Khulna, a precursor to national polls

Khulna, a precursor to national polls

Azzam Khan,
As the recent Khulna City Corporation elections were marked by “peaceful rigging”, there is no scope to term it free, fair and flawless, Shushashoner Jonno Nagorik (Shujan) said at a press conferene. Photo: Helemul Alam Biplob.

When a child, barely seven oreight, walks out of a polling booth with his father and proudly declares he has cast his vote, one wonders. What is the legal voting age in Bangladesh? Surely not less than 18?

This was at the recently held Khulna City Corporation elections. A minor boy actually cast a vote and his father had no qualms about it. But that was only one of the multitude of discrepancies that marked this local government election in Bangladesh.

All eyes had been focused on this election and its strong contenders –ruling Awami League’s Talukder Abdul Khaleque and opposition BNP’s Nazrul Islam Manju. It was Khaleque who emerged the winner, to become mayor of Khulna, but the victory has been shrouded in questions.

Initially the excitement about the elections had been palpable and the contest had set the adrenalin coursing through the veins of the parties’ candidates, leaders, activists and supporters. But the fiasco of another local government election – the Gazipur city polls scheduled to be held earlier — had put a dampener on the high spirits – the high spirits of the opposition, that is. The ruling AL-walas were elated.

The Gazipur election had seemed to be a sure shot win for the BNP mayoral candidate Hasan Uddin Sarkar. But at the last moment, a barely known chairman of Shimulia union council Azharul Islam threw a spanner in the works by filing a writ and holding up the polls. In the aftermath, local BNP leaders, activists and supporters were arrested on an assortment of flimsy charges.

The suspension of the Gazipur polls itself was a violation of the rules. After all, Article 125 of the constitution states, “A court shall not pass any order or direction, ad interim or otherwise, in relation to an election for which schedule has been announced, unless the EC has been given reasonable notice and an opportunity of being heard.”

So, the role of the Election Commission is questioned. It was simply bypassed and not consulted when such a serious decision was taken. Does the commission not yield any authority at all? Is it just a paper tiger? Its inefficacy and shameless submission to the powers-that-be was all the more exposed in the Khulna city election.

In Khulna, the opposition BNP’s enthusiasm waned somewhat with the Gazipur debacle, but even so, they felt ifa level playing field was ensured, winning was a sure shot. But it was, not surprisingly, the ruling party that called the shots, and literally even fired the shots!

Defenders of the ruling clique may write off criticism of the Khulna polls as the invariable reaction of the defeated. After all, it has become a norm in Bangladesh for the victors to gloat over their win in unholy glee and the defeated to point venomous fingers of accusation.

But what exactly happened in the Khulna election? The government declares it was free, fair and peaceful. The opposition BNP declares it was not. What is the truth? Rather than ruminating about what transpired behind the scenes, an objective look at the events, the evidence per se, will be able to ascertain whether the Khulna election was free and fair, or just another farce. A flash analysis of events can reveal more than meets the eye.

In one centre, the voters were forced to vote in the open. Rather than going into the booths, they were made to stamp the ballot papers in front of the ruling party agents and activists, to ensure they didn’t vote for anything but the ‘boat’ (Awami League’s election symbol). No one in their right mind would dare place the seal on the ‘sheaf of paddy’ (BNP’s symbol), not if they wanted to leave the polling centre safely!

Then, in many polling centres, a large number of voters turned up only to find that their votes had already been cast! Who cast their votes? What were the polling officers doing? What is the point of having national ID cards or of being registered on the voters’ list? Who will answer these questions? The Election Commission? It has nothing to say.

The ballot boxes in some centres were filledto the point of saturation. Yet when the books were checked for the voters’ names, signatures and thumbprints, the registers were nearly empty. It’s a strange case of ghost voters, the specters being very loyal to the incumbents.

The officials in one centre had no answer when asked about the pre-sealed ballot papers, done and dusted before the voters turned up. Under what terminology can this be called a free, fair and credible election?

The election commission, despite being so accommodative to the enthusiastic ‘voters’, had to halt voting in three centres. That was howbad thingswere there.

In another centre, one of the Election Commission observers was assaulted by hoodlums of the ruling party ilk. Why did they even bother to send observers in the first place?

As for the ‘neutral’ observers of the Election Working Group, there was hardly any point in their going to Khulna either. The moment the election was over, they declared it to be fair, peaceful and credible. Only when the media gradually exposed the discrepancies and blatant rigging, did they prevaricate from this stand and concede that there had been anomalies in one third of the cases. They hastily added that even so, it wouldn’t have made any difference to the results. In other words, all’s well that ends well. The ends are more important than the means, apparently.

The identity of the observers leaves a big question mark. Among them is a controversial vice chancellor of a public university, and others with overt leaning towards the government. They only observed a partial segment of the election and then did the math. How accurate are their math skills is another matter.

BNP polling agents were forced to leave 80 polling centres. The authorities, again, did nothing.

Government muscle men even opened fire in one of the centres, their gunshots creating panic among the voters. The law enforcement was inert.

And in the days leading up to the election, the police arrested and detained BNP leaders, supporters and activists en masse. The Election Commission didn’t utter a word of protest.

So, this was the Khulna election. The Gazipur one has been rescheduled for 26 June. After the Khulna fiasco, there really is hardly any enthusiasm about this one. It feels like it’s a done deal.

And more importantly, the national parliamentary polls are scheduled for the end of this year or the beginning of the next. So, what can the people expect?

The opposition BNP has long been demanding that the elections be held under a neutral caretaker government to ensure free, fair, credible and participatory elections. But the government will not yield to this demand. Ironically, it was Awami League who forced the imposition of the caretaker government system, refusing to take part in elections under BNP which had been in power at the time back in 1996. But then it was Awami League again, when they were in power, that scrapped the caretaker system and ensured they were at the helm during the elections.

So, the coming national election is to be held under the Awami League government. The BNP chief Begum Khaleda Zia has been placed behind bars and kept in an abandoned jail building. Many of the party leaders are either arrested, in hiding or under threat of a barrage of charges.

What, then, is to be expected of the upcoming general election? Perhaps the Khulna election is a precursor. In an election system where the winner takes all, will AL risk defeat to face the music for all that has transpired over the past years its incumbency?