The just concluded Dhaka city elections were neither free nor fair because Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League used force and intimidation to get its candidates elected, civil society groups and opposition party members alleged Monday.
Awami officials and the Bangladesh Election Commission rejected the criticism, saying that the introduction of electronic voting machines for the first time in the city polls made it impossible to manipulate the vote.
The turnout was low for Saturday’s city polls, the country’s first major vote since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her party secured a record fourth term after the December 2018 general election. Only 30 percent of registered voters turned out to cast ballots for mayoral candidates and hundreds of others vying for elected city government positions in Dhaka, officials said.
“The Dhaka city corporation polls were in no way free, fair and unbiased,” Badiul Alam Majumder, secretary of Shujan, a civil society organization that advocates good governance, told BenarNews.
“We ran an online polling survey asking whether the Dhaka city corporation elections were free, fair and unhindered. Nearly 4,000 people responded and nearly 95 percent of the respondents vehemently responded that the elections were not fair,” Majumder said.
The city is divided into governing jurisdictions that cover the northern and southern halves of the Bangladeshi capital, respectively. The Awami League retained control of both mayoral offices and won most of the other so-called city corporation positions that were up for election.
The Bangladesh Election Commission arranged the Feb. 1 polls using electronic voting machines to record ballots that were cast.
When the votes were counted, ruling party candidates Md Atiqul Islam and Fazle Noor Taposh were elected mayors of the Dhaka North City Corporation and the Dhaka South City Corporation, respectively, defeating Tabith Awal and Ishraque Hossain, candidates from the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, BNP’s Secretary General, accused the Awami League of taking control of polling stations before voting began.
“This is completely a farce in the pretext of elections. The ruling party men and their hired goons captured the polling stations in advance and drove away our election agents,” he told BenarNews, adding police did nothing to stop them.
The BNP made similar allegations during the 2018 national elections.
The turnout of 30 percent for the latest Dhaka polls was far less than the 2015 city election, when 43 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.
Majumder attributed the poor turnout to three factors – a lack of confidence in the election commission, the use of electronic voting machines and security concerns.
Meanwhile, the top elections commissioner and an Awami League official both challenged claims of unfair elections.
“The election commission’s task is to arrange the elections and we have discharged our duties with honesty and sincerity,” Nurul Huda, the chief election commissioner, told reporters. “It was the responsibility of the political parties to bring voters to the polling stations.”
Awami League member Faruk Khan said the low turnout reflected that the vote was untainted.
“It is not possible to manipulate elections with electronic voting machines. If we had manipulated [polls], the turnout would have been 60 percent. The low turnout proves that the elections were free, fair and unhindered,” he told BenarNews.
“All the allegations have been unfounded. These are simply an opposition campaign.”
Akter Hossain, the joint secretary of Dhaka Union of Journalists, said at least 10 journalists were attacked while covering Saturday’s vote.
Among them was Mostafizur Rahman Sumon, a journalist working for a local online portal.
“The journalist Sumon was talking on his mobile phone. Suddenly, some ruling party men attacked him with machetes, assuming that he filmed video of the center,” witness Mohammad Rasel told BenarNews.
Sumon, who received treatment at Dhaka Medical College hospital, told BenarNews that an Awami League leader came to the hospital and threatened him.
Elsewhere, Shahidul Islam Khan Riyad, a leader of the Bangladesh Chhatra League, the student front of Awami League, and others allegedly confined three journalists.
The journalists, Mahbub Mamtazi of Bangladesh Pratidin, Nurul Amin Jahangir of the Business Standard and Papon of Din Pratidin were at a polling station in the Dhaka South City Corporation. Mamtazi told BenarNews they were talking to two people who alleged they were not allowed to vote.
“We were recording their comments on our mobile phones. Suddenly, at least 20 armed musclemen attacked [us],” he said. “They snatched our phones and confined us to a room for one and a quarter hours. The police then rescued us.
“The police helped to get our phones back, but the attackers deleted all records.”
The Chhatra League’s central leadership issued a statement saying that it had expelled Riyad after the incident.
Riyad did not deny it occurred, but filed a complaint with the Gendaria police that the “three journalists had been working in favor of the BNP-Jamaat political alliance.
“They created troubles at the Faridabad Madrasa polling center, and purposefully tarnished my image and image of the government through publishing reports in newspapers,” he said.
Akter Hossain said his group and other journalists planned to hold a protest rally on Tuesday.
“The terrible attack on journalists covering the Dhaka city corporation polls is not acceptable. These sorts of attack are hindrances to independent journalism,” he told BenarNews.