Low turnout, ministers and ruling party lawmakers meddling in balloting, and irregularities in places marked the long-awaited upazila elections yesterday, meaning a letdown for the Election Commission (EC).
Despite a relatively peaceful atmosphere, people did not come out in droves to vote like they did in the recently held national election.
Concerned, the EC has decided to open an enquiry to find out the reasons.
Referring to poor turnout, Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) ATM Shamsul Huda said, “It will leave harmful effects on the efforts to ensure free and fair elections in the country.”
He was talking to reporters at his office yesterday afternoon.
Election Commissioner Brig Gen (retd) M Sakhawat Hussain sounded quite riled up.
He said violence, seizure of polling stations and ballot-stuffing were done by Awami League men.
Sakhawat, who had earlier visited some polling centres, observed that lawmakers interfered to secure win for their favoured candidates as they want to keep upazila parishads under their sway.
The EC has suspended elections in five upazilas and over 50 polling stations in response to violence and ruling party MPs exerting influence on the election process.
It also ordered that legal actions be taken against at least a minister and a lawmaker for interference in the polls.
The polls chief however appeared undaunted by the setback.
Referring to electoral malpractices under political governments, he said, “We must not let it continue. If necessary, we'll sit with the government and political parties and discuss how to put an end to it.”
Mentioning widespread abuse of power in local body polls in the past, he said they thought some changes were taking place.
“We didn't expect those in power to misuse their office and influence the administration,” Huda said in reference to the lawmakers who had canvassed for their party-backed candidates.
The December 29 parliamentary election, which was praised at home and abroad for its fairness, saw a record 87 percent turnout.
In August last year, elections to four city corporations and nine municipalities under the caretaker government too had a healthy attendance.
The free and fair conduct of those polls is widely credited to a flawless voter list and peaceful atmosphere.
With two successful elections under its belt, the EC had expected a high turnout in the upazila elections as well.
But the way things turned out yesterday seems to have confirmed its fears about the credibility of polls under a political government.
Originally, the commission scheduled the local polls to precede the parliamentary election as it sought to avert the polls being influenced by the ruling party or alliance.
It however had to give in to mounting pressure from the major political parties including AL and BNP, and rescheduled the elections for January 22.
Queried what possibly led to low turnout, the CEC said they are not sure if it was a lack of interest among the voters or intimidation.
“We expected people would show up in large numbers to register their will. This is something always desired in a democratic polity.
“We took all-out preparations to ensure their participation in the elections. But that didn't happen and that's why I'm disappointed,” said Huda.
He said they would look into the reasons why the turnout was low despite no major reports of violence.
“That the elections have taken place after 18 years is however a turning point,” he added.
Election Commissioner Sakhawat said it rests with the government to see whether the elections are acceptable with such a low voter attendance.
He however said the voter turnout might be around 50 percent, which was more or less the case in the previous upazila polls.
“I can at best term today's elections fair, but cannot say they were free. Voters didn't seem to be free to be at the polling stations,” Sakhawat continued.
Asked why he thinks the elections were not free, he said it was because the “government had a stake”.
He said there was no negligence on part of the EC, and the environment too was 'first-class'.
About the local body polls being prone to political influence, the election commissioner said since they could not be held in a non-partisan manner, they should be made partisan like the parliamentary election.
Asked if he is satisfied, Sakhawat said, “Personally, I'm not happy at all.”