Space For Rent

Space For Rent
Thursday, April 30, 2015, Baishakh 17, 1422 BS, Rajab 10, 1436 Hijr


Commentary
BNP again deprives voters of their right of franchise
Syed Badrul Ahsan
Published : Thursday, 30 April, 2015,  Time : 12:00 AM,  View Count : 19

The withdrawal  of the BNP-backed candidates for the mayoral offices of Dhaka North, Dhaka South and Chittagong City Corporations from the elections on Tuesday raises a good number of questions. And all these questions relate to the overriding issue of democracy in the country, indeed of the future of representative government in this People?s Republic.
The BNP?s position with regard to the city elections calls for a recap. Shortly before voting commenced on Tuesday, Begum Khaleda Zia asked the electorate to bring about a silent revolution ?- nirob biplob ?- through electing her party people as mayors and councillors. She also urged the voters to take ?silent revenge? against the government through ballot. She gave clear instructions to her party men to stay at the polling stations till the very end and not leave until each and every vote had been accounted for.
The BNP Chairperson?s words did not quite match her party?s actions and decision on Tuesday. Indeed, the whispers that had been going around in the final few days before the voting ?- that halfway through the voting on Election Day the BNP would pull back its candidates  ?- turned out to be eerily true. When Moudud Ahmed, flanked by Tabith Awal and Afroza Abbas, told the media that unprecedented rigging was forcing the BNP to withdraw from the elections, that image of a silent revolution, of exhortations to the party faithful to stay till the last count of the votes, suddenly was not to be seen. Why did the BNP do it? By suddenly boycotting the elections half-way through it Begum Zia deprived the voters of their right to choose their candidates. She retreated from the war partway of it leaving her workers high and dry.
One may ask that question for some very good reasons. In the first place, Afroza Abbas did not cast her vote despite the frenetic pace she had earlier set in campaigning on behalf of her ?fugitive? husband. Are we to assume that she had known early on of the Moudud press briefing and that there was therefore no point in going to the polling station?
In the second place, the BNP clearly had not understood or had deliberately ignored the non-political nature of the corporation elections. Under the rules, all local government elections are non-party and therefore centred around the individuals taking part in them. The candidates Moudud Ahmed said were taking themselves off the elections were technically BNP-backed nominees, not BNP nominees. Besides, they had been taking part in the elections under the banner of the Shoto Nagorik Committee, a pro-BNP body of professionals. How was it, then, that the Shoto Nagorik Committee did not announce the withdrawal but the BNP did?
And now comes that significant question: When is a withdrawal from elections actually a withdrawal? Convention dictates that a candidate or a party withdraws from an election or boycotts it before voting gets underway. And once the voting is done and the ballots counted, it is for those unhappy with the results on various grounds to lodge a protest or let the country know that serious lapses had occurred in the voting.
By such standards, the BNP was clearly on the wrong foot on Tuesday. And this is how it was in that unenviable position: it had not informed the Election Commission earlier that the candidates it backed had changed their minds and were not taking part in the elections after all. Again, when Moudud Ahmed informed the media about the withdrawal, half the day had already gone and voting had indeed been taking place at a brisk pace. The rule here is again simple: candidates do not boycott an election in the middle of the voting. All the names, all the symbols are on the ballot and they cannot be erased once the procedural formalities of the electoral contest had been gone through. Elections are no-nonsense affairs.
It is interesting, in fact quite intriguing, that M.Manjur Alam was compelled to withdraw from the race in Chittagong. His statement of withdrawal gave him, or those who had forced him to abandon the election, away. Eyes brimming with tears, voice choking with emotion, Alam told a bewildered electorate he was not only taking himself out of the election but was also saying farewell to politics for good. He ignored the words which Amir Khosru Mahmud Chowdhury, seated beside him, prompted him with to voice before the media.
The BNP?s move to withdraw came as a damper for the electorate, as the fading presence of voters at the polling stations soon after the withdrawal announcement so clearly demonstrated. Suddenly, it was the right of franchise that was undermined by the party, in much the same way that voters across the country were deprived of their right to vote at the general elections of 5 January 2014 when the BNP refused to take part in polls. The absence of the BNP at the time was a rude repudiation of political pluralism.
That said, no one denies the irregularities which have occurred at some spots in the course of the day. The United States embassy is disappointed over the ?widespread, first-hand and credible reports of vote-rigging, intimidation and violence that have occurred at polling stations.? The Americans would like a transparent and impartial investigation of irregularities committed during the elections. Agreed, but ?first-hand and credible reports?? The British High Commissioner notes that it is important that ?all allegations of irregularity are investigated swiftly and impartially.? The US and UK envoys have, as we understand, been disappointed over the BNP?s withdrawal from the elections midway through the voting. The overdo and extra enthusiasm of diplomats in visiting the polling centres and commenting on the local government elections raised eyebrows in many.
The Election Commission should go into a whole and proper review of the elections, focus on the areas where lapses occurred and ensure that such incidents do not happen again.
But let no one miss the woods for the trees. The country crossed a significant threshold on Tuesday. Warts and all, democracy is on the move.










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