The polling atmosphere was eerily festive. Almost too peaceful to be true.
Election posters flooded every nook and cranny of the capital. Supporters of the candidates, mostly from the Awami League, were seen outside the polling centres. Law enforcers patrolled the streets while peace prevailed.
Yet, an astonishingly poor number of voters turned up at the centres in the high-voltage Dhaka city polls, dampening the spirit common in elections in the country.
Almost all the polling agents at the centres were for the mayoral and councillor candidates chosen by the AL.
The Daily Star correspondents could hardly spot polling agents or supporters of the BNP candidates at the centres. It was as if an invisible force made them disappear on the election day.
Unofficial results show that both the AL mayor candidates won the city polls by a big margin.
Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh, AL mayor candidate for Dhaka South City Corporation, bagged 424,595 votes, while his rival Ishraque Hossain of the BNP got 236,512 votes, according to results from the 1,150 polling stations in the DSCC.
In Dhaka North City Corporation, AL mayor candidate Atiqul Islam secured 447,211 votes. His rival Tabith Awal of the BNP bagged 264,161 votes, show results from the 1,318 voting centres in the DNCC.
Before the announcement of results from the returning officer’s office, both Atiqul and Taposh met Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at the Gono Bhaban around 9:30pm.
Meanwhile, the BNP rejected the results and called a daylong hartal today in the capital.
“We are totally rejecting the city elections. A dawn-to-dusk hartal will be observed in the city on Sunday,” BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said at a press conference at the party’s Nayapaltan central office last night.
Earlier, the party submitted a written complaint to the Election Commission, alleging “irregularities” in the city elections.
As in the previous polls, the BNP could not put up a fight in this election as well. Though the party could assemble a good number of leaders and activists in the run-up to the election, the polling agents of the BNP candidates were largely absent on the election day. This showed their incapacity to stand against the ruling AL.
Fakhrul alleged that all agents of the party’s mayoral candidates were either barred from entering the polling stations or driven out of those.
“Presiding officers and members of law enforcement agencies played the role of mere spectators.”
The BNP has been in a tight spot after its humiliating defeat in the December 30 national polls in 2018. Since then, the party could hardly carry out any meaningful political programme except for some meetings and rallies.
‘EC COULDN’T EARN TRUST’
The poor turnout in the city polls speaks volumes of apathy that has developed among voters regarding the electoral process.
Reports from our correspondents indicate that voters’ presence was thin at most of the polling centres where over 54 lakh voters were supposed to elect the city’s custodians.
And this, according to experts, indicated people’s diminishing confidence in the country’s electoral system.
Many people were deprived of their voting rights in some of the previous elections, they said. Also, the Election Commission has failed to create enthusiasm among the voters to go to polling centres.
“It is probably the outcome of the previous elections. Voters did not have confidence that they would be able to cast their votes without any fear, and their vote would make a difference,” Prof Nizamuddin Ahmed, an expert on local governance system, told The Daily Star.
Given the intensity of the candidates’ campaigns, the voter turnout should have been higher, he said. “But the poor presence of voters indicates that the Election Commission could not earn the trust of the voters.”
Echoing this view, Brig Gen (retd) Shakhawat Hossain, a former election commissioner, said people are losing trust in the electoral system because of the EC’s poor management.
“The election was apparently peaceful with an abnormal voter turnout,” he told this newspaper.
Chief Election Commissioner KM Nurul Huda predicted that the turnout would be less than 30 percent.
“It was a good election,” he told the reporters last night.
According to the EC’s data, the voter turnout was 18.08 percent in the DNCC and 21.27 percent in the DSCC as of 2:00pm yesterday.
In the previous 2015 elections, the average voter turnout in the two city corporations was 43.92 percent — 37.29 percent in north and 48.4 percent in south.
RESEMBLANCE TO DEC 30 POLLS
Yesterday’s polling was quite peaceful. But the city residents found some uncanny resemblance between this election and the 11th parliamentary polls. As in the December 30 polls, there was a one-sided overwhelming show of strength this time too.
Both the BNP mayor aspirants as well as some BNP-backed councillor candidates alleged that the ruling party men drove out their polling agents from the polling centres. In elections, polling agents play a vital role in checking fake voting.
About the allegation, the CEC said, “The [polling] agents must have the strength to stay put… They shouldn’t leave [the centres] if anyone asks them to do so.”
There were a lot of speculations centring yesterday’s election as it was the first EVM-only polls.
The EC used the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) at all the 2,468 polling stations despite reservations from opposition political parties and concern among many voters about how to use the machines.
Many voters complained that they were unable to cast their ballots as the EVMs could not recognise their fingerprints. They also said what made them uncomfortable was that confidentiality in casting ballots was compromised.
Besides, they alleged that inside the booths there were many “helping hands” who cast votes through EVMs on their behalf.
On the issue, Shakhawat said he heard that there were cases where voting through EVMs was manipulated by the people behind the machines.
“Even EVMs could not stop vote manipulation,” he said.
The first election to the undivided Dhaka City Corporation was held in 1994 and the second one in 2002. The government in 2011 split the DCC into two but there was no election.
The two city corporations went to polls in 2015. The AL-backed candidates won the mayoral posts with the BNP-backed candidates boycotting the election halfway over allegations of vote rigging.