ON March 20, 1994, the by-polls to Magura-2 parliamentary constituency became a symbol of rigged election in the era of democracy restored after overthrow of the Ershad-led autocratic regime. There were sporadic clashes, capturing of polling centres, ousting of polling agents, stuffing and snatching of ballot boxes and intimidation of voters by the then ruling BNP men who were hell-bent on securing a win. This shattered the credibility of the then Election Commission (EC). An analysis of the political situation prevailing then may help ruling party policymakers to reassess their future political strategies.
The Magura by-election was a prestige issue for the then ruling BNP. The seat had fallen vacant following the AL MP's death. Months before the by-polls, the BNP had faced humiliating defeats by Awami League in the elections to city corporations of Dhaka and Chittagong. So, the BNP had become desperate to prove its popularity by winning the battle of ballots in Magura. The AL, on the other hand, was also confident about the win. Its candidate had won the electoral race in the constituency in the general election in 1991. Besides, the massive win in the city corporation polls had boosted the AL's morale.
BNP achieved its target by beating the main opposition AL. But the tainted victory could not offer any comfort to the BNP-led government, it was rather a blessing for the AL-led opposition parties who were agitating for introduction of a non-partisan election time government.
The opposition AL took no time to reject the election results as rigged and demanded fresh election. It observed strike across the country on March 23. AL chief Sheikh Hasina announced: “We will have to think whether we should sit in Parliament with the vote dacoits of the BNP.” Refuting the allegations of the opposition, the then BNP Secretary General Abdus Salam Talukder said the AL always voiced allegations of vote dacoity whenever it faced a debacle.
The EC did not bother about the public outcry. It published the official results of the by-election on March 28, terming the polls as “free and fair.” The role of the EC, however, was mired in controversy. Then Chief Election Commissioner Justice Abdur Rouf, who had gone to Magura to monitor the by-polls, suddenly left the electoral area the day before the election. On his return to Dhaka, he told journalists that he would issue a statement later explaining his position on it. But he never said why he had left Magura. Regarding the CEC's departure, Sheikh Hasina had commented that it would only help BNP to rig the election. Hasina's remark was proved right on the polling day.
After more than two decades, if we compare the Magura by-polls with the just concluded upazila parishad elections, we will find that many things are similar. The extent of rigging in the upazila polls was much higher than what it was in Magura. The then ruling BNP men had not snatched and stuffed ballot boxes at night, much before the beginning of the voting. But in the upazila polls, the AL men did so in many upazilas. The then ruling BNP had claimed that the Magura polls were fair. Now, the AL has claimed that the upazila elections were fairer than any other previous polls to local government bodies. The then CEC had suddenly left Magura constituency without explaining why. This time, CEC Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad left the country on March 3 for USA in the middle of the staggered upazila elections. He did not say why he left the EC leaderless in a crucial situation. His sudden departure, of course, helped the government and the AL to rig the upazila polls to ensure their win over the BNP.
The BNP men in 1994 had to rig the Magura by-polls to back their claim that their popularity had not decreased. The AL had to do the same this time to prove its popularity. After more than two decades, the city polls appeared as the barometer to judge the political parties' popularity before the general elections. The AL had faced humiliating defeats in the five city corporations polls held in the middle of 2013, six months before the controversial and voter-less January 5 parliamentary elections.
The AL, however, has played the game more carefully than the BNP had done between 1994 and 1996. Rigging in the Magura by-polls had added fuel to the opposition's movement for introduction of a caretaker government. The BNP-led government that had initially rejected the demand had made a blunder by holding the February 15, 1996 controversial parliamentary polls. But it could not continue in office. In contrast, the AL had not made any mistake like rigging any polls before the parliamentary polls. Such a mistake could have drummed up people's support for the opposition demand for a non-partisan election time government, which was abolished by the AL-led government in 2011.
The AL-led government was successful in holding the stage-managed January 5 parliamentary polls, keeping the BNP-led alliance out of the race. Even after the controversial polls, the BNP-led alliance could not wage any strong agitation to force the government to call an early general election and restore the non-partisan election time government system. The opposition's failure has left the ruling AL unchallenged in the political landscape. All the prevailing signs suggest that the AL and the government will not face strong resistance in near future.
In the view of many political analysts, an authoritarian regime may rise in such a situation.
The writer is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.