MARKED with violence and irregularities, the 5th phase municipal elections in 29 of the 30 designated municipalities was held on Sunday. While the Election Commission termed the polls, ‘more or less free and fair’, widespread vote-rigging and electoral violence including the death of a supporter of a councillor candidate in Nilphamari was reported. In Saidpur municipalities, four people were seriously injured in a clash between supporters of two councillor candidates. The candidates of Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Jatiya Party and Islami Andolon have boycotted the polls in many areas. Voters were reportedly prevented from casting their votes by the supporters of Awami League backed candidates. Polling agents of candidates other than the ruling party were removed or barred from entering the polling station. Unauthorised presence of ruling party activists in the polling centre is also reported. The reported violence and irregularities however are not unique to the 5th phase municipal elections. Since the beginning of the polls on December 28, 2020, at least eight people including a councillor-elect have been killed in electoral violence.
Despite allegation of violence and vote-rigging, the Election Commission maintains that the municipality elections are conducted in credible manner. In Saidpur, where blatant violation of electoral rules and death of a supporter of councillor candidate is reported, the secretary of the commission indicated that the death may not be a result of electoral violence. In Jhenaidah, denying their responsibility to ensure a level playing field for candidates of all political parties, the secretary of the commission said that boycotting poll is a ‘choice’ of any candidate and that the elections took place in a ‘festive mood’. The remarks of the secretary appear rather callous and suggest the commission’s lack of commitment to upholding people’s right to franchise. It is, therefore, not an overstatement when the opposition party candidates claim that these controversial elections are increasingly becoming tools to ensure continued political control of the ruling party. Elections in the recent history of Bangladesh, as related by voters, have become a façade, are an instance of robbing people of their democratic right to vote and the low voter turnout is a testament to this reality.
In order to restore citizens’ faith in the electoral process, the Election Commission must abandon its strategy of denial and needs to take the allegations of violence and vote-rigging seriously. The commission must own up to its mandated responsibility, which is to conduct credible elections with equal participation of all political parties, and investigate all allegations of irregularities. It must act knowing that legitimising unfair political control of a particular group, turning a blind eye to the vote rigging, in fact hurts the very foundation of democracy. In the case of municipal elections, controversial elections are contributing to the weakening of local government. Conscientious section of society must, therefore, raise their voices and continue to mobilise to reclaim people’s right to franchise.
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