Three conclusions can be drawn from the just concluded city polls in Dhaka and Chittagong:
1. Our Election Commission is far from gaining public confidence that it can be trusted with holding free and fair elections. The tragedy is that it is not even trying;
2. The ruling Awami League was never keen on a free and fair polls and it used the state machinery, especially the police, ansars, and its considerable muscle power to sway, if not the voters then at least the results, of the election in its favour; and
3. BNP was insincere about fighting seriously for its candidates and its decision to boycott the polls mid-stream was knee-jerk and immature if not predetermined. BNP seemed more interested to prove their point that no credible election was possible under Sheikh Hasina's government than to win a mayoral post or two. They could have proven the point far more effectively had they continued till the end in which case they would have had more instances of irregularity in their arsenal to expose the AL design.
As for the EC it never really tried to establish an image of independence to gain public confidence. It was more inclined to observe the formalities in a mechanical way rather than attempting to establish itself as a body that people can trust. It did not realise or was oblivious to the fact that confidence building was an equally important task before any EC as was the task of conducting a proper election.
Field level complaints were never taken seriously and to journalists queries the formal answer was "the returning officers will look into complaints pertaining to their respective areas." The truth is returning officers, who are usually deputy secretary level bureaucrats, seldom take opposition complaints seriously and never have the guts to take a stand against violations of electoral code of conduct by ministers or high ruling party officials. According to our information, all the around 32 complaints lodged with the EC by BNP-backed and other candidates on the Election Day, and around 12 other complaints filed in the post-election two days, remained immaculately confined to files.
Two instances - one dealing with Khaleda Zia's motorcade and the other with deployment of the army - were the final straws that broke the EC's 'Credibility' camel's back. Issuing election code violation notice against Khaleda Zia focusing only on the number of cars in her motorcade and ignoring the fact of the attack on her personal vehicle and on some of her security personnel were indeed as one sided as one could get. Even if it was a "staged drama" as claimed by the government, the EC should have investigated and reprimanded the BNP chief for doing so. Ignoring such an event widely covered by the media further dipped the EC's credibility.
The EC's u-turn on army deployment and decision to confine them to their respective cantonments stood in stark contrast to the practices in previous elections. As we saw later they were never called though there were many instances of violence. In fact the whole affair was left only to the police, whose active role in electoral malpractice has been elaborately highlighted in both the electronic and print media.
The fact that Awami League was never interested in a truly free and fair and well contested election was evident early by its use of police to harass the opposition candidates in every way possible.
Awami League got a godsend to hit out against its perennial opponent when BNP invited on itself severe criticism and widespread and justifiable public condemnation by its use of violence during its anti-government agitation in the January-March period. Their mindless calling of hartals and nearly three months long 'oborodh' (siege), especially its indiscriminate use of petrol bombs on bus passengers significantly destroyed its reputation as a democratic political party. This gave the ruling party the perfect chance to use the legal system to arrest and 'put on the run' thousands of BNP leaders and workers and use police to keep most of them out of the campaigning process. BNP's mayoral candidate for South Dhaka could not campaign for a single day due to fear of arrest.
The provision of 'unnamed assailants' while lodging FIRs gives police the scope to put anybody's name in an act of arson, petrol bombing, or other forms of violence. This was successfully used to intimidate BNP activists and local enthusiasts of the opposition and keep them away from the election.
The case of Mahmudur Rahman Manna is illustrative of how Sheikh Hasina's government used the state machinery against its real or potential opponents. Manna's intention to contest in the mayoral polls was well known. He was building up his own support base towards it and was sending out feelers to all and sundry, including the BNP, for possible support. With his Awami League pedigree and profile as an effective and successful former Chhattra League and DUCSU leader along with possible opposition support, he hoped to provide a credible alternative to the future AL mayoral contender.
His 'potentiality' did him in. Early alarm bells went off and the government's formidable coercive machinery was set in motion to 'destroy' his reputation and his political future. The way he was removed from the scene and his political career made controversial along with the physical hardship he was subjected to through an unheard of 20 days 'remand' for a politician, all on the basis of an illegally 'taped' telephone conversation, speaks volumes about the political situation prevailing for anybody who wanted to represent the opposition camp.
The 'disappearance' of the BNP spokesman Salahuddin Ahmed, taken by a group who claimed to belong to the law enforcement establishment, according to two witnesses who said they saw how he was taken, sent shivers through the spines of all BNP leaders, more so among the grass roots workers, most of whom do not have any way to survive any police or legal onslaught.
As for our final conclusion, we are clear in our mind that BNP was never interested in going the whole hog with the polls and their boycott decision was predetermined.
As the final vote tally shows BNP had some real chance to pull off a miracle like the recent Sri Lankan election, though ours was not a national one. But either through an unthinking reaction or due to immaturity or due to, what we believe to be the case, a decision taken earlier, Khaleda Zia decided to boycott the polls midstream. This we think was a grave error and gave the ruling Awami League a walkover much like that of January 5, 2014.
Analysing the numbers proves our point. The combined total votes obtained by AL-backed mayoral candidates is 14.70 lakh which for BNP-backed candidates stand at 9.24 lakh. It is logical to assume that bulk, if not all, of the votes for BNP was cast by 12 noon, before it announced its withdrawal. So within the first four hours in Dhaka and about three plus hours in Chittagong- out of an eight hour polling day--BNP was able to get what later amounted to 35 % of total votes cast as against 55% for AL, the latter's coming from a full eight hour period of polling.
This happened in spite of a near absence of polling agents of BNP backed candidates in both Dhaka and Chittagong. Begum Zia's appeal for a "silent" response appears to have been in progress when suddenly the plug was pulled out of a process that had the potential for a surprise.
We conclude by repeating a question that our prime minister has asked, why should anybody vote for BNP? After all it was BNP-Jamaat agitation that left nearly a hundred dead and several hundred injured from petrol bombs thrown into running buses. How can people forget about the months of destructive 'oborodh' and now almost fully abandoned but nevertheless disrupting 'hartals'?
We think the PM's questions are well merited and we echo them.
Could the answer be that these votes are not in support of BNP but to protest the way the country is being run now? Could these be protest votes of which Bangladesh has a very long tradition? To dismiss this as a mere anti-government rhetoric would be a fatal mistake.