Commentary: One day does not an election make
The much-awaited Gazipur city election is over, the "we-knew-it-from-before" polls results are upon us, the "impartiality" of the police and the "neutrality" of the civil administration have once again been demonstrated, the never-too-late-to-follow "certificate" of the Election Commission has been delivered and, of course, our democracy now stands "strengthened".
As some would have us believe, there is now nothing left for us to do but rejoice and prepare for the next city corporation election and enhance our democracy further.
There is no doubt that the Gazipur election was far calmer than the ones we are used to see. It also saw far less violence as there was no intra-party clash and as such it was peaceful. However, there are two distinct ways to have a peaceful election -- one where all parties diligently follow the rules set by the Election Commission; and two, by an overwhelming powerplay of the ruling party activists so that the opponents dare not protest even for clear and blatant violations of election rules.
So "peaceful election", yes, but was it free and fair? According to the losers, it was not but very much so as per the victors. So where do the voters stand here? In the absence of any authentic opinion survey, the answer is anybody's guess. However, given the realities as we know them we would like to make the following comments.
Election is not a one-day affair. It is a process that starts far in advance of the polling day and is subject to, among many other things, the behaviour of the political parties and the roles of state institutions like law enforcement agencies, local administration and, most crucially, the Election Commission. Though voters are the central actors in the process, numerous ways have been developed to influence them to vote one way -- the ruling party's way.
The normal competition between various claimants to a person's vote has now given way to a sophisticated, manipulative mechanism, the most insidious of which is the use of state machinery to sway the election results -- an option available only to the party in power. This is done through a combination of manipulation and intimidation. In such a scenario, few things are overt and voters have a way of getting the message in the air. Is it of freedom to vote or is it of intimidation? The answer in the case of Gazipur is "blowin' in the wind," to borrow from the famous Bob Dylan song.
How free were the voters expected to feel when they saw the frequent and unexplained arrests of opposition activists? How much faith were they supposed to have in their right to vote freely when they saw the arrests of eight BNP election coordinators just a week before the election? How much courage were the voters expected to muster when plainclothes agents picked up opposition polling agents and kept them incommunicado for the duration of the polling day? Did their faith in the elections increase when the EC kept mum after the BNP leaders informed them about this situation?
The police raids into opposition leaders and activists' homes are not something that increase voters' confidence in elections. Such raids and arrests had the desired effect -- spreading panic like wildfire and forcing party workers to go into hiding. This sent out the requisite signal as to which way the wind of power blew and the ultimate wisdom of a voter exercising his or her right freely.
Raids are far better than outright arrests of opposition activists, as done in the past, because it has the same effect and yet none of the negative publicity that results from such police actions. There have also been instances where opposition activists were picked up and given "free rides" to other districts from where they could not -- and many would not -- return in time to play any effective role in the polls.
How empowered did the voters feel when they saw a heavy presence of supporters of the ruling party candidate within the 400 yards of the polling centres that election rules mandate to be out of bounds for all but the voters and election officials? What message about the neutrality of the EC did such presence of activists of one candidate convey to a neutral voter?
Did not the absence of polling agents in polling centres, especially as the election day passed on, raise any question in the mind of the EC as to why? The standard answer by the EC that "no complaints" have come to its attention is unlikely to build confidence in the hearts and minds of voters who see opposite realities on the ground.
A related story needs to be told here. On May 31, the BNP mayoral candidate, Hasan Uddin Sarkar, filed a petition with the High Court seeking its order against the harassment and arrest of BNP activists and supporters by law enforcement agencies.
After the hearing, the HC issued a rule asking the authorities to explain in two weeks why they should not be directed not to make any indiscriminate arrests of the BNP candidate's supporters and workers. The order came on June 25, just a day before the election. While we are fully aware how busy and over-burdened the honourable High Court is, wasn't it possible to issue the order earlier?
As we put behind the Gazipur election, hold the three remaining ones and move towards the all-important national polls, we need to introspect seriously as to what elections are meant to be and the price a nation pays when it does not.
There supposed to be two winners in every election. The first is the candidate who gets elected. The second, and by far the more important, winner is the public confidence in the election process. After every exercise of his or her franchise, a voter must return home with the feeling that s/he was able to vote freely, and that his or her vote will be counted and it will have an impact, however insignificant, on the outcome. Did the voters in Gazipur return home with that sense of satisfaction? The answer, dear readers, is once again "blowin' in the wind".