confidence among the voters in the electoral system, the election commission, the institutions involved in the election system, particularly in the administration and the law enforcement agencies.

Past experience has made many citizens doubtful that they can go to the polling centres even if they want to, that they can cast their votes even if they do reach the centres, and that their votes will actually be counted even if they do cast their votes. In other words, winning or losing doesn’t depend on their votes. Those whom the ruling quarters want will win the election.

There are ample reasons for such mistrust to emerge in the minds of the citizens. Many have not forgotten the polling centres being taken over, false votes being cast and other forms of vote rigging during many local government elections in the past, including two in Dhaka as well as the Barishal city corporation election. They have not forgotten the ghostly midnight votes of the 2018 eleventh Jatiya Sangsad (national parliament) election.

Many citizens still remember how before just the 12th Jatiya Sangsad election over a hundred false cases were filed against leaders and activists of the opposition, sending them to jail or into hiding and, in many cases, around 1,500 were hurriedly convicted in concocted cases so they would not qualify to contest in the election.

Now let's come to the election commission. There are serious questions in the public mind about how ethical or even legitimate was the appointment of the present Awal commission. Even though the Chief Election Commissioner and Other Election Commissioners Appointment Act 2022 has provision for only political parties and professional bodies to propose names, the search committee formed to appoint the commission deviated from the law, giving scope to any citizen to proposal any name, even one's own. So the present Awal commission was formed on the basis of proposals by legally unqualified persons.

In fact, the name of the chief election commissioner Habibul Awal was proposed by the now deceased Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury. Zafar bhai was certainly a most highly respected person, but he was not legally qualified to propose names for appointment to the election commission. Also, former election commissioner Sohul Hossain, who sought Awami League nomination in the 2018 election, was a member of the search committee. So if the very appointment of the election commission is questioned ethically and legally, then all of its actions are bound to be questioned. It is only natural, therefore, that the citizens will have a lack of confidence in the present election commission.

It also must not be forgotten that in the tenth Jatiya Sangsad election, a section of officials of the administration and members of the law enforcement, aided and abetted by the Nurul Huda commission, carried out vote rigging in the deep of night, behind the scenes. But it was in front of the Awal Commission and in broad daylight that those in power kept the opposition away from the election by filing fabricated cases against them and convicting them through controversial trials, while those responsible to ensure a level playing field did not utter a word! On the contrary, they arranged a one-sided election where the voters had no options to vote for any candidate with different views or ideologies.

The voters also could not freely exert their right to vote. And so the 12th Jatiya Sangsad election in no way can be termed a democratic election. Despite the failure to fulfill the constitutional mandate to hold a competitive democratic election, the Awal Commission claims that the last election was unprecedentedly fair. (Prothom Alo, 28 April 2024). The chief election commissioner himself also made such claims. (Bonik Barta, 25 April 2024). Such claims by the commission members cannot but make the Awal commission a laughing stock before the conscious citizens.

Such statements of the Awal commission and the biased behaviour of the members of other institutions involved in the election, inevitably makes the citizens lose faith in the electoral system. It is because of this lack of confidence that BNP and other major opposition parties boycotted the election, and it cannot even be called and election. The election boycotted by the opposition is another reason behind the unsatisfactory voter turnout in the first phase of the upazila election.

Another reason behind the disinterest of the voters in the upazila election is that it is now an ineffective institution. A major reason behind this ineffectiveness is the unconstitutional interference of the members of parliament in the upazila parishad as well as unwarranted control by the officials of the administration.

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Many will recall that during the last BNP rule, a district minister post was created by means of a notification. A case was filed with the High Court against this and in their verdict, Justice Khairul Huq and Justice Fazle Kabir cancelled this notification and declared it unconstitutional for members of parliament to be involved in the local elections as this violated the separation policy. [Anwar Hossain Manju vs Bangladesh 16BLT (HCD)(2008)].

However, in violation of the constitution, during the ruling government, members of parliament were made advisors to the upazila parishad and they were allocated millions of taka for local development. In a democratic state, employees of the republic are supposed to work under the elected representatives, but our field level officials ignore the constitution and control the local government institutions. Also, the local government institutions at present have extremely limited resources and workforce, which has made these institutions ineffective.

It is clear that our electoral system at present has collapsed. Our election system has gone into exile. Our local government institutions including the upazila parishad have also become ineffective due to unwarranted interference.

The main "disease" is the broken electoral system and ineffective upazila parishad, and the "symptom" of this is the disinterest of the voters, and the boycott of the election. So if the disease is actually to be treated, then the partisan behaviour of the election commission and other institutions involved in the election must be eliminated and necessary measures must be taken to render the upazila parishad functional.                          

* Badiul Alam Majumdar is secretary, Shushahoner Jonno Nagorik (SHUJAN)

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

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