No confidence vote for the EC
Since the 2015 mayor elections, we have seen a steady decline in voter turnout in elections in Bangladesh. The latest Dhaka City Corporation elections are expected to have the lowest turnout yet—the culmination of a trend that clearly shows that people have lost their confidence in the Election Commission (EC) and the electoral process. The past few elections have given people the impression that they may be faced with harassment at the polling centres when they turn up to vote, and if they do not, it is highly likely that someone else may cast it for you. The strength of a democracy is demonstrated through free and fair elections, and one with low voter turnout and different kinds of irregularities is bound to create doubts around the legitimacy of the polls and those in charge of ensuring it goes well. Despite that, every time there is an election, the EC says it has been the best one yet, and there seems to be no end to this denial on their part.
However, there have certainly been a number of irregularities in yesterday's elections. Firstly, voters were given very little information by the EC on how exactly to use the newly introduced electronic voting machines (EVM). While the media and candidates themselves tried to make the information available, those in charge of doing so failed to make it available to the masses. We have seen that the Chief Election Commissioner himself was not able to vote with only his fingerprint and had to use the national ID instead. Did the common voter have this sort of access? For voters who were not able to use the EVM, the EC had no plan or alternative arrangement in place for them. Many are reported to have left without being able to exercise their right to vote.
We have also heard reports of opposition party polling agents being kicked out of voting centres. When questioned on this, the EC came back with a ridiculous question—why did the polling agents leave when they were asked to? I think it is quite obvious that they were not "asked" to leave, but that is completely beside the point. If the Election Commissioner is of the opinion that polling agents have to stand their ground when faced with abuse and harassment, instead of condemning the situation where they are faced with harassment in the first place, then it is very clear that they have failed to fulfil their obligations of creating an environment that is conducive to fair elections. In the past, elections in Bangladesh came with a festival feeling and people spontaneously turned up to vote. This environment has now been replaced with one of fear. This has been so easily achieved because of the EC and their willingness to turn a blind eye.
We know the reality of why voters are not turning up to exercise their democratic rights. The EC is responsible for creating a space where voters feel safe and included; where they are not afraid of their democratic rights being taken away from them. However, the EC has evaded this responsibility and instead said that the candidates are responsible for bringing in voters, while the candidates have said the EC is responsible. In this back and forth, one thing is quite clear—no one has really thought about the needs of the voters, despite voters being the core characters in the electoral process. Unless the EC can find a way to place voters at the centre of elections and create a neutral space where they are able to vote without fear of harassment and coercion, there will always be a question mark attached to any polls that are organised under their mandate.
Zobaida Nasreen teaches anthropology at the University of Dhaka.
(Interviewed by Shuprova Tasneem)