Polls bubbles burst
An early boycott by the BNP knocked the air out of the city elections in Dhaka and Chittagong yesterday, pushing numerous voting irregularities into the background and making the results virtually irrelevant.
Polling agents of BNP-backed candidates were found absent in most centres and the party ultimately handed a walkover to the ruling Awami League contestants just hours into the voting.
Print and electronic media journalists were shut out from covering the polls process at various centres in Dhaka and Chittagong.
In many centres, AL's youth and student fronts took the leading role with help from police in controlling the voting process.
LAW ENFORCERS OR LAW BREAKERS?
Widespread irregularities, including vote rigging, were reported by the media. The Daily Star teams of 34 reporters witnessed ballot stuffing by ruling party men in the presence of election officials at 12 centres in Dhaka and five centres in Chittagong.
In many cases, police, Ansar and election officials barred journalists, including from this paper, from entering voting booths and even polling stations.
Law enforcers turned a blind eye to all these irregularities and intimidation of BNP-backed candidates, their workers and newsmen by the ruling party men.
Sporadic violence marred the festivity and dampened voters' enthusiasm despite heavy presence of law enforcers.
Most of the incidents of violence involved supporters of AL-backed ward councillor candidates and the party's rebels vying for the same post. The Daily Star reporters did not see any BNP men resorting to violence.
Official voter turnout was not available last night, but is expected to be low. In the first few hours of the polling, vote cast looked fairly high but it dipped significantly after BNP's announcement of boycott, according to our correspondents.
However, the vote counts released by the Returning Officers show a good flow of voters.
AN EASY WIN
The boycott gave the AL-backed candidates a free rein and they looked all set to secure an easy win.
If they finally pull off victory, it will be the first such success for the AL-backed candidates in city elections since 2010. In all the eight city polls held since 2010, the ruling party's mayor candidates suffered heavy defeats at the hands of their BNP-backed rivals.
In last year's January 5 national election, which too was boycotted by the BNP and many other political parties, voters were denied their voting rights.
People in the three cities hoped to exercise that right yesterday, but their hopes were dashed again.
Apart from the BNP, two mayor candidates jointly backed by the Communist Party of Bangladesh and Bangladesher Samajtantrik Dal and another supported by Gono Sanghati Andolon also pulled out of the race in the two city corporations in Dhaka over allegations of irregularities.
Islami Andolon Bangladesh pulled out its mayor aspirants from all the three city corporations while Bangladesh Islamic Front mayor candidate withdrew from Chittagong polls.
Voting to the three city corporations began peacefully at 8:00am.
But showdowns by the ruling party men in and around the polling stations, high-handedness of police officials towards journalists covering the voting and the absence of polling agents of BNP-backed candidates in most polling centres started ringing an alarm bell before midday.
As the day progressed, reports of vote rigging began pouring in from different centres.
In some cases, election officials helped the ruling party men stuff ballot boxes and in other cases they played the role of silent spectators, as witnessed by The Daily Star teams.
Throughout the day, BNP's mayor candidates complained of “widespread vote rigging” and the battle of ballots virtually died down soon after BNP's announcement of boycott.
Moudud Ahmed, BNP standing committee member, announced the boycott at an emergency press conference at the party's Nayapaltan central office around 12:00noon, halfway through the voting.
"It wasn't an election. It can't be termed an election. We've rejected and boycotted the voter-less elections. It was a mockery of democracy," he said.
He was accompanied by Tabith Awal, the party's mayor candidate for Dhaka north, and Afroza Abbas, wife of Mirza Abbas who was backed by the party for Dhaka south.
Boycotting the election, the candidates brought various allegations against the government and the EC.
BNP-backed candidate for Chittagong City Corporation M Manjur Alam announced his boycott around 11:00am. He also announced his retirement from politics, saying the current political situation was not favourable for him.
Dhaka North City Corporation mayoral aspirant Zonayed Saki said he had “no confidence” in the voting process and that the polls result would not reflect people's verdict.
At a press conference in the capital, he came up with information of grabbing of 40 polling centres, fake votes, threats to the polling agents and intimidation.
Over a dozen councillor aspirants filed allegations with the EC that ruling party men forced their agents out of the centres.
Last night, Tabith Awal wrote to the EC demanding a fresh election.
AL Joint General Secretary Mahbubul Alam Hanif outright dismissed the allegations of irregularities.
He said BNP's boycott was pre-planned.
"Having sensed a sure defeat, the BNP pulled out of the race. They staged this drama to create an issue for a fresh movement,” Hanif told a press conference at the AL chief's Dhanmondi office.
In the evening, Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmed told journalists that he visited several polling centres and saw no irregularities anywhere.
He said he was happy with the polls and thanked all for helping him hold a "free and fair election".
Outside the Maniknagar Government Primary School centre in the capital, Rina Begum was waiting restlessly for more than 30 minutes to cast her vote.
Having run out of patience, she finally sought help from journalists.
"Please tell the policemen to open the gate ... I came here to vote after a long time leaving my work," said Rina, a domestic help.
She, however, could not cast her vote as voting stopped at the centre around 12:00noon after incidents of ballot stuffing by a group of youths.
A resident of Paltan area, Md Iqbal came to cast his vote at a polling station in Paltan Community Centre around 12:30pm. At the gate, police told him to come later.
"You all come after lunch," he quoted a policeman as telling him and others.
Disappointed, he left the centre and did not go back.