With victory all but certain in the election for mayor of Dhaka North, Atiqul Islam, the successful businessman-turned-AL candidate who had been serving in the position for almost a year anyway, faced the most compelling question that had emerged out of the day's voting: where had the voters gone?

This encounter with journalists occurred long before the electronic vote counts (which ended up taking as long if not longer than most manual vote counts in recent memory)

were tallied, in fact even before the first results were in. Voting had just ended. And yet you didn't need to wait for the results, you didn't need to know the turnout figure at the end to know. A visit to your own polling centre or the images playing out on the news channels every hour would have been enough to tell you: wherever voters may have been, they weren't at the polling booth.

Atiqul however, was able to put a delightful spin on things. Responding to a query about the low turnout, Atiqul said, "In developed countries, voters' presence usually remains low. Moreover, many city dwellers have left the capital getting several consecutive holidays."

It was the answer of someone who knew he was headed for victory, and wasn't about to let niceties such as 'healthy democratic politics' crash his party. Evidently he had prepared for this, but not bothered to delve too deep into the subject. Or maybe he is just in the habit of making big promises (within 24 hours of his victory, he was promising to "build Dhaka as Switzerland"). But quite apart from the fact that he was conflating the steady, long-term decline in voter turnout in some mature democracies with the dramatic drop in participation rates being witnessed in Bangladesh, where voting is still a relatively novel exercise of a valued right, even the facts don't bear out his assertion.

We looked at a selection of cities from the mayor-elect's 'developed' world - London, Paris, Tokyo, a number of American cities and Zurich (had to have one from Switzerland), and overall found participation rates still holding quite strong, despite suffering long-term decline. The one place where turnout, that too only in mayoral elections, has dropped to our levels is the U.S.A - hardly the developed universe. Even there, turnout for presidential elections is low but actually rather consistent, hovering between about 49 percent and 64 percent for a century (compared to between 33 and 49 percent for the mid-terms). Elections data from the University of Wisconsin covering 144 larger U.S. cities however, depict a decline in voter turnout in odd-numbered years over the previous decade. In 2001, an average of 26.6 percent of cities' voting-age population cast ballots, while less than 21 percent did so in 2011. New York City's last two mayor elections, won by the Democrat Bill de Blasio, have been 26 percent (2013) and 23 percent (2017).

As the chart shows, other major cities of the developed world have suffered nothing as abysmally low as the eventual turnout figures that would be revealed for Dhaka's two municipalities, where barely 1 in 4 registered voters turned up at the voting booth on February 1 (the figure for Dhaka combines DNCC and DSCC votes). The numbers for Paris and Tokyo hover around historic lows. So much for developed countries' voting woes.

As for those who turned up, not everyone's experience was a smooth one. Despite the use of electronic voting machines, overzealous workers reportedly aligned with the ruling party found a way to prevent all of them from casting their vote, with the innovation of the 'help vote'. Having said that, it is best we state our position on the use of EVMs clearly. Despite the creativity of some of the polling agents (more on that later), the overall verdict on their use must be that the good they did far outweighed the bad, since they clearly prevented the day of the election (or even the night before) from being turned into a massive festival of ballot-box stuffing. Indeed, were it not for the EVMs, the true turnout figure of the election may never have been revealed.

If their introduction had been through a more open and transparent process that was respectful of the interests of all the relevant stakeholders, the Election Commission may have been spared from having to deal with the distrust that has taken hold around the whole process of electronic voting, despite being seamless and simple enough, as long as you can fend off those helpers.

Mayor to who?

The most notable consequence of the low voter turnout, of course, is that it produces a severely reduced mandate for the winners. Despite their massive victories, that were to be expected from everything leading up to the election, the two AL candidates can count on very small sections of the electorate as their support base.

With around 58 percent of the vote on a 25.3 percent turnout, Atiqul Islam's mandate is from just 14.8 cent of the total voters in Dhaka North. In Dhaka South, Awami League candidate and mayor-elect Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh's mandate, with 60 percent of the vote on a 29 percent turnout, is from just 17.3 percent of the electorate. The two ruling party candidates are to take over as the city's mayors through an election with the lowest ever turnout.

DNCC has 3,012,509 voters and the voter turnout was 763,188. That means around 75 percent of the people did not turn up at the voting centres. Awami League candidate Atiqul Islam secured 447,211 votes. The BNP did not participate in the DNCC mayoral by-election held in March last year. Even so, the voter turnout was 31.5 percent. And prior to that, in the 2015 DNCC mayor election, 37.3 percent of the votes were cast, despite BNP boycotting the election even before mid-day.

There were 2,453,159 voters in DSCC this time and 713,050 votes were cast. That means, 71 per cent of the voters desisted from voting. Fazle Noor Taposh won the election with 424,595 votes. In 2015, over 48 percent of the DSCC electorate voted- although admittedly allegations of ballot-stuffing abounded.

The Dhaka mayor elections came on the back of the little-noticed Chattogram-8 parliamentary by-election that took place on January 13. There too, Awami League-backed candidate Moslem Uddin Ahmed won in a landslide wide, but the returning officer informed that just 22.94 percent of the electorate had turned up to vote. Notably, those elections too were held with EVMs at all centres.

That has prompted the view from some quarters that the use of EVMs is the reason behind voters foregoing their right to franchise in such droves all of a sudden in Bangladesh. We would do well not to fall for that red herring. The only reason the turnout figure is consistently low in these EVM-run elections is that there is no scope for ballot-box stuffing in such elections.

