Elections past and present

Even when free and fair, elections can be messy

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It was 1994, and we were final year students of Dhaka University. At that time, BNP was in power, following a mass upsurge in 1990 that ousted General Ershad who had been ruling the country illegally since 1982. We can’t remember why I, and many of my batch-mates and friends, could not exercise the right to franchise in the general elections held on February 27, 1991 following Ershad’s exit -- whether it is because of not updating the voters’ list due to time limitations or that we did not care about much, although we also had  a combined role in the mass upsurge.

So, the 1994 Dhaka mayoral polls were something that we were included in in the voters’ list. At that time, I was the Dhaka University correspondent for an English daily and, on election day, was assigned to cover some polling stations in the older parts of the capital. Before I started my assignment, I went to Dhaka University Laboratory School, the designated polling station for residents of Masterda Surya Sen Hall, of which I was a resident, and some other residential halls of the university, to cast my vote.

Soon after I entered the polling room, I found a messy situation. The entire polling station was occupied by the ruling BNP’s student wing Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal leaders and activists, and common students were being compelled to vote on ballot papers in front of them.

When my turn came, I got two ballot papers: One for the mayoral post and one for ward commissioner (which is now called “councillor”). The designated JCD leader for that room, a senior resident of my hall and also a secretarial post holder of my hall’s students’ union, told others that I may cast my vote secretly as he thought I, being a journalist already, would vote neither for BNP nor Awami League (at that time local body elections were not political, but major parties would unofficially field their mayoral candidates. Mirza Abbas was BNP’s candidate and Mohammad Hanif for Awami League).

“He (I) is a journalist, so he will vote for the Communist Party, let him go to the curtain covered place,” I heard him telling others.

His prediction was partially correct. I had voted for the Communist Party candidate for the commissioner post, but for Awami League in the mayoral post as, by that time, I was a strong follower of Shaheed Janani Jahanara Imam who had launched a movement for trial of war criminals, and her call was to vote for Mohammad Hanif to strengthen the movement.

Since then I couldn’t vote in any major local government or general elections as, in most cases, I had to be engaged either in reporting or managing reporting teams. My experience in exercising the right to franchise by myself is limited to some associations’ elections, like the Dhaka Reporters’ Unity and Jatiya Press Club. These are very marginal elections  and the mass people are not very interested, as those apparently matter only to the community.

But, a recent community election drew much attention among the masses. Yes, the engagement of celebrities made the election somewhat interesting, but there are other factors, too.

Perhaps, this was one election of interest where, primarily, we did not see any interference from those who made it regular practice almost on every occasion, especially in case of trade bodies. 

Bangladeshi voters had two general elections in the last eight years: One that was almost one-sided due to a boycott by BNP and its allies, and the second dubbed as “night-vote,” which explains its character itself. Peoples’ interest in an election can be understood from the recently held Narayanganj City Corporation elections, that is to say whether it really was competitive and fair enough.

After the NCC polls, the national politics was rocked by matters relating to the next general elections, particularly selecting people who will conduct the polls sometime in late 2023. At first, the president held talks with major political parties, boycotted by BNP, to form a search committee to select the next Chief Election Commissioner and other Election Commissioners. Then, Parliament passed the CEC and ECs Appointment Bill 2022, although the government had earlier claimed that there is not enough time for enacting such a law, and most people did not know about such a plan before the Cabinet gave its nod to the draft law.

After Parliament passed the bill, it was soon assented by the president, which was followed by the formation of a six-member search committee, headed by Justice Obaidul Hasan of Appellate Division. Now, the committee is in its designated businesses. But neither the passage of the bill nor the formation of the search committee showed any headway in ensuring a participatory general election. Will the Election Commission, to be formed following recommendations of the committee, be able to ensure that?

There is little reason to be optimistic. BNP and its allies showed their disinterest in the law as well as the search committee for what they say is their demand of a neutral government during the general elections.

A constitutional, non-party caretaker government is a closed chapter and, at least for now, there is no constitutional scope for an election-time neutral government. Even if all parties are included in the election-time government, it cannot be a neutral one; rather, it can be called an all-party government, an idea offered by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina prior to 2014 general elections, but turned down by Khaleda Zia at that time, ultimately opting out boycott of the elections by her party and allies.

BNP later found this decision to be wrong and it took part in 2018 elections, and now they think that was a wrong decision, too. So, now they are thinking otherwise, and their main concentration is on election-time government, as they know no matter who heads the EC, it matters who is in power during the elections and what their wishes are, even if it is a non-party caretaker government.

Political pundits may call the decision of ignoring the talks about EC and concentrating on the polls-period government absolutely right, from the perspective of elections held during both non-party caretaker and party governments, but the question is: Who will lead BNP to achieve that demand? After all, Begum Khaleda Zia is unable to from all perspectives, and their London-based leader Tarique Rahman is a liability to the party rather than an asset due to his past.

Zahid Newaz Khan is Chief News Editor of Channel i and Editor of Channel i Online.

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