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UZ Polls a mockery of democracy in Bangladesh

Special Correspondent
Historically, people of Bangladesh are enthusiastic about elections and voting rights . They are more enthusiastic when the elections are held for local government bodies.
This time, the upazila elections of 2019 2019 , however, have been viewd by the political observers as a funeral of local government elections. The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies, left parties and most Islamist parties boycotted the polls protesting at fraud and flaws that marred the December 30 general election.
People of Bangladesh are specially enthusiastic about local government elections as the candidates are familiar to them and they represent a particular local unit — a village, a union, or a municipality which inspires emotional harmony or disharmony to provoke all-out participation. Competition between geographical units, clans and communities gives an adds glamour to the voting process of the local governments. This is why the local government elections, such as union councils, municipal corporations and upazila councils are keenly interest-awakening and well-participatory.
But the ongoing upazila elections of 2019 show a different scenario. It has so far failed to show the expected glamour at grass roots all through the country. This is because of the fact that this time, the elections are being held under partisan system and a good number of political parties have boycotted the elections. This election is the first ever wherein political parties nominated candidates for the upazila parishad (Council)
As  a result, so far, 200 representatives, including more than 108 chairmen, are already elected uncontested in four out total five phases of the ongoing 5th upazila parishad elections, according to Election Commission officials. All the uncontested chairmen aspirants were nominated by ruling Awami League.
Free ride for 25% Upazilla chairmen
Almost one-fourth of the chairmen in the first four phases of Upazila elections have been elected uncontested in 459 local government bodies. At least 223 candidates won the election unopposed including 112 chairmen, 52 vice-chairmen and 59 female vice-chairmen. A number of 16 independent candidates are yet to be announced elected due to the stalled voting, settlement of appeal and last moment cancellation of the nomination withdrawal at the court. There might be a change in the number of winners upon the verdict of the court, said the officials at the Election Commission. The independent candidates have been elected uncontested to all three posts in the fourth phase of elections in 15 Upazilas, said Atiar Rahman, deputy secretary at the EC. There have been 15 similar Upazilas in the second and third phase of elections. Of the 492 upazilas in the country, polls were held in 78 upazilas in the first phase on March 10, 116 upazilas in the second phase on March 18, and 117 upazilas on March 24 in the third phas, the fourth phase was held on March 31 and the last phase will be held on Jun 18.
In the first phase of the upazila parishad elections held on March 10 at 81 upazilas, 15 chairmen were elected unopposed and no election was required in three upazials as all the representatives were elected uncontested. Candidates of the ruling Awami League in the first phase of the upazila parishad elections secured the chairman posts in 58 upazilas while independent candidates including AL rebels were elected at 23 upazilas.
In the second phase of the polls held on March 24, candidates of Awami League secured the chairman posts in 74 upazilas while independent candidates including AL rebels at 38 and Jatiya Party candidates were elected two upazilas.
Candidates of the ruling Awami League secured the chairman posts in 83 upazilas in the third phase of the upazila parishad elections while independent candidates including AL rebels were elected chairman at 38 upazilas and a Jatiya Party (JP) candidate was elected at one upazila. According to the results compiled by the Election Commission officials, of the 83 AL chairmen-elect, 38 were elected unopposed in the third pahse of the polls.
In the fourth phase of the polls, the AL-nominated candidates secured 58 chairman posts, while its rebels and independent candidates were elected in 23 upazilas.  So far a total of 108 chairman candidates have been elected unopposed — 39 in the fourth phase and 69 in the previous three phases. All of them are from the AL, according to the EC.
Independent candidates bagged almost one-third of the chairman posts
More interestingly, independent candidates bagged almost one third of the chairman posts fighting against the ruling Awami League nominees in the first three phases of upazila parishad elections beginning on March 10. The Election Commission data shows that independent candidates won 99 chairman posts as results of 315 upazilas were available till March 25.
One-sided UZ polls also marred with rigging, boycott
Though one-sided (No opposition political parties), the third phase of upazila parishad elections in 117 upazilas were held amid huge violence, vote rigging, irregularities and violation of electoral code of conducts on March 23. Facing irregularities, the Election Commission suspended voting at all centres of Katiadi upazila in Kishoreganj. Polling at 14 stations in rest 116 upazilas was also suspended. It is reported that a good number of contestants in different posts boycotted the polls midway protesting against irregularities. The Election Commission suspended voting at all centres of Katiadi upazila in Kishoreganj following allegations of irregularities during the 3rd phase of upazila elections. The Election Commission has suspended election in Pirojpur’s Mathbaria upazila and Noakhali’s Kabirhat upazila over polls related violence between the ruling party men and its rebel candidates.
