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January 5 election: facts and opinions



An assistant presiding officer at Banani Bidya Niketan School and College hands over a number of sealed ballot papers to a man to put them in the ballot box on Sunday. — New Age/ Sanaul HaqueAn assistant presiding officer at Banani Bidya Niketan School and College hands over a number of sealed ballot papers to a man to put them in the ballot box on Sunday. — New Age/ Sanaul Haque

The ruling party leaders are entitled to their opinions. But as someone rightfully and accurately stated, they are not entitled to their facts. The January 5 election will be considered in the annals as a disgraceful and reprehensible even, writes Omar Khasru

THE BTV headline all through the day was that voters in vast numbers cast ballots in a festive mood. No one in sobriety and seriousness watches the official channel for news and information. It was just an attempt to check how the electronic propaganda media wing of the government presents the negligible voter turnout. It met my expectation and maintained its disrepute intact.
Awami league spokesman Tofael Ahmed, in a press briefing, minutes after the 4:00pm poll ending, expressed satisfaction over voter turnout. He said, ‘People cast their votes in peaceful manner’ to uphold democracy. Referring to the BNP call to resist and boycott polls, he added that voters have rejected the call.
Tofael Ahmed profusely thanked the officials involved with the process for selfless and efficient bang-up job. Apparently some officials walked the extra mile and put in greater efforts to ensure better participation by the electorate and enhance the proportion of votes.
Journalists making an early afternoon round of the Kajla Alim Madrassah centre in Kishoreganj saw no voter presence. The presiding officer claimed that 90 per cent of the 2,119 voters had already cast votes and went home (Prothom Alo online, January 5). The ruling alliance polling agent agreed with the presiding officer. The polling agent for the remaining independent contestant was nowhere to be seen.
When contacted, the independent candidate, Mizanul Haq, said this election was similar to the 1986 vote mugging and his agents had to flee the centre due to death threat. The plethora of votes cast in this centre early in the morning was in stark contrast to most other countrywide locations. In the Neamutpur primary school centre nearby only 209 votes out of a total of 2,517 were cast over halfway through the voting period.
In most nearly barren vote centres in the morning, officials told reporters that due to cold winter and fog, voters in greater numbers would show up when the sun comes out. Most women would come after completing household chores, they remarked. The midday and afternoon followed but the voter turnout in most places did not improve appreciably.
What, however, improved drastically in some places is the voter count. The count increased from a routine five to ten percent to forty percent or above in the last two hours, thanks to false votes cast by polling agents and AL supporters with a nod and a wink from election officials and law enforcers.
AL activists repeatedly entered and exited Matuail Adarsha High School voting booths, for example, casting false votes aided by polling agents and officials (The Daily Star, January 6). From 8:00am to 2:00pm, 711 votes were cast and 1,096 more were cast in the last two hours out of total of 4,298 voters. The final proportion of votes cast dramatically increased to a respectable 42 per cent.
The same story was repeated in numerous centres all over the country. Ekushey Television photographed false votes being cast in several parts of Dhaka city, particularly in Dhaka 17 and Dhaka 18 constituencies. The beneficiaries were Sahara Khatun, former home minister and later posts and telecommunications minister, and Abul Kalam Azad of the Bangladesh Nationalist Front.
When contacted, Sahara Khatun responded that voters in her area were very conscious and conscientious and would not resort to irregularities. The announced results indicated that she won and so did the BNF fellow.
As for the unknown BNF candidate, winner of the posh Gulshan constituency, this allegedly was a case of quid pro quo or repayment by the ruling party for his attempt to attract dejected BNP members to his similar sounding party and induce them to participate in the election. He failed but apparently was rewarded nonetheless. Press reports indicated that he was helped markedly by the ruling party with campaign, polling agents and perhaps with stuffed vote boxes.
There are press reports about numerous other instances of vote rigging, election engineering and ballot box stuffing. Usually these shenanigans are undertaken to ensure victory of a doubtful, perhaps unpopular and iffy candidate. That might have been the reason to some extent here but an equally important motivation was to show enhanced participation of voters because the actual voter turnout was woefully inadequate.
There was not a single vote cast in 41 polling centres (Manabzomin, January 6). This is unprecedented and something that did not happen in Ershad’s 1988 election, boycotted by the two major parties, or the February 1996 BNP election, shunned by the Awami League, Jatiya Party and Jamaat-e-Islami. According to TV reports, not a single vote was cast in six centres in the problematic and violence-prone Satkhira and the average voter turnout was 5 to 6 per cent in the whole area.
