The question was simple, but the answers revealed a rather shocking picture of recent by-elections. The question posted online by Prothom Alo on 17 October was, 'Do you agree with the CEC that the Dhaka-5 and Naogaon-6 by-elections were free and fair?' In reply, 91 per cent of the respondents said 'No'. Only 6 per cent agreed with the CEC. And 3 per cent refrained from comment.
This small survey is more than enough to indicate the predicament of elections and votes in the country. And even then, the election commission continues conducting elections, using the excuse of constitutional compulsions. Election experts say there is no scope to use constitutional obligations to hold such farcical elections. After all, the election commission surely knows it can draw voters to the polling centres through credible elections.
In the recent Dhaka-5 by-polls, the voter turnout was 10.43 per cent. The total number of voters was 471,000. The Awami League candidate Md Kazi Munirul secured 45,642 votes. The BNP candidate Salahuddin Ahmed secured 2,937 votes. And the Jatiya Party candidate Mir Abdus Sabur secured 413 votes. So the person who we will now consider as the people's representative, won with less than 10 per cent of the votes.
Who should be more ashamed, the candidate, the voters or the election commission? The responsibility lies basically with the government, though the opposition, with all its rhetoric, has also failed to perform its responsibility
Who should be more ashamed, the candidate, the voters or the election commission? The responsibility lies basically with the government, though the opposition, with all its rhetoric, has also failed to perform its responsibility.
Only 5 per cent of the total votes were cast in the Dhaka-10 by-election held on 21 March this year. However, 36.49 per cent votes were cast in the Naogaon-6 by-polls. Voter turnout in the other by-elections was also very poor. In the last elections of Dhaka North and South city corporation elections, 27.15 per cent votes were cast.
Chief election commissioner KM Nurul Huda's excuse for the poor voter turnout in the Dhaka and Naogaon by-elections was coronavirus and also that the voters were not too eager about 'isolated' elections. He claimed that the elections were free and fair. Public opinion does not support his contention.
If a free election simply means that there is no violence, clashes and conflict, then that is a different matter. That is what the CEC meant. He said, "The election was free and fair. We received no complaints about the two by-elections. There were no disruptions anywhere." That seemed to be a great matter of relief to him.
By joining the election, we want to prove that free and fair polls are not possible under this government. The election commission has no shame. It is a paper tiger
However, CEC Nurul Huda is to a great extent responsible for driving the people away from the election system. He will be remembered for his role in the election system and voting in the country, just as former CEC MA Aziz or AKM Sadeq will also be remembered. It even seems that he may be trying to outdo those two controversial and criticised chief election commissioners.
The question is, why does the opposition BNP even participate in such controversial elections? Earlier after the national election, BNP had declared that it would not take part in any further election under the present government and election commission.
If so, why have they gone ahead to participate in the polls? BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir responded, "By joining the election, we want to prove that free and fair polls are not possible under this government. The election commission has no shame. It is a paper tiger."
Awami League general secretary Obaidul Quader said, BNP took part in the elections only to make the government and the election commission questionable. They did not join the election to win, but simply to make allegations.
This war of words over the election continues. But does the election commission, who is in the midst of this of this mud-slinging, not once think about the consequences faced by its predecessors?
On 22 January 2007, the CEC at the time, MA Aziz, announced the election schedule amid much political tensions. Chief adviser of the caretaker government, Fakhruddin Ahmed, cancelled the schedule. MA Aziz resigned. Not finding him anywhere, a group of journalists finally located him at a hospital in Maghbazar. He undid his belt in a pathetic attempt to prove his ailments, which simply led to him being ridiculed in the media.
Earlier, as chief election commissioner, justice AKM Sadeq conducted the controversial election of 15 February 1996. The parliament formed under that election lasted nine days.
The names of Sadeq, Aziz and Huda will remain memorable in the election system of Bangladesh. Political parties get chances to rectify their past mistakes. But the election commission does not get any such chance. Huda has outdone even the Sadeq-Aziz commissions.
Elections were rigged under the government of autocrat HM Ershad and the people protested. There were protests during the rule of BNP too. There was an environment where protests could be voiced. The opposition launched movements. As there is no opposition movement now, the people protest in silence. Free and fair politics can give them a voice, can bring them to the polling centres.
* Sharifuzzaman is a journalist and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten here for the English version by Ayesha Kabir