How fair were the Paura Elections?

Recently, elections were held in 235 Paurashavas around the country. In this first time ever party-based elections, Awami League won 182 mayoral seats, of which seven were uncontested, while BNP won 24 seats. While the Election Commission claimed that elections were free and fair, BNP rejected the results. Citizens' groups have also expressed some scepticism. How fair were the elections actually?   

Acceptability of elections must be judged against some yardsticks. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provide a set of yardsticks for 'genuine' elections: (1) all eligible voters could become voters; (2) those who wanted to become candidates could contest; (3) voters had alternative candidates before them; (4) those who wanted to vote could do so; and (5) the voting procedure was transparent, trustworthy and free of manipulations.

Deficient electoral roll
The electoral roll used in the recent Paurashava elections was incomplete and faulty. Firstly, because of the Election Commission's updating of the elctoral roll beginning from the month of July 2014, over 43 lakh new voters, who turned 18 years on January 1, 2015, could not be included in the electoral roll on time to vote in the recent Paurashava elections. 

Secondly, the 2008 electoral roll with photographs, which was considered most accurate, had more than 14 lakh female voters. About 1 crore of Bangladeshi citizens work outside the country, most of whom are male, and many of them are not enrolled as voters. However, the new voters, numbering nearly 47 lakh, added during the updating of the electoral roll in 2014, had 12 percent more male voters than female voters. This gender gap was alleged to have been caused by enumerators' failure to go from house to house to enroll voters (Daily Jugantor, January 26, 2015). Thus, the updated electoral roll of 2014, which was used in the Paurshava elections, under-enrolled women voters, preventing them from exercising their franchise in recent polls. 

Inability to become candidates
Many opposition and rebel candidates of the ruling party were alleged to have been prevented from contesting in the Paurshava polls. BNP raised the allegation that in a single week before the recent elections, nearly 3,000 of its leaders and supporters were arrested (Prothom Alo,10 November 2015), preventing many potential candidates from constesting.

The most blatant example of such misdeeds took place in Feni. Candidates in 44 out of 48 seats of three Paurashavas of Feni district were elected unopposed. It was alleged that the nomination papers were snatched away from potential candidates the night before the papers were supposed to be submitted (Prothom Alo, December 17, 2015), and the Election Commission did nothing about it.

Fewer candidates before voters
In recent elections, an unprecented number of candidates were elected unopposed, reducing voters' range of choice. For example, seven mayors, belonging to the ruling party, were elected uncontested. Similarly, 134 councillors were elected unopposed.

In addition, because of arrests and intimidation, the number of candidates declined in recent elections. For example, the average number of mayoral candidates per Paurashava reduced from 5.11 in 2011 to 4.03 this year.

Voters could not vote freely
It has been alleged that voters could not vote freely in the Paurashava elections held on December 30. The media reported several instances of ballot box stuffing, occupation of polling centres, fake voting, violence and similar irregularies in many Paurashavas. For these irregularies, voting in 30 centres was suspended. However, according to election observers, these irregularities were merely the tip of the iceberg. 

Even elections held on January 12, 2016, were not free from irregularites. For example, according to a Prothom Alo(January 13, 2016) report: "The repolling in Madhabdi Paurashava of Narsingdhi was marred by occupation of polling centres and unchecked fake voting by outsiders ... Despite the deployment of adequate number of the law enforcers under one adminstrative magistrate in each of the 12 voting centres and the presence of eight Election Commission officials, booth capturing and fake voting took place. . . by 12 noon the supporters of boat took control of 10 of the 12 centres."   

Normally, violence takes place on the Election Day. However, in recent elections, violence began much before the polling day. A compilation by SHUJAN, based on newspaper scanning, identified 50 cases of violence from December 7-26. On December 26, 11 cases of violence took place, which scared many voters, keeping them away from polling centres on the Election Day.  

Lack of transparencyof the electoral process
According to a Prothom Alo report (November 26, 2015), the Election Commission appointed government officials as returning officers in 175 Paurshavas, ignoring its own officials. Allegations were raised that these retuning officers ignored the law. A report by Ittefaq on December 8, 2016 states that "the law does not allow the nomination of more than one candidate for the same position by political parties. But this was ignored by the Returning Officers of Paikgacha of Khulna, Magura and Betagi of Barguna ... Even though in one Paurashava Mayoral candidate contested while holding the Vice Chairman of Upazila Parishad, the Retuning Officer did not cancel his candidature". 

Questions were also raised about the voter turnout rate. In Paurashava elections held in 2011, the turnout rate was 58.66 percent. However, in the elections held on December 30, the overall turnout rate was 73.92, although in five Paurashavas, the rate was over 90 percent and in 74 Paurashavas, it was over 80 percent, the credibility of which was questioned by several observers. In addition, in the recent elections, there were allegations of 'nomination trade' and vote buying.

In recent elections, the violation of the code of conduct was rampant, which was largely ignored by the Election Commission. For example, even though 23 ministers and MPs alleged to have violated the code, the Election Commission took no punitive actions against them. In addition, there were allegations of Commission's ignoring more than 100 complaints of violence and irregularities during the elections (Jugantor, January 5, 2016), though the Commission has the authority to even cancel the election. Such inaction called the Commision's neutrality as well as the transparecny and credibility of our electoral system into question. Thus, the recent Paurashava elections cannot be called genuine or acceptable.

The writer is Secretary, SHUJAN: Citizens for Good Governance. 


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