The city polls charade
IT'S been a while since the city dwellers have settled back in their routine lives. The horns canvassing for votes for mayors and councillor aspirants have ceased blaring, sporadic demonstrations of their supporters no longer hinder traffic flows, the poster-filled roads and walls are being gradually cleared and the new mayors are about to sit in their much aspired offices of authority.
At the national level members of the ruling Awami League are gloating over their recent 'electoral' success. They feel their position, as espoused by the party chief, that the BNP had inflicted so much pain and sufferings on the people over the last few months did not deserve to win, stand vindicated. For them the results were obvious. How could a party expect to fare any better when it failed even to mobilise polling agents for its candidates, they ask. Their ideologues, noted intellectuals and celebrated commentators, go on to elucidate that militancy, terrorism and symbiotic links with Jamaat had led to people's disillusionment with the BNP and this was translated into the party's electoral debacle. The Awami stalwarts do not find any problem the way the election process unfolded. For them the 'bit of irregularities' that took place was within acceptable limits. After all, no country can ensure absolute fair polls, they reason. The Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), the individual responsible under the Constitution, holds identical view.
Unfortunately, not everyone shares this official narrative on the efficacy of the polls. Almost all opposition mayor candidates boycotted it by mid-day. The Election Working Group, a platform of 28 non-partisan civil society groups did not find the elections credible by any standard. The TIB observed that "irregularity took place under political shelter and muscle power" and accused the Election Commission (EC) of "politically biased attitude". Poll observers of development partners and the UN found serious anomalies in the way the elections were conducted. Some even claimed to possess credible evidence of vote rigging, intimidation and violence and demanded "thorough investigations of the irregularities".
Such contra positions to official account were reinforced by a plethora of television footages, newspaper reports, photographs and recorded accounts of individuals who were denied their right to franchise by the supporters of the ruling camp; in many instances aided and abetted by members of law enforcement agencies and those responsible for conducting the elections. The social media is bloated with video recordings of mass stamping of ballot papers, accounts of helpless election officers and armed goons turning away eligible voters.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of vote rigging the ruling quarters and its surrogate EC refuse to take facts into cognizance and insist that the elections were free, fair and transparent. Instead of refuting the cases of fraud presented in the formal and the social media, the spin-doctors of the establishment became busy questioning the intent of those who had furnished evidence of massive fraud.
A review of the election process lays bare that neither the government nor the EC was disposed to deliver the much-cherished fair, inclusive and transparent elections. The elections were called at a time when the country was in the middle of a political chaos and senior and mid-ranking leadership of the opposition BNP were either incarcerated or were on the run. As the election process gained momentum a major potential mayoral contender was arrested under dubious charges and was placed on 20-day remand. He was unable to enter the foray. The CEC capriciously refused to entertain pleas to shift the election date and create an enabling level-playing field made by a pro-BNP citizens group. Many of its candidates continued to remain in hiding for fear of arrest. After a lot of dithering the BNP finally decided to take part in the polls.
The mood in the run up to the elections was upbeat. The parties nominated fresh faces with smart ideas. Candidates debated and discussed their development agenda face-to-face in several public platforms – on television, on stage and in newspaper interviews. Creative schemes to make cities environment and gender friendly struck the right chord among the voters. The civility displayed by contending mayoral candidates - posing for group photograph arm in arm, embracing each other and even seeking each other's vote - was a lesson in itself for the political leadership of national level.
Regrettably, such positive vibes for an exercise in democracy did not lead to its logical conclusion. Little did the electorate realise that forces were at play to rob their right to franchise in the most blatant form and they would soon be the victims of yet another round of cooked up elections. The unfolding of events on the eve of the elections and on the election-day dashed all expectations of those who dared to hope for a better future for the country's politics.
The partiality of the EC was reflected in the run up to the elections as well as on the election day. For the first time in the country's history the EC solicited the opinion of the police in fixing the date of the polls. It rejected the opposition pleas for shifting of the date and meeting some other conditions to ensure a level playing field. It failed to halt appointment, promotion and development activities of city corporations that compromised a fair election procedure. It refused to take any action against attacks on Khaleda Zia and her campaign team and reversed its decision to deploy army on grounds of "misunderstanding". All these factors point to the Commission's obvious bias in favour of the candidates supported by the administration.
The EC's tilt was no less pronounced on the eve of and on the day of the elections. Press reports, photographs and narratives of many involved in the election administration process have amply established its culpability in undermining fair election. The EC failed to call in and deploy army and take any meaningful action in cases of alleged ballot stuffing in favour of ruling party candidates, intimidating and expelling polling agents of the opposition camp, restricting access of journalists and accredited observers to polling centres on spurious grounds and protecting and extending necessary support to the functionaries involved in election duty who came under threat. No less graphic is the case in which EC Secretariat's own observers were attacked and their laptop and cameras snatched. In an instance, a treasury bench MP, Ekhlas Molla, was alleged to have seized the camera of one EC observer and delete the photos from the camera. No action was taken in this case either. All these have led the eminent local government expert Tofail Ahmed to observe, "It does not seem that there was such a body as the EC during the polls… They have completely failed."
Thus the city polls failed to deliver on the expectations that it generated among the populace. Once again it became clear that the incumbent political leadership has little faith in the collective judgement of the people and the constitutional body such as the EC is merely an appendage of the executive arm of the state.
The writer teaches International Relations at the University of Dhaka. He researches and writes on migration and rights issues.