Low Voter Turnout, Apathy Mar Bangladesh’s Local Elections

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Low Voter Turnout, Apathy Mar Bangladesh’s Local Elections

A number of factors, including perceived electoral irregularities, a lack of genuine competition, and disenchantment with local governance, has eroded public trust in the electoral process.

Low Voter Turnout, Apathy Mar Bangladesh’s Local Elections

An almost deserted polling center at around 3 p.m. in a village of Sakhipur Upazila in Tangail district during the fourth phase of the upazila parishad Election on June 5, 2024.

Credit: Special Arrangement

A few years ago, Tahsin Irteza, a 23-year-old university student, obtained his National Identity Card from Bhandaria, an upazila (subdistrict) in Pirojpur, Barisal division, where he was born and raised. He planned to vote in the upcoming local elections in his area.

On May 29, the third phase of the country’s sixth Upazila Parishad election, was scheduled to take place in 87 upazilas across Bangladesh, including Bhandaria. Irteza found himself in a dilemma about whether to vote or not. In the end, though, he and all the other voters of the upazila did not even have the opportunity. The candidates for all three posts – the chair and two vice-chair positions – were elected uncontested, as no rival contenders emerged for their respective races in the upazila.

“Firstly, we are all familiar with our country’s current voting system. Initially, I was in a dilemma about whether I should vote or not, as it wouldn’t make any difference,” Irteza told The Diplomat.

“Bangladesh has a population of more or less 170 million. Yet, in my area, there were no contenders against the incumbents?” he said. “On the contrary, we witness political engagement everywhere, from tea stalls to every corner. Hence, it seems somewhat perplexing to us that there are no candidates in a democratic country.

According to Irteza, “The lack of transparency and fairness and low turnout has resulted in widespread apathy and disinterest among voters. Especially among young people, I believe there’s a lack of motivation to participate in a process they perceive as rigged and unfair, resulting in diminished enthusiasm and excitement about the upcoming election.”

The 6th Upazila Parishad Elections were held in four phases across Bangladesh. Starting on May 8 and ending on June 5, four phases of the election were completed among 442 upazilas. (Twenty-two upazilas have yet to hold elections, as their voting was postponed due to Cyclone Remal). Registered voters, totaling approximately 121.8 million, were supposed to cast their votes for one chairperson and two vice chairpersons in the local election.

However, according to the Election Commission (EC), the voter turnout across all four phases averaged 35.8 percent: 36.1 percent in the first phase, 37.7 percent in the second, 35 percent in the third, and just 34.3 percent in the fourth.

A few months ago, in the national election on January 7, the voter turnout was only around 40 percent, according to the EC. However, critics and the opposition say the turnout was less even than the stated figure. The deserted environment visible at most polling places made it easy to criticize the turnout number given by the EC.

The scenario was different in 2009, when the government revived the upazila parishad elections after a long gap.

A Brief History of the Upazila System

The system, introduced in 1982, represented a journey toward decentralized governance when Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad took the reins of power. Originally called “thanas,” these administrative units were rechristened “upazilas” and functioned as subdistricts. The system aimed to empower local communities by placing decision-making closer to the people.

However, early challenges arose due to conflicts between upazila chairpersons and national parliamentarians, leading to the system’s abolition in 1992, the year after the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) came to power.

“When they introduced the upazila government system, there was a debate about power dynamics between the MP and the chairman of the Upazila Parishad,” said Badiul Alam Majumdar, a renowned economist, political analyst and local government and election expert. “Although they both oversaw the same area, it became evident that MPs wielded more influence. Over time, this power struggle escalated, with MPs subtly asserting their dominance over the chairman’s responsibilities. They started to fight silently [to determine] who will be more powerful locally.

“Eventually, the government decided to abolish this system for various reasons… [the power struggle] was one of them,” Majumdar concluded.

As Muhammad Sayadur Rahman of the Department of Public Administration at Jahangirnagar University explained further in a 2012 paper:

The inception of MPs following the 3rd parliamentary election in 1986 ignited tension between legislators and Upazila Parishad Chairman. Regardless of their political allegiance, MPs sought a stake in Upazila authority, as they lacked formal jurisdiction over local administration. Eventually, the Ershad-led administration enacted the Zilla Parishad Act in 1988, establishing District governments and appointing MPs as chairpersons of the District Parishads. However, following the end of military rule, the newly established democratic government showed apathy towards the Upazila Parishad.

During the caretaker government’s tenure from 2007 to 2009, there was a significant focus on empowering local governments. In 2008, the caretaker government reinstated the upazila system, establishing the upazila parisad as an independent local governing body elected directly by the populace, without granting MPs any advisory authority. Subsequently, the Upazila Parishad Act was repealed entirely and replaced with the Local Government (Upazila Parishad) Ordinance of 2008.

