Voting percentages are a measure of people’s engagement with the democratic process
Our just-concluded general elections have given us two significant results to ponder on. First, the massive voter turnout of over 80% and second, securing 86% of seats in the parliament by one political party -- perhaps the highest in all general elections held in the country so far.
In recent times, only few other countries in the world had a better voting percentage (in presidential elections) -- Kazakhstan (97%), Turkmenistan (97%), and Uzbekistan (91%). But do these statistics tell us the reality about voter participation and democracy?
We are glad that our elections went off rather smoothly without any serious violence or aggression. We are glad that a new parliament is being ushered in, but we should worry about the actual voter participation in future elections.
Official statistics tell us that we had the largest voter turnout on record this time, and we also know that the ruling party routed the opposition in these elections. But along with these astounding reports of voting, we have seen reports in foreign press and media that contradict such claims.
Instead of massive voter participation, we have seen reports of long voting queues that led to nowhere, voter intimidation, and vote booth capture -- types of vote suppression. These reports do not jive with the amazing statistics of voter turnout that have been officially given out.
These contradictions bring to mind the infamous referendum voting in the fledgling days of our country.
In 1977, then-president General Ziaur Rahman called for a referendum to seek legitimacy as head of government in the name of seeking people’s endorsement of his 19-point program.
The referendum was the brainchild of Zia’s military and civil service advisers who also planned its design and execution. The referendum was conducted like a general election, although it was a one-sided affair with no one contesting the 19-point program. The format called for a yes or no vote to be cast by all registered voters in the country in a ballot paper.
But since it was a vote, the referendum was treated like a general election with all paraphernalia that goes with it like setting up polling centers in all villages, recruiting polling officials, and appointment of returning officers.
Officially, the conduct of the referendum lay with the Election Commission, but in reality, a troika of civil servants took over its execution almost as a war game. The troika consisted of the home secretary, inspector general of police, and the director general of National Security Intelligence.
But the oversight of this exercise came from the two intelligence branches of the army, directorate general of forces intelligence, and directorate of military intelligence. These officials and agencies engaged themselves in the plan and design of the referendum, its publicity, and campaign.
Since the government at that time operated in a political vacuum, in lieu of political workers were government officials at all levels, from secretariat down to the districts, sub-divisions, and thanas.
The unique election meant that the government officials not only had to work as election officials but also as campaigners going from village to village asking people to vote, and what to vote for.
Officials from the Secretariat were sent to the districts proverbially in an election campaign mode to supplement the work of the local officials who were already immersed in the work. Deputy commissioners, SDOs, and circle officers were asked to hold rallies to motivate people.
The most egregious part of this referendum was frequent visits by the referendum troika to the districts to educate the district officials on the need for massive voter turnouts to make the referendum as a genuine people’s verdict on Ziaur Rahman.
The deputy commissioners were told that a low turnout will reflect poorly not only on the referendum itself, but the officials in charge of the district. The poor officials were more eager to save their jobs than the referendum. So, they directed all their resources and ingenuity to make the referendum the mother of all elections.
The effect of this historic manoeuvre by government officials to please an autocrat was mind-blowing. The referendum yielded a voter turnout of nearly 90% with 99% of voters saying “yes” to the 19-point program.
Yet, the reality was that most polling centres had hardly any voter, but the ballot boxes were already full by noon, thanks to more than willing union chairmen and members who merrily filled the boxes with desired votes. The union chairmen obliged the thana officials, the thana officials did at the bidding of their district bosses in turn, and the bosses’ boss happily accepted the results.
This egregious turnout and shameless percentage of the vote in his favour actually would hurt Ziaur’s international image very much. He had to seek a more democratic way to seek legitimacy to his regime, through presidential election first, and parliamentary elections later.
We have a come a long way since the referendum days of Ziaur Rahman. He did what he could do, exerting his military power to prove his legitimacy in a clandestine way.
But we claim to be a democracy now. Our actions not only draw the attention of our people, but also of the world body and nations that want to work with us.
If we really have a participatory democracy, we need to demonstrate to the world with actions that are transparent and verifiable. Simple statistics will not do this trick.
In democracies, people show their support for one or the other candidate or political party through voting. Therefore, the percentage of voting becomes a measure of people’s engagement in that democratic process.
Higher the percentage, the greater the engagement. It does not mean, however, a low percentage reflects total disinterest. In the US, fewer than 60% participated in the last presidential elections.
It is not necessary, therefore, to be dejected in a low turnout or to manipulate that figure to demonstrate free and fair elections. Free and fair means when voters are allowed to cast their votes themselves, not by proxy. Proxy votes should not be used to inflate figures or sway the elections one way or another.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.