Why such lackadaisical voter turnout? The reasons are well-known. Election boycott by the BNP and allies because the provision of caretaker government was excluded in the controversial 15th amendment, 153 nominees, belonging to the ruling party and allies, elected unopposed depriving the voters the opportunity to pick and chose, the election outcome a foregone conclusion and the fear factor due to violence and sabotage all combined to make the process very unpopular. Most of all, voters were outraged by the devious and manipulative nature of the process.
The pre-poll violence had some 150 polling centres set on fire, election officials attacked and materials grabbed. A hostile and perilous situation prevailed in many areas. The security was very firm in Dhaka city and the polling centres were relatively safe. Even then Dhaka 15: Mirpur constituency had a very low voter turnout of less than 11 per cent. This is despite the opponent, an independent candidate, lodging complaint with the Election Commission of strong-arm action and vote box stuffing by his AL opponent.
This would seem typical in much of the country. But the picture was contrastingly different when the result was announced in many constituencies. Some candidates received more than two lakh votes. This seemed quite amazing and totally anomalous, especially since the constituencies close by showed around 20 percent voter presence.
Some of these seemed to meticulously follow the Awami League instruction to ensure 60 per cent turnout (New Age, January 4). The percentage seemed too high to attain uniformly despite party activists trying hard through false votes. In many voting areas such adherents voting often were apparently asked to ensure 50 per cent voting (The Daily Star, January 6). A single person voting as many as 475 times has been reported in the press.
Chittagong city experienced the characteristic dearth of voters like the rest of the country. The result showed a different story in some constituencies. According to a TV report, a constituency in Sandwip reported a whopping 70 per cent voting. Apparently there was no reporter observing the voting in the island. It was also reported that the city itself showed 28 per cent voting and the rural areas an average of 50 per cent. There were allegations of irregularities in the city. The rural areas probably escaped reporter scrutiny.
A perfunctory and cursory study and analysis would raise serious questions about the validity of such huge and lopsided votes. The electronic media with the exception of the BTV and likeminded few ‘private BTV channels’ all day long kept fretting about the lack of voters.
If over two lakh citizens voted for a candidate, there would be long winding voter lines waiting all day long in many centres. The media would eagerly cover such an event as an exception to other areas. Nothing like that happened. So the excess voter participation indicated in the outcome has to be taken with a grain of salt.
When the foreign observers declined their presence in the election, some among AL leadership derisively commented who needs foreign observers; a voter participation of over 50 per cent would give legitimacy to the event. They all are silent now. The chief election commissioner, mentioning cold winter, some parties boycotting the election and violence, said a 40 per cent voter turnout would be immensely satisfying.
Apparently, an attempt is being made to ensure that. Suranjit Sengupta stated that 42 percent voters cast their votes. He also remarked that there always are false votes scattered with genuine votes. He tried to scoff at the issue of underage young boys voting at different Dhaka city constituencies, reported in the media.
Over a score of candidates pulled out of the election midway through the day because they accused the powerful opponent of vote rigging. In a largely one-party election with the outcome a foregone conclusion, this was surprising. This strongly indicates that powerful candidates with muscle power and money power would go to any length to ensure success.
Observing the election on various TV channels, including a few foreign channels, and talking to various people, one would be hard pressed not to agree with the banner headline in Prothom Alo that roughly translates to: false votes and sleazy election. There is no credible evidence to the contrary, irrespective of ruling party leaders declaring it a free and fair election with spontaneous voter participation.
The various comments from the AL leaders include the lofty claim of an impartial election possible within a party supervision to thwarting BNP conspiracy to mar the election. The election was held with the leader of the opposition held captive in her residence. The fact is most voters decided to stay home and not venture to the voting booth to cast their vote.
The ruling party leaders are entitled to their opinions. But as someone rightfully and accurately stated, they are not entitled to their facts. The January 5 election will be considered in the annals as a disgraceful and reprehensible event.
Omar Khasru is a former university administrator who writes on contemporary political and social issues.




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