Message from Cumilla elections: Time for soul-searching

In the last city corporation polls in Cumilla 10 years ago, over seven out of every 10 voters turned up to vote. This time, the turnout was less than 60 percent. Photo: Rashed Sumon

From a small village-level local government election to the larger parliamentary polls, every election is a learning opportunity – that's the beauty of a working democracy. The recently concluded Cumilla City Corporation election was no different. Now, it's completely up to the stakeholders – the Election Commission (EC), the contending political parties, the voters, the observers, etc. – to decide what they are going to do with these "lessons", whether they're going to do anything differently the next time, or make the same mistakes again.

Interestingly, the only stakeholder that seems to be making decisions based on these lessons are the voters. In the last city corporation polls in Cumilla 10 years ago, over seven out of every 10 voters turned up to vote. This time, the turnout was less than 60 percent.

Although six out of 10 is still quite high in the national context, it is quite low for Cumilla. This decrease could be a reflection of the general voters' fast-depleting trust in the election process. It could be that they don't have confidence in the EC to ensure a level-playing field for all the contestants or that their votes would make any difference in determining the final result.

In all fairness, the "rookie" commissioners assumed office at a time when the EC's credibility is in ruins. None of the ECs in the past decade has managed to hold free and fair elections, barring a few stray ones. With this massive baggage, the Cumilla city poll was truly the first real test of character for the EC.

The EC was turned into a laughing stock when the local ruling party lawmaker blatantly ignored its order to stay out of the city before and during the election, and the EC did absolutely nothing to enforce it. So, we will have to wait and see what the EC does to recover from this embarrassment.

The Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal said that the EC cannot do anything against a lawmaker if he "dishonours" the commission's directives. But that is not true. If the commission thinks that someone's interference can hamper the holding of a free and fair election, the commission can postpone it.

Former election commissioner Brigadier General (retd) M Sakhawat Hossain said that during the first election in Cumilla in 2012, when a minister went to the election area, the commission, through the returning officer, sent a message that if the minister did not leave the area within an hour, the election would be postponed. The minister then left the area.

The failure by this commission to take such a bold step raises the question: If the EC cannot control one lawmaker, how will it control 300 lawmakers in the next parliamentary polls? The last-minute drama over the announcement of the election result also raised questions over its competency to hold fair polls.

The Awami League and BNP also have major takeaways from the election. For the BNP, the lesson is crystal clear: The party cannot afford to lose elections by allowing its local level leaders to "cannibalise" each other. For the ruling AL, it's a major wakeup call ahead of next year's national elections. Although the AL barely escaped with a close victory in Cumilla this year because the opposition tent was not united, it's a clear indication that the anti-incumbency factor is very much in effect now.

Although the election was partisan in nature, the ruling AL candidate contested the election with the party symbol, while his main contender, expelled BNP leader Monirul Haque Sakku, contested it with the clock symbol. This gave Rifat an upper hand.

The AL candidate got around 38 percent of the total votes cast. Usually, it is estimated that AL has around 40 percent of votes in the country. In that sense, AL's vote bank remained almost intact even after staying in office for the last 13 years at a stretch. But the party could not bag the floating votes, and it is probably because of the anti-incumbency factor. So, AL needs to think about the floating votes if it really wants to compete in the upcoming national elections. Otherwise, it will face a serious setback in the next polls.

On the other hand, although BNP boycotted the election, two of its leaders contested the polls and together got around 80,000 votes. The BNP candidates lost as their votes were split. But they bagged around 60 percent of the votes. The BNP's vote bank is estimated to be less than 40 percent. So, the result showed that it got the votes of the floating voters.

The lesson for BNP is that if it can choose the proper candidates and remain on the field till the last minute of the polls, it has a good chance in the next elections. But again, a good election is not entirely dependent on the BNP. The election result also showed that AL's votes did not increase – rather its candidate won the polls by taking advantage of the vote split of the two expelled BNP candidates.

The most important factor that drew my attention was the lack of festivity and enthusiasm over voting. In recent times, almost all the local government elections were one-sided. And many of the times, those who were elected won the elections uncontested. Even in Cumilla polls, two ward councillors were elected uncontested. That is perhaps why people have lost trust in the electoral system.


Mohammad Al-Masum Molla is deputy chief reporter at The Daily Star.


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