The opening phase of the first-ever partisan Union Parishad (UP) polls held in the country on March 22 has been expensive in terms of loss of lives and a lopsided one as results showed ruling Awami League bagged all but a small number of posts at stake.
Many would say the results were pre-apprehended, by all including the Election Commission (EC) which found no problem at all in holding a 'free and fair' election to the lowest tier of the local government. It appeared not at all bothered by the high intensity of violence, irregularities and 'mock' actions by the law enforcing agencies. The BGB practised a good deal of hooting at the public at Mathbaria in Pirojpur, which the force's chief defended saying that his troops were compelled to open fire. He might be right as situation often dictates action. But it seemed to be an over action anyway.
The scale of violence and number of casualties in Saturday's polls can only be compared to the staggered rural election during military dictator Hussain Muhammad Ershad's turn-coat presidency in early 1980s when, if I remember correctly, around 50 people were killed in poll related clashes across the country. This time we have 26 deaths already and it's needless to say the toll is likely to go higher in the second and three more phases of the UP polls.
The second phase of the crucial rural vote is due on March 31. The elections in Bangladesh in recent years have been virtually a one-sided show due to more than one reason. Firstly, because of the EC's closed-eye attitude about irregularities done by the ruling party people and the poll officials who take part in sealing and stuffing ballots themselves and secondly, because of the opposition parties' inability to drive people to create a strong demand for clean vote. What they say or do usually is confined to blaming their opponents of hacking their candidates and the EC for failing to guarantee a 'level playing' field for all contesting parties.
We have been hearing such allegations in all elections, be it a local or national election, and the EC remains firm not to bring any reform to itself and change mode of actions. In the middle, the innocent voters get twisted and caught in violence often finding their votes already cast by someone else. The poll officials in the voting centres play the key role in helping such abuse.
Besides, law enforcers take a 'partisan' role backing the ruling party people as they are subservient to the administration dominated by people from the ruling party and thus feel no responsibility to serve the people. As a result, we have failed to strengthen the democracy that we had earned at the cost of long struggle in an independent country.
The EC takes all people in Bangladesh to be 'blind' and having no sense or feeling to guess the truth. It's not only ridiculous but also shameless. The EC has statutorily claimed that the first spell of UP polls had been peaceful and fair while the whole country witnessed how virulent they were in many places. The EC's 'clean chit' will only encourage violence and unfair voting in the coming phases of the polls and we may see many more lives lost in the process!
Critics ask---how many deaths will make the EC agree upon that election was not fair? Surely, they don't expect an answer. The EC never opens up to public's question, rather is shuts media and curious 'cats' off its perimeter. The independent election conducting agency has always failed to conduct any poll with fairness - though we don't know why. Is it because the EC is under unbearable pressure from the government, ruling party or any other quarters? It looks pretty perplexing when the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina openly says the EC is a fully constitutional body with a clear mandate to conduct elections independently in the country and it has all the necessary powers in its hands to ensure fair voting in a peaceful atmosphere. Then, where is the EC's constraint? No one knows but perhaps the EC, especially the Chief Election Commissioner and his deputies know.
Those standing in the UP polls are mostly known for their 'bad past' and questionable present. Some have switched camp hurriedly to get nomination from the ruling Awami League, some were denied such access and so stood as 'independent or rebels.' They bang on their personal popularity and money power while facing opponents from two major parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The BNP has been in an awkward situation since the party boycotted the last parliamentary election held in January 2014. The other parties are just 'parasites' on these two parties while many other small parties are just 'namesake' entities having no clout at all in the national politics.
Whatever their stance may be, no party except the ruling party has ever liked the EC and it continues to be same now and probably will be in the future. Therefore, chance of a truly free and fair election in Bangladesh looks very remote.
With time passing by, the overall poll synergies have changed for the worst. Previously it was the candidates, their supporters with blessing of their respective parties used to manipulate vote by casting fake ballots and intimidating voters. Then came the era of violence and haunting rivals in the polls. Lately, in recent years, the poll officials themselves have joined rigging (sealing and stuffing ballots) without any shame or concern. Media published photos of poll officials doing these openly but the ever invincible EC keeps claiming everything was right. Is it not funny and irritating?
Anis Ahmed is Executive Editor, The Daily Observer