February 3, 2023
DHAKA – Coming a year before the general election, and nearly a year after the formation of the incumbent Election Commission, it is natural that the six by-polls held Wednesday would be viewed against the wider political backdrop. It was, therefore, frustrating to know how little things have changed, despite the relative lack of violence, which would have been something to look out for under different circumstances. It’s quite evident now that any changes, or promises of changes, made over the past year or so only cemented the status quo, which doesn’t bode well for our electoral future.
If we’re to pick a word to summarise the by-polls, it would be “absence” – absence of voters, absence of interest from the wider society, absence of strong safeguards against irregularities, absence of main opposition BNP, whose lawmakers’ resignation from parliament had led to the by-polls. Voter turnout was poor in all the six constituencies. As per an estimate, only about 28 percent of voters showed up, in a trend that has been persistent throughout all local elections and by-polls held over the last few years. The predictable nature of election outcomes, and the lack of trust about the neutrality of responsible state departments, seem to have caused ennui and despair among the people.
It seems almost futile to ask why the Election Commission is failing to address voter apathy despite repeated appeals from election observers. The EC, after the latest by-polls, again stuck to its “peaceful and well-organised” narrative, even though we have received reports of various election-related irregularities from a number of constituencies. The EC’s failure to recognise that the mere appearance of elections is not enough is really alarming. We need fair and participatory elections. And we need the EC to restore the trust of all voters and opposition parties alike.
Another major concern about the by-polls is the “disappearance” of the main rival of the eventual winner in the Brahmanbaria-2 by-poll. This by-poll – which saw a voter turnout of less than 16 percent, the lowest of all constituencies – has been in the news ever since the winner, expelled BNP leader Abdus Sattar Bhuiyan, was backed by the ruling Awami League, which didn’t field a candidate there. Abu Asif Ahmed, an independent candidate, has been missing for about a week now. Which makes us wonder: why is nothing being done to find him? What message does it send to the political opponents of the ruling party? And how long will the EC refuse to address the concerns of the opposition parties?
The culture of fear, distrust and criminality that still plagues our electoral system must be removed, and the ruling party must play a leading role in this. Lack of violence in one election means nothing given how political violence and repression continue to occur in every other sphere. If anything, the recent by-polls have shown that we have remained stuck in the same spot for too long, and the authorities must allow genuine reforms to break this status quo. They must help create a level playing field for all parties, and restore public trust in the function of the electoral system.