Similarly, the fourth phase of upazila parishad elections held on March 31 also saw sporadic violence and irregularities in a number of places. The voter turnout in the 107 upazilas that went to polls this time was low as in the previous three phases. Voting was suspended in all the 46 centres in Cumilla’s Titas upazila following allegations of ballot stuffing and vote rigging. Besides, 12 centres in five upazilas of three districts saw polling suspended over the same allegations, Election Commission Secretary Helal Uddin Ahmed said at a post-polls briefing.
Deaths, clashes, suspensions vie with low turnout
If low turnout was an issue during the ongoing upazila parishad elections, the spree of incidents on March 31 had thrown in sturdy competition to put a dampener on the polls. In the 107 upazilas, 25.5 million people were expected to cast their votes. While election was scheduled for 122 upazilas, all candidates had won unopposed in 15 upazilas.  Three deaths by cardiac arrests have been reported during the fourth phase of the upazila polls in Jessore and Tangail. Most polling centers reported fairly low voter attendance even at the fourth phase of the polls.. In the 107 upazilas, 25.5 million people were expected to cast their votes. While election was scheduled for 122 upazilas, all candidates had won unopposed in 15 upazilas
In the ongoing Upazilla polls, seven people, including two election officials and four Ansar and VDP members, have been shot dead and at least 26 others injured in a gun attack in Rangamati. The officials were engaged in polls duty at three polling centres in the Baghaichhari upazila during the second phase of the Upazila Parishad Election held on March 18. Another injured succumbed to his injuries. An upazila Awami League chief was gunned down and killed right before his family in Rangamati on the same day, hours after seven people were shot dead in another upazila of the hill district. Besides, a UPDF activist was shot dead allegedly by a group of JSS-MN Larma men on March 15 in Akkhai Karbaripara area of Khagchhari’s Panchhari upazilahttps.
At least four people sustained bullet wounds in a clash centring the ongoing upazila elections near a polling centre in Mognama union of Pekua upazila on March 24.  Besides, a police constable sustained bullet injuries as miscreants attacked and opened fire at a polling centre in Chandnaish upazila of Chattogram on the same day. The injured constable Farhad Hossain of Chandnaish police station was admitted to Chattogram Medical College Hospital.
Besides, at least two more people were killed and 10 others injured in a factional clash of the ruling Bangladesh Awami League (AL) cantering the recently-held Upazila Parishad elections in Kalai upazila of Joypurhat on March 17. The deceased are Aftab Hossain of Monnapara village and Ratan Hossain of Mahissyapara in the upazila.
An Awami League activist has also been killed in election violence in Kushtia. The deceased, Ujjal Pramanik, 35, was allegedly attacked and killed by members of Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JaSoD). The incident occurred in the Mirpur upazila of the district.
Besides, a group of Awami League supporters allegedly vandalized seven houses belonging to the Hindu community during post upazila polls violence in Tikari village of Sadar upazila. Witnesses said the supporters of Awami League candidate Abdur Rashid launched an attack and vandalized the houses as they were supporters of independent candidate JM Rashid.
During the 4th phase of poll, in Munshiganj, two people were shot immediately after the voting ended at a polling center. Both injuries are severe, with one having taken a bullet in the chest and the other shot in the throat. Md Faisal, 32, and Ruhul Amin, 45, have both been transferred to Dhaka Medical College Hospital for advanced treatment.
What do record-low turnouts at the polls indicate?
Abject apathy regarding the upazila polls continues unabated as voters remain indifferent to electing a representative in their respective upazilas. Turnout has been as low as 8%, while a 20% turnout has been deemed acceptable and normal by the authorities.
According to Election Commission (EC) sources, during the second phase of upazila elections, Dakshin Surma upazila in Sylhet experienced the lowest voter turnout of 8.63%. The second-lowest turnout was in  neighbouring Jaintiapur upazila with a 9.38% turnout.
During the same phase, Bogura sadar upazila saw a 13.13% turnout, and Rajshahi’s Bagmara upazila saw 13.19% voters turn up during the first phase.
According to the Election Commission, the first phase reported voter turnout below 30% in at least seven upazilas in five districts. During the second phase, the number of upazilas was 12, from six districts.
But while election experts have begun to grow concerned over dwindling voter participation and the alarming rise of uncontested winners, the Election Commission seems pleased with itself. However, EC Secretary Helal Uddin Ahmed, after the second phase, said a free, fair, and peaceful vote is far more important than voter attendance.