There has been much hand-wringing and disappointment over the low turnout in the wake of the Dhaka mayor elections. But if we keep looking past the true reasons, this will only get worse in the years to come. Yet addressing them under the current dispensation, with such a dominant ruling party and an opposition torn asunder and rendered leaderless, that may be too much to hope for.

Festive no more

Elections used to entail festivity in Bangladesh, but times have changed. These days they do retain elements of festivity, but they seem to accrue to one side only, that can be seen out in force on Election Day, turning it into yet another day of field-level politics in which their organisational strength and dominant position ensures their opponents keep away. Now the dramatic drop in turnout has made another thing clear: the whole scenario in which elections are taking place is driving even swing voters and unaligned individuals away from the voting booth. Thanks to the authorities' willingness to look the other way, Election Day rules such as the one whereby no campaigning and or other party-related activities are allowed within 400 yards of the polling centres during the voting can be said to count for nothing.

The blatantly partisan role played by law-enforcers is held up by Dr Badiul Alam Majumdar, secretary of Shujan, or Citizens for Good Governance, a civil society platform that has long involved itself in trying to clean up politics in the country, as one of the defining features of such controlled elections, of which different features have filled these pages after various elections since 2015.

The EC is spending huge amounts on arranging the elections (the EVM project itself has already spent a whopping Tk 4,000 crore, a figure expected to swell to Tk 29,000 crore as it expands the coverage), but the voters are not turning up to vote. Yet it would help infinitely more perhaps if it could get itself to observe its own rules. Apparently the EC was not pleased with the voter turnout in the elections to the two Dhaka city corporations. Its secretary M Alamgir told newsmen that the number of votes cast was "far less than expectations". What else did they expect?

He ruled out lack of voters' interest, saying that at least the ruling party supporters would not be disinterested in the polls. He said that there may have been an attitude among the voters that "whether I vote or not doesn't matter". Certainly lack of competition has always been known to be one of the drivers of voter apathy.

At present, the way politics is being played out in Bangladesh presents a very lopsided contest between the AL and its opponents, namely the BNP. Though the party joined the elections to the two Dhaka city corporations as part of its 'movement', eventually it failed miserably to bring its supporters and polling agents to polling stations on voting day, exposing its political bankruptcy and weak leadership once again, say political analysts.

They also said the party's decision to enforce a hartal rejecting the results of the city polls also manifested its policymakers' inability to understand the people's pulse and work out effective and time-befitting action programmes.

A number of political analysts including Professor Tarek Shamsur Rahman of Jahangirnagar University and Badiul Alam Majumdar told UNB that the BNP has failed to play its due role as a political party for a long time due to its wrong policies and lack of political acumen. They said its leaders should overhaul the party and take a well-designed political strategy to stage a comeback in politics with pro-people action programmes.

Dr Tarek Shamsur Rahman said BNP possibly did not take the city elections seriously as the party might have a perception that they would not be allowed to win the polls.

"Their (BNP leaders') body language during the campaign gave me an impression that the party didn't have the strong resolve to come out successful in the election. I also think the party leaders didn't get proper guidelines from their acting Chairman Tarique Rahman about the elections," he observed.

The political analyst also said BNP had no strategy to take its leaders and activists to the polling stations and ensure their party candidates' election agents there. "This is a serious weakness of the party."

He also did not like the dawn-to-dusk hartal enforced by BNP in the capital protesting 'irregularities' in the elections to the two city corporations. "People now don't support hartal and they have an anti-hartal sentiment which was again proved today as people didn't respond to it. I think BNP leaders exposed their political bankruptcy by announcing the hartal going against people's sentiments."

Badiul Alam Majumdar said he visited seven voting centres on the day but did not find the agents of BNP candidates at any of those.

"BNP joined the polls as part of their movement and declared to remain in the field till the last moment together with their supporters, but their sincerity for the voting was not reflected as they didn't put in efforts to go to the polling stations, manifesting the party's organisational weakness," he said.

Taking no prisoners

Another feature of the Dhaka elections this time was the tendency to turn on journalists. There were multiple such incidents. It drew a statement from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemning "the unacceptable physical attacks by ruling Awami League activists against 10 journalists covering last weekend's municipal elections in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka" and calling for those responsible to be brought to justice and even their expulsion from the party. Two of the ten reporters attacked on February 1 had to be hospitalised with serious injuries. One was Agami news website reporter Mostafizur Rahman Suman, who was taking photos at a polling station at Zafrabad secondary school in Mohammadpur.

Suman was attacked and badly beaten on the head at around 11 a.m. after photographing Awami League activists entering the polling station carrying firearms. With his head covered in blood, he managed to escape his assailants and was admitted to a hospital. Suman's photo with blood pouring down his face went viral on the day.

Mahabub Momtaji, a reporter for the Bangladesh Pratidin newspaper, and Business Standard reporter Nurul Amin were roughed up at the Faridabad Madrasa polling station in south Dhaka. Also manhandled were Al Fatah Mamun of the Dainik Jugantor, Poriborton news website photographer Osman Ghani, the Kaler Kantha chief photographer Sheikh Hasan, Daily Star reporter Foisal Ahmed, Dainik Nayadiganta newspaper's Shamsul Islam and the Dainik Inqilab's Faruque Hossain.

"The gravity of this renewed violence against journalists who are just doing their job has reached a completely unacceptable level." said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF's Asia-Pacific desk. "We call on police inspector general Javed Patwary to ensure that those responsible for these systematic attacks are brought to justice. And, given their links to the ruling party, Awami League general secretary Obaidul Quader must move at once to expel activists who refuse to accept the role that the free press plays in a democracy."

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