Polls descend into farce

vote rigging

The much anticipated city polls ended yesterday amid a systematic manipulation of the election process by ruling Awami League activists.

Although largely peaceful, the election in all three city corporations – Dhaka south and north and Chittagong – was marked by widespread vote-rigging in the absence of polling agents representing the opposition candidates.

While the BNP withdrew from the polls, followed by the Jana Sanghati-backed Zonayed Saki, ruling Awami League leaders said the elections were fair and peaceful. The Communist Party of Bangladesh, which had fielded candidates, also rejected the elections later in the evening.

Ruling party leaders said the huge voter turnout and festive spirit were indicative of the fairness of the polls, while the opposition parties rejected the polls saying they were abjectly unfair and absolutely unacceptable.

They alleged that the ruling party activists and polling agents, in connivance with the police and cooperation of the election officials, did not allow the oppositions’ polling agents into the centres. As a result, they were free to stuff the ballot boxes.

BNP policymaker Moudud Ahmed, flanked by Dhaka North mayor aspirant Tabith M Awal and Dhaka South candidate Mirza Abbas’ wife Afroza Abbas, called the elections “farcical.” He said the elections had become “meaningless” and was therefore withdrawing.

Saki said he had hoped despite all the foreboding that the polls would have a semblance of fairness. But since that was not the case, he rejected the polls.

Rejection of the polls came first from BNP-backed mayoral candidate of Chittagong, Manjur Alam. He also announced his retirement from politics.

The Election Commission, for its part, remained mum. When asked about these allegations, all Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmed could say is: “Show me where this happened … Show me!”

This comes in sharp contrast to his bold pronouncement from a day before when he said: “Irregularities shall not be tolerated.” Rakibuddin had warned of strict measures at the slightest hint of irregularities.

The American and British were quick with their statements. Both expressed disappointment with BNP’s withdrawal halfway through the election day and called for impartial investigation of widespread allegations.

While both the UK and US statements appear to acknowledge that there were widespread grievances worthy of investigation, the US mentioned that such reports were credible but the UK refrained from making any comment.

The first hint of manipulation came early as journalists were not allowed into the centre immediately after polls opened at 8am.

Dhaka Tribune journalists managed to go in half an hour later only to find the ballot boxes already full. There were no explanations from the election officials.

In another centre, law enforcers escorted journalists and barred them from inspecting certain booths. When Tribune reporters did manage to visit such restricted booths they found ruling party men openly stamping ballot papers in favour of the ruling party candidates in the absence of polling agents from the opposition parties.

These polling agents, a crucial element of the elections, were prevented from performing using a number of ploys. In one instance, as Afroza Abbas alleged, nine out of 10 agents were allowed to enter a centre upon which they were all arrested by the police and hauled away.

At other places they had either been warned beforehand and the BNP-backed candidates could not get as many agents as were required. In some other centres the agents were turned away even though they managed to get in.

Tabith Awal made such a complaint within the first hour of voting.

The law enforcers appeared to be complicit with the ruling party activists barring cameras and journalists at certain centres, saying that cameras were not allowed within 400 yards of polling centres, although election officials had issued no such order, either regarding cameras or pressmen.

One of the Tribune’s senior reporters was even offered money by no less than the local ward chief of Awami League only to keep him from visiting a certain room of a polling centre.

There have been widespread reports of Awami League activists forcibly taking over polling centres and stuffing ballot boxes with false votes while they barred voters.

One reporter also witnessed ruling party men following an old man into a booth to see how he voted. When they found it was the wrong symbol, they turned on him beating him all the way to the door.

Reporters found ballot boxes full within 20 minutes at certain booths. At other places, election officials openly admitted that ruling party men had forcibly taken away ballot papers and cast votes for their candidates.

One such footage shows a presiding officer saying in front of a television camera: “Please understand. I just want to get out of this alive.”

There were similar statements from a number of presiding officers, while at some other centres election officials were found actively collaborating with the ruling party men in rigging the election, while elsewhere the police provided the necessary protection. At other places the officials conveniently looked the other way.

There were also a number of complaints from voters who said their votes had already been cast. One young voter said his father, who had passed away a few years ago, had also managed to vote at his polling centre.

The scenes were no different in Chittagong where Dhaka Tribune correspondents saw scores of ruling party men involved in all manners of irregularities and vote rigging.

They drove out the agents and volunteers of the BNP-backed candidates and even forced the opposition supporters to leave the queues.

In many centres, they were seen openly stamping the symbols of Awami League-backed candidate AJM Nasir Uddin.

At some of the centres, the presiding officer had nothing to do but watch helplessly; in other places, the presiding officers themselves were complicit.

Dhaka Tribune correspondents found that ruling party men were active from early in the morning, in most cases, during the first hour of voting.

There were also a number of reports of journalists being attacked by ruling party men as in Dhaka.

Source: Dhaka Tribune