With some improvements in the Covid-19 situation in Bangladesh, the country recently witnessed elections in 160 union parishes and nine upazila parishes. In these elections, according to electoral commission reports, 43 candidates in union parishes and four in upazila parishes won without dispute — and all were affiliated with the ruling party, the Awami League (AL ). With these 43, a total of 69 candidates were elected uncontested in the Paris trade union elections in its first phase. Apart from that, last week’s partial legislative elections in Cumilla-7 constituency also saw the unopposed election of an LA candidate. Over time, the number of unopposed winners in local elections has increased. But has anyone thought of the dire consequences or worrying signs that this kind of uncontested, voterless election could have on the future of the democratic process?
According to the information available, elections were to be held in a total of 379 trade union parishes in April this year in the first phase. But due to Covid-19, it was postponed until June when elections were held in 204 union parishes, 167 being postponed again for various reasons. Of these, in 160 parishes, polls were held on September 20 and the other seven have not yet taken place. Surveys were also conducted in nine upazila parishes. The results of these polls indicate that 27 percent of the winners in union parishes and 45 percent in Upazila parishes achieved their victory unopposed, raising serious questions about their democratic legitimacy.
However, such uncontested elections are not a sudden phenomenon in the country – a lack of confidence in the electoral system has increased since 2014 in Bangladesh. We saw the result of this during the last elections, which manifested itself on the one hand in the disinterest or indifference of people to go to the polling stations, and on the other hand in the fact that they did not are not interested in running for office. This is how the whole system is approaching its demise. An objective analysis of all post-2018 elections can shed light on this situation.
If I remember correctly, the first City Corporation election in Dhaka after 2018 was only able to attract 30% of the voters. After that, the Dhaka-5 constituency by-election attracted only 10.43% of voters. This is how the fall began, but now it has spread across the country like a rapidly spreading virus. One can remember a time when elections held at union parishad level – the lowest level of local government – would lead to a sort of festive atmosphere in every corner of the villages. Today, this tradition has practically disappeared. People, except government party supporters, do not even want to run for such local elections. Needless to say, it’s a sort of silent protest against the current electoral institutions that people are turning away from the polls.
We can see this degradation of the electoral system in Bangladesh from two angles. First, from 2014, the Election Commission has, whether intentionally or not, totally failed to create a “level playing field” for all stakeholders and political forces to ensure their participation in the electoral process. The ruling party candidates took advantage of this situation and played their own game with the unholy support of the local administration. From my own experience, I can say that in the 2018 election, many age-old electoral rules were ignored in some places, such as the “closed and secret hall” voting system, and many voters felt directly intimidated, especially where election officials and administration did not strictly enforce the rules. Such experiences led many opposition candidates to believe that there was no point in participating in the elections, and many voters in the polling centers also felt discouraged and disengaged, which was responsible for the creation of widespread voter apathy in the face of potential denial of the right to vote.
It is a well-established fact that since 2014 the people of Bangladesh have lost confidence in the electoral system and electoral institutions. It is a worrying sign of impending disaster for the nation. We must now seriously think about how we can keep democracy alive in the country. By now it should be clear that this cannot be achieved by killing the electoral system.
Moshtaque Ahmed is a former UN official.