As expected, the Municipal elections of December 30, 2015 turned out to be a major victory for candidates with Awami League's election symbol - the 'boat'. The process of voting began early at 8-00 a.m. amidst the fog and cold of the winter morning. The number of voters in most polling centres however reduced significantly after about three hours. In some centres, there were very few voters after lunch during the afternoon. Nevertheless, the Election Commission (EC), in a briefing on December 31 claimed that the voter turnout was about 73.92 per cent and that a total of 4,481,760 registered voters had cast their vote in the Mayoral constituencies. EC Deputy Secretary Shamsul Alam indicated that the highest turnout for a Municipality was 92 per cent of registered voters and the lowest was 47 per cent.
Statistics revealed by the Election Commission a day before the vote said that 234 Municipalities would participate in the polls exercise. There were other statistics as well. There would be 943 Mayoral candidates, 8,746 Councillor candidates and 2,480 candidates for Reserved Councillor seats. The total number of registered voters in these Mayoral constituencies was mentioned as about 7.1 million.
The interesting aspect however was the serious effort undertaken by the Election Commission and the Administration to supervise the election effectively so that there would not be any post-election controversy. Accordingly, 67,233 officials performed the task of Returning Officers and Polling Officers in the 3,555 polling stations. There was a composite security force of 117, 304 personnel drawn from the law enforcement-agencies - the BGB (Border Guard Bangladesh), RAB (Rapid Action Battalion), Police and the Ansar. This was done to ensure that the voting would take place within a paradigm of security. It was an intensive effort, indeed.
Unfortunately, the evolution of the electoral process started receiving the wrong kind of attention in the media from December 29. It started with the revelation that seven Mayors, 94 Councillors and 40 Councillors in the Reserved category had already been elected unopposed. This prompted some analysts to observe that the Mayoral election process would be a repetition of the 2014 General Election. The Election Commission and senior officials of the Awami League, however, posited that all efforts would be made to ensure that the elections were held in a credible manner in a peaceful atmosphere. This aspect was emphasised because for the first time the Mayoral candidates were participating in the polls as representatives of different political parties. There were also some who had joined the fray as 'rebel' candidates (to demonstrate their disagreement with the manner in which some candidates had been chosen by the two principal political parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party). But the elections of Councillors were held in the old non-party basis.
Contenders for the post of Mayor in the 234 constituencies included 945 candidates - 234 from the Awami League, 223 from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), 74 from the Jatiyo Party, 57 from Islamic Andolon Bangladesh, 21 from JSD, 17 from the NPP, eight from the WPB, six from JP (Manju), four from CPBD, 12 from other parties and 285 as Independents. Such a mix obviously led one to assume that the elections would be interesting.
The scenario on the Election Day, December 30, was monitored very carefully by both the print and the electronic media. Their active presence in different constituencies was unfortunately seen as a threat by some of the supporters of many candidates. This led to at least 15 journalists being allegedly attacked and some being threatened at different polling stations in Habiganj, Sunamganj, Munshiganj, Thakurgaon, Natore and Mouvibazar. The attackers tried to vandalise the journalists' cameras and in some cases even took away their mobile phones. Article 19, an international human rights organisation working for the protection of freedom of expression, which covered the polling process in 266 polling centres of 67 Municipalities in 63 Districts, has noted that at least 47 cases had come to their notice where journalists had been prevented by force from entering polling centres. The Election Commission later explained that they in some cases stopped journalists from going into polling areas so that officials responsible for credible polling could carry on their work in an uninterrupted manner without difficulties. The media, of course, differed with this explanation and alleged that in these few centres they were obstructed from filming irregularities that were taking place. As expected, the Awami League and the BNP blamed each other for these incidents. It needs to be remembered here that the number of such reported incidents appear to be quite insignificant (less than 2.0 per cent), given the fact that the total number of polling stations was 3,555. Nevertheless, there should have been a more responsible approach in the treatment of the media. We must not forget that they are the agents for ensuring transparency and accountability.
In addition to the above, irregularities allegedly committed by different political parties led to 36 Mayoral candidates of different political parties, including one from the Awami League, pulling out of the electoral race on the election day. They claimed that they were forced to take this decision due to misuse of influence by some candidates through the local administration. Such allegations were, as expected, refuted by both the Administration and the officials of the Election Commission. Both claimed that the polls had been 'free and fair'.
The Election Commission has since mentioned that results in 227 Municipalities out of 233 indicate that the Awami League has bagged 177 Mayoral positions, the BNP had won 22, the Jatiyo Party had been victorious in one and the rebel Independent candidates had won 27. The Election Commission has also announced that they had, in the interest of proper election, postponed polling in 50 polling stations, including 12 polling stations in Madhabdi of Narsingdi, 10 stations in Chaumuhani in Noakhali, four in Syedpur of Nilphamari, three each in Thakurgaon, Jamalpur and in Chandanaish in Chittagong, two each in Ulipur of Kurigram and Kalkini of Madaripur and one each in the Districts of Mymensingh, Comilla, Narail, Patuakhali, Jamalpur, Faridpur, Chandpur, Shariatpur, Barguna and Jessore.
It was reported that one person was killed and about 30 others injured in intra-party and inter-party violence.
The BNP, as expected, has rejected the results of the Mayoral elections. They have asked for the resignation of those responsible in the Election Commission for holding the Mayoral polls and alleged that they have failed to uphold their constitutional responsibilities. The Jatiyo Party has also accused the ruling party activists of forcing the people out of polling stations and the Election Commission for their lack of impartiality. Both of these political parties have underlined the need for impartial investigation and inquiry in the polling centres where irregularities (including alleged stuffing of ballot boxes) had taken place. They have demanded that if the complaints are found to be true, then the results need to be quashed and steps taken for fresh voting in the affected centres. The Election Commission needs to be pro-active with such complaints and take suitable action on such grievances (if submitted in writing) by examining the evidence in a totally impartial manner and then publishing the result of their investigation in the media. This will help to restore credibility and confidence in this institution.
Nevertheless, the Awami League has evaluated the election results from a broader perspective. They have claimed that barring some unfortunate transgressions, the polls were held in a participatory and credible manner that included live transmission and monitoring of the polls by the electronic media. This aspect was proof of sincere intentions on the part of those who helped to initiate the process of this latest election.
The Prime Minister, in this context, has been correct while she expressed her appreciation of the BNP for joining the Municipal elections and shunning the politics of arson and destruction. This attitude on the part of this major political party should encourage them to refrain from any negative, violent or disruptive demonstrations on January 05 - the anniversary of the January 05, 2014 general elections. That is essential for any future constructive engagement in the domestic political arena.
The writer, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in
foreign affairs, right to information and good governance. firstname.lastname@example.org