THE by-election to the Magura 2 parliamentary seat was held in 1994 after the incumbent member of parliament had died. It was a seminal point in Bangladesh’s electoral history. The election was held after the BNP that was in power had lost the mayoral elections in Dhaka and Chittagong. There was, therefore, pressure on the Bangladesh Nationalist Party to win the Magura by-election at any cost. The BNP lost its head and cool and opted to win the seat by mindless rigging. The Awami League, thereafter, rightly made Magura and rigging an election synonymous in Bangladesh with which many voters agreed.
Not any more, not after the present chief election commissioner and the other members of the Election Commission were chosen by the ‘selection committee of experts’ that was established by the president. Almost every election at the national and local levels conducted by the new commission, thereafter, has not just done what the commission under the BNP did in the Magura 2 by-election in 1994, it has done worse. In the December 30, 2018, national election, it replicated the BNP’s Magura 2 by-election as a model for the entire country. It facilitated the stuffing of the ballot boxes the night before the elections that allowed the ruling party to win 293 of the 300 seats that earned it the nickname ‘the midnight elections.’
The just concluded city corporation elections were the commission’s chance, perhaps its last, to establish its credibility with the voters. It thought that it would do so by holding the elections solely on electronic voting machines, the first time in the country’s electoral history. It failed to establish that credibility because it did not take the opposition on board and did not educate the voters in the use of the machines. The machines worked well but only for recording as voters generally expressed satisfaction with the machines although there were glitches that involved the chief election commissioner and Kamal Hossain. They used their national identity cards to vote because the machines denied them access.
Ironically, the machines were responsible for placing the commission and the ruling party in a predicament that they had least expected. The machines recorded the votes that the commission had no way to set aside. The records revealed that only 27.17 per cent of the voters went to the polls, the lowest ever in a city poll. The ruling Awami League’s candidate for Dhaka north mayor’s position won with 17.7 per cent while its candidate for the Dhaka south mayor’s position won by a similar margin. The appallingly low turnout exposed the fact that a good number of ruling party supporters had also stayed from voting with the opposition and non-partisan voters.
Ministers and ruling party leaders tried to deal with it as they had done in the past by explanations that made little sense for a variety of reasons. A senior party leader said that the city corporation elections were the best held in the past 100 years without realising that in his hurry, he undermined all other elections which the Awami League contested and won, including the one which Bangabandhu had successfully led, namely the December 1970 elections, through which he united the 75 million people of the country into a monolith that had paved the way for the country’s independence in 1971.
Other ministers, party leaders and bureaucrats at the commission chipped in with thoughtless explanations that exposed that they were at a loss on how to deal with the turnout statistics and the way the elections were held. One minister said that the voters were at home feasting and, therefore, were not bothered to go out and vote. A few others said that the voters were not interested to vote because of the surge of economic development. A minister and a party spokesman said the low turn-out was all the fault of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. A top bureaucrat of the commission came out with a joke of an explanation when he said that the voters were too busy with their Facebook pages to care to vote.
These ministers, party leaders, Election Commission bureaucrats unfortunately realised soon enough that the city corporation elections were different from the past, that there was no way any more for them to state that the elections were free and fair and get away with it because advances in technology would not permit such explanations any more. They were able to label any unacceptable election as free and fair in the past because the conventional media that were the main source of information were unable to report the truth. In the city corporation elections, because of the development of technology, people themselves watched, recorded and distributed first-hand information on the elections with videos of what they saw that went viral on the internet.
Technology has, thus, made a major difference in the city corporation elections. People this time knew without any doubt that what the chief election commissioner, the ministers and the party leaders were saying were not true when they had said the elections were free and fair because they had first-hand, detailed information about the elections directly from the source with video footage to the contrary. Technology has, thus, placed the ministers, party leaders, and pro-ruling party bureaucrats in the commission in the same predicament as the emperor was with his new clothes in the fairy tale. They could say pretty much what they wanted about the elections at their own risk but they could not fool the people any more.
The technology-based developments related to elections have, thus, established certain undeniable facts that the Election Commission, or for that matter the ruling party, could not dismiss any more as they did with the past elections. These facts were, first, that the vast majority of the polling booths were empty; second, that the opposition mostly had no presence in the polling booths that were controlled by unauthorised people belonging to the ruling party; and finally, these developments also exposed and destroyed the last hope that some people still had of ever seeing free and fair elections in Bangladesh and that the voting machines would make it possible to hold such elections. Reports and videos on the internet and social media showed the problems with these machines even about the chief election commissioner’s predicament where voting machines could not match his fingerprint.
The fact that the commission and the ruling party would, henceforth, not be able to say whatever they wanted about the elections and get away with because of technology was one positive take from the depressing and disappointing city corporation elections. Nevertheless, the elections also pointed at new and far greater dangers. They pointed to the fact that voters not just belonging to the opposition but also non-partisan and many of the ruling party were on the cusp of losing their interest in elections. The danger of something like that happening was articulated by Kamal Hossain and, surprisingly, also by the general secretary of the ruling party. They both said that the low voting turn-out and voter apathy were ominous. Neither explained why.
The explanations nevertheless were self-explanatory. The city elections flagged unambiguously the nearly zero trust among the voters in the commission. Technology indisputably exposed the commission’s pro-ruling party bias that, in turn, led to voter apathy. These exposures were red flags because they would, henceforth, encourage the country to follow regimes that dispensed with democracy to choose their public officials. It might undermine the cause for which hundreds of thousands sacrificed their lives in 1971. In the year of Bangabandhu’s centennial celebrations, it would also undermine the fact that he was one of the greatest leaders in modern history who had successfully united a nation of 75 million to become an independent and democratic country where constitutional politics and free and fair election were his major strategies.
Postscript: The Awami League appears to have forgotten that the rigging in the Magura by-election allowed it to demand elections under the caretaker system that, in turn, allowed it to come to power in 1996. The party should, therefore, spare itself some time and reflect that the latest city elections have established that the present Election Commission has been conducting elections at all levels the same way the commission under the BNP government conducted the Magura 2 by-election in 1994.
M Serajul Islam is a former career ambassador.
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