Finally, in all three previous phases, voters appeared to be uninterested in casting ballots, with the overall turnout hitting the lowest since the resumption of upazila elections in 2009.In the 2009 polls, voter turnout was 70.57 percent, which fell to 61.23 percent in 2014. It dropped further to 43.31 percent in the first phase of this election and 41.25 percent in the second phase. The turnout stood at 41.41 percent in the third phase.
Not concerned’ about low voter turnout in upazila polls, says EC
However, Election Commission Secretary, Helal Uddin Ahmed, has said the commission’s priority is to hold “peaceful voting,” and not to worry about voter turnout. He made the comment after the third phase of upazila elections ended with a low voter turnout.
“Percentage is not a matter. The commission is not concerned about voter turnout; rather, peaceful balloting is our mandate,” Helal said, after polls closed at over 100 upazilas. He further said, the low turnout was natural as one of the political alliances boycotted the elections.
Asked about the credibility of the elections due to a fewer number of voters, the Election Commission secretary said: “There is no provision in the law stipulating a minimum voter turnout.” “The voter turnout in phase one stood at 43% and we expect it to surpass 45% in the second phase. For the third phase we expect it to be between 40-45%.”
High turnout will cause more irregularities in Upazila polls, EC claims
While many quarters, including election commissioners, have spoken of their frustrations with the low turnout in Upazila council polls, Election Commission Secretary Helal Uddin Ahmed has again found an upside to it. “Irregularities would have risen had there been efforts to increase the presence of voters. We wanted to see how many people actually come to the polling centres,” he told reporters after voting in the fourth phase of elections to the local government body held on March 31.
“We prioritised peaceful elections over raising the presence of voters. And the polls were largely peaceful,” he added. Reporters pointed out that seven people, including election officials and law enforcers, were killed while returning from polling stations in Rangamati after voting in phase-2 Upazila elections. Secretary Helal, however, did not agree to describe the killings as election violence, but a conflict between Chittagong Hill Tracts people.
He also refuted Election Commissioner Mahbub Talukdar’s claim that tough measures against officials involved in irregularities in Upazila polls were absent during the parliamentary elections.
‘Remote-controlled polls will jeopardise election management’
Election Commissioner Mahbub Talukdar on March 31 said elections to the upazilas will not be fair and flawless, if the upazila parishads were not made free from the control of lawmakers. “If elections are remote-controlled, election management will be jeopardised, which is untoward for democracy,” Mahbub said while reading out a statement to journalists at his Nirbachon Bhaban office.  He made the comments as the fourth phase of upazila election witnessed low voter turnout.
No trust or interest in the election system
Voters began losing their enthusiasm for elections from the 2014 polls, with the lack of participation of all parties, violence of the opposition and candidates winning uncontested. Then the voters were further frustrated with the local government elections from 2014 to 2018. These elections were marred with allegations of widespread rigging, irregularities, faulty management and the inert stand of the election commission.
And then voter interest was regenerated when all parties were to participate in the 11th parliamentary polls of 2018. They hoped for an inclusive and fair election. But that was not to be. The election was widely questioned at home and abroad and the impact of this will linger for long. The statement of the chief election commissioner himself, and of one of the commissioners, was a clear admission that ballot boxes had been stuffed on the night before the election.
The public also has doubts regarding the statistics of the 2018 election. According to the election commission, voter turnout over the entire country exceeded 80 per cent. Yet in five large cities and towns, the electronic voting machine (EVM) voter turnout rate was 51 per cent. This has given rise to questions. No one could explain why there was an almost 30 per cent decrease in votes in the EVM.
In this election, the ruling party secured 76.44 per cent of the voted and the main opposition party BNP 12.33 per cent. In the first election, held in 1973, Awami League under Bangabandhu’s leadership cinched almost 74 per cent of the votes. For the first time in the election history of Bangladesh, over 100 per cent of the defeated candidates will lose their security deposit.
After that, the first and second phase of the upazila elections hardly saw significant voter turnout. This was a one-sided election, particular in the post of chairman. There were ballot boxes stuffed on the night before the election and the election commission intervened. The commission and the law enforcement were relatively more active in this election. During the parliamentary polls the election commission was virtually inactive. This is how, from the 2014 election onwards, voters steadily lost their enthusiasm.
CEC now wants remedies for stuffing of ballot boxes
Finally, Chief election commissioner KM Nurul Huda on March 28, expressed his helplessness over stuffing of ballot boxes, adding that the commission wanted to put a stop to this and did not want to compromise further at this stage. ‘We want remedies for stuffing of ballot boxes and we shall not compromise in future. We are now at the closing stage and the commission would not tolerate further irregularities,’ the CEC said, addressing a view exchange meeting with the law enforcement agencies at Feni Circuit House. He said that people were aware about powerful quarters involved in occupying polling stations.

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