Supporters of the ruling Awami League gather outside a polling station in Tejgaon, Dhaka, during mayoral polls on Feb. 1. (Photo: Rock Ronald Rozario/UCA News)
The Awami League party clinched Dhaka’s mayoral elections, which were marred by low voter turnout and allegations of rigging.
Awami League-backed candidates Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh and Mohammad Atiqul Islam won the Dhaka South City Corporation and Dhaka North City Corporation polls respectively against Ishraque Hossain and Tabith Awal, both backed by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) opposition on Feb. 1.
In addition, Awami League-backed councilor candidates won 98 out of the 129 wards in the two city corporations, while Awami League rebels, the BNP and independent candidates won the rest.
For the first time, Dhaka city polls were held fully using electronic voting machines (EVMs) instead of conventional paper ballots amid tight security.
Yet the polls recorded one of the lowest voter turnouts in the history of national and local government elections.
Total voter turnout and casting was no more than 30 percent, K.M Nurul Huda, chief of Bangladesh Election Commission (EC), told journalists on Feb. 1 while declaring the results.
There were more than 54 million eligible voters and only about 14 million cast their votes in the elections, according to the EC.
Irregularities, violence and blame game
The elections were tainted by various irregularities including capture of polling centers by ruling party supporters, forcible expulsion of opposition supporters and polling agents and casting of votes by supporters of ruling party candidates in the guise of helping voters to use EVMs, media reported.
Supporters of rival candidates clashed outside several polling stations, leading to chases and explosions of crude homemade bombs, TV channels reported.
Four journalists covering the polls were attacked and injured by ruling party supporters as they tried to capture irregularities inside polling stations.
UCA News visited three polling centers in central Dhaka on election day and found extremely low voter turnout. All centers were completely taken over by supporters of ruling party candidates and there was not a single supporter or polling agent on behalf of the BNP.
The BNP observed a day-long hartal (strike) across the capital on Feb. 2 and called for a nationwide protest on Feb. 4.
“We reject this farcical election. Ruling party thugs have occupied polling stations, intimidated and attacked BNP polling agents and supporters to manipulate results in their favor. The Election Commission has been partisan and its inaction show no polls under it can be fair and credible. Low turnout also proves people have also denounced this election,” Mirza Fakhrul Islam, BNP secretary-general, said on Feb. 1.
Awami League leaders brushed aside the allegations as “ridiculous” and called the elections free and fair and credible.
“This election, using EVMs, was the most free and fair election in 100 years,” said Mahbubul Alam, Awami League joint secretary.
“The BNP lost the election due its own weaknesses, and now it is trying to tarnish the election through falsehood. It means this party does not believe in the voting rights of people.”
A blow to democracy
A church official and political analyst termed the election a blow to democracy in the Muslim-majority South Asian nation.
“People have lost interest in the election for various reasons — they are doubtful whether they can cast their votes freely, they are afraid of muscle power and violence, and they don’t feel their votes really matter in determining election results, which are often marred by allegations of rigging. This drastic decline in interest about elections is a big blow to democracy,” Father Anthony Sen, a member of the Catholic bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission, told UCA News.
Peoples’ non-interest and insecure feelings over the election are a result of the ruling party’s absolute control over the polls to hang on to power since the 2014 national election, the priest said.
Dr. Shantanu Majumder, a political analyst in Dhaka, echoed similar sentiments.
“What happened on Feb. 1 is the result of long-time election irregularities. A power play has been in action in all recent national and local elections since 2014, and now we can see the electoral train has been derailed completely. This is a result of our overarching politicization of state machinery over the years,” Majumder told UCA News.
“Our civil society needs to take an impartial and constructive role to convince political parties to refrain from power-grabbing politics and end the politics of the blame game. We must reform our political culture and election mechanisms if we want to improve our image globally.”