Apathy eats away vote
In an ominous sign for democracy, the practice of a candidate being elected unopposed has gripped the parliamentary by-polls as well as local body polls.
Even a few years ago, these elections would be held amid much enthusiasm and fanfare irrespective of how the national polls had gone.
But lately, the perception runs deep that someone participating in an election on the ruling party ticket would win no matter what. This has led to widespread apathy among both voters and prospective candidates, keeping them away from participating in the democratic process.
Experts opined that the election culture of the country has already been destroyed and so many being elected uncontested further underlines the flaws in theelectoral system.
They also blamed the Election Commission's failure to ensure free and impartial elections, which has led to people and many political parties being disinterested in participating.
Talking to the Daily Star, Election Commissioner Mahbub Talukdar said, "It is an ominous sign that all political parties are not participating in elections. We need to know why a candidate would be elected unopposed.
"We want elections to be competitive with all political parties joining in. But we cannot interfere on the internal activities of political parties, including their decision of whether or not to participate in the elections."
Today's elections of 160 union parishads (UPs) could be a good example of the prevalent system of being elected unopposed.
The polls are part of the first phase of UP elections that were postponed due to the pandemic.
Election Commission data shows that in 160 union parishads, 45 chairman candidates were elected uncontested, which means around 29 percent chairmen were elected without a single vote.
Out of the 45, 38 were in Bagherhat. Of them, all but one was from the ruling Awami League, reports out Bagherhat correspondent.
Sixty-five UPs of the district are going to polls today. In the 27 remaining UPs, most of the AL nominated candidates will have to face challenges from party dissidents.
Other than three mayoral candidates of nine municipalities, which is going to vote today, the rest were elected unopposed.
The same scenario was seen in the earlier portion of first-phase UP polls. Voting in 204 UPs were held on June 21, when 28 chairmen were elected unopposed.
The presence of voters has also declined in recent years.
Experts said people believe that the victory of a ruling party nominee is inevitable.
The Sylhet-3 by-polls, which were held on September 4, only saw 34 percent voter turnout. The picture was grimmer in the Dhaka-10 by-polls on March 21 last year, which saw a turnout of only around five percent.
Hafizuddin Khan, president of Sushashoner Jonno Nagorik (Shujan), said, "The number of candidates elected unopposed are on the rise as many are unwilling to take part in the election considering that the ruling party ticket-holder will win in the polls."
He said people consider taking part in elections a waste of time and money.
The "elected unopposed" phenomenon is not limited to local bodies' polls; two members of parliament (MPs) were elected unopposed through by-polls in recent months, and one is set to be elected unopposed soon.
Former Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University vice-chancellor Pran Gopal Datta is set to be announced the MP from Cumilla-7 as all contenders in the by-polls have withdrawn from the race.
Dulal Talukder, regional election officer in Cumilla, on Saturday told The Daily Star that AL nominee Prof Pran remains the only person running for membership in parliament after NAP nominee Monirul Islam withdrew his candidature on the day.
On Thursday, Jatiya Party nominee Lutfar Reza withdrew his nomination paper.
Contacted, NAP nominee Monirul said he withdrew his candidature due to a family issue, while Lutfar's phone was found switched off.
The seat fell vacant on July 30 after Ali Ashraf, then MP of the constituency, died at a hospital in Dhaka. The by-poll was scheduled to be held on October 7.
AL-nominated candidates Aga Khan Mintu, for the Dhaka-14 by-polls, and Abul Hashem Khan, for Cumilla-5, were elected unopposed on June 26.
In Dhaka-14, three candidates -- Mostakur Rahman of Jatiya Party, Abu Hanif of Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (Inu), and AYM Kamrul Islam of Bangladesh Nationalist Front -- withdrew their nominations.
The three cited the Covid-19 pandemic as the reason for withdrawal, said an official of the returning officer's office.
In Cumilla-5 by-polls Jatiya Party nominee Jashim Uddin withdrew his candidature.
Both by-polls were set to be held on July 28.
Jatiya Party expelled both Lutfar Reza and Jashim Uddin, citing the reason of "violating the party charter".
But insiders said both the party leaders withdrew their candidatures in exchange for money.
"We don't know anything about them withdrawing in exchange for money. But they said they withdrew their candidacies due to pressure from various quarters," Jatiya Party Chairman GM Quader said yesterday.
He said the party instructed the leaders and activists to stay in the election race till the end of the elections. "We are trying to make elections meaningful.
"We are also observing the activities of the EC as they have to ensure a conducive environment for candidates during an election," he added.
In elections of 456 upazilas, held between March and June 2019, 94 chairman candidates were elected unopposed. Of the 94, 93 were Al-backed.
In the 2014 national polls, the country witnessed the ominous phenomenon when 153 MPs out of 300 constituencies were elected unopposed.
In all the elections mentioned above, most political parties, including the BNP boycotted, saying they did not see any prospect of a free and fair election.
BNP candidates did participate in municipality elections that took place between December 2019 and February 2021. Even so, 10 mayoral candidates were elected unopposed in the 230 municipality elections.
In May 2019, AL mayoral candidate Ekramul Haque Titu was elected unopposed in the maiden election to the Mymensingh City Corporation.
Local government and election expert Professor Tofail Ahmed said there has been a general reduction in participation, of candidates and voters alike, in all elections.
"They think the election result is predetermined," he added.
"The country is witnessing a suffocating period. The voting system and culture has been damaged. Political democracy is already demolished. Politics is a profitable business now so there is no place for democracy there."
Election Commissioner Rafiqul Islam, however, said the Election Commission has nothing to do with the political parties' decisions to withdraw candidatures.
"It is unfortunate that many are not taking part in elections," he said.
Asked what the commission is doing to bring all political parties to elections, Rafiqul replied, "What can we do if a party decides to skip elections?"