However, when the Awami League (AL) government assumed power in 2009, it chose not to endorse the Upazila Parishad Ordinance in Parliament. Instead, it reinstated the repealed 1998 Upazila Parishad Act, incorporating provisions for MPs to act as advisers. Despite recommendations from lawmakers within the parliamentary standing committee of the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development, and Cooperatives to extend this advisory role to MPs in city corporations and municipalities, the government declined to implement these suggestions.

Despite being designated as mere advisers, the interference of MPs in the functioning of upazila parishads has hindered their effectiveness since the January 2009 elections. In response, upazila parishad chairs and vice chairs are now mobilizing to advocate for the restoration of operational autonomy for the local bodies.

The system was revived with modifications after decades. A pivotal moment came in 2008 with the Upazila Parishad Ordinance, which established the Local Government Commission to oversee elections and promote efficiency. It also introduced reserved seats for women within upazila parishads, ensuring a more inclusive approach. Today, upazila parishad representatives, elected directly by the people, play a critical role in driving local development initiatives and fostering grassroots democracy.

Dwindling Voter Turnout

While the system has undergone some changes since its inception, the core structure remains focused on empowering local communities and encouraging participation in shaping their future. However, the historical trends in voter turnout reveal a fluctuating pattern. The year 2009 witnessed a robust participation rate of 70.6 percent, demonstrating a high level of civic engagement. By 2014, this enthusiasm waned slightly, with the turnout decreasing to 61.2 percent.

In the meantime, after the national election of 2008, Bangladesh’s political landscape changed significantly due to the AL government. Armed with a two-thirds majority, the AL and its allies removed the caretaker government provision from the constitution in 2011. Although the AL claimed that this was prompted by a verdict from the highest court, it is widely recognized that the removal of the provision was intended to establish the ruling party’s dominance and remove uncertainty regarding election results. Opposition parties, including the BNP, protested the passage of this amendment.

As a result, in the national poll of 2014, the election was held under the AL government, and in protest the main opposition and many other parties chose not to participate in the election. Things went as the AL planned. In the 2018 national election, the system was the same as there was no caretaker government. That time, the BNP had to participate to keep its party registration. Few considered the polls free or fair, however. Year by year, Bangladesh slipped down in the world rankings of democratic indices.

Come 2019, a more significant downturn unfolded in the upazila election, particularly in the initial phase, where the turnout plummeted to 43.3 percent. This decline persisted across subsequent phases, culminating in an overall average turnout of approximately 40 percent for the year.

Fast forward to 2024, and the trend continues, albeit with a further dip. The four phases of this year’s upazila election, each of them lower than any phase in an earlier year, indicate a sustained trend of decreasing voter engagement. This downward trajectory raises questions about the factors influencing voter participation and underscores the importance of initiatives to revitalize civic involvement in the electoral process.

It appears that voter interest is decreasing as the election progresses. Factors such as rain in some areas, the ongoing paddy harvesting season, and the recent landfall of Cyclone Remal were cited by the officials as reasons for the lower turnout in the last phases. But due to disasters or other unexpected reasons, voting has been postponed in over 22 upazilas. So those electorates are not being counted in voter turnout calculations. And if the agricultural season is such a deterrent to voter turnout, why not hold the polls at another time of the year?

Bangladesh’s Democratic Decline

The declining voter turnout in upazila elections is concerning, and several key factors have contributed to this trend. For one thing, the upazila parishad has become ineffective largely due to unconstitutional interference by MPs and excessive control by administrative officials. This interference undermines the autonomy and decision-making power of local representatives, leading to public disenchantment. When citizens perceive that their representatives lack the ability to effect change, they lose interest in participating in elections.

But there is a deeper problem as well. Over time, citizens’ trust in the electoral process has diminished due to past irregularities, vote rigging, and questionable practices in local government elections. Instances of polling centers being taken over, false votes being cast, and other manipulations have left voters doubtful. The notorious votes during the 2018 general election and the rushed convictions of opposition leaders before the 2024 general election have further fueled this mistrust. Consequently, voters now question the significance of their votes, suspecting that election outcomes are predetermined by those in power.

“Low voter turnout is symptomatic of a larger issue,” Majumdar said. “The essence of casting a vote lies in the desire to elect the most suitable candidate for the incumbent position. However, the prevailing sentiment among the people of Bangladesh suggests a disillusionment wherein they perceive their votes as inconsequential.

“This perception stems from a perceived bias among incumbent individuals, the Election Commission, and administrative authorities. Furthermore, the lack of participation from opposition parties underscores the prevailing skepticism, as they anticipate predetermined outcomes. Consequently, this disenchantment, coupled with concerns over financial burdens and personal safety, serves as the primary reasons behind the diminished participation in our local elections.” he continued.

The people of Bangladesh used to be crazy about elections because of the festivities; however, this festive mood no longer exists in the country. “Even despite the open field where anyone can stand in the upazila election, however, there are still less candidates,” Majumdar said. “The voting system in our country has been totally destroyed.”

Mohammad Rayhan Ahmed (a pseudonym), 35, from Sakhipur, a subdistrict in Tangail district, recently returned from Saudi Arabia, where he had worked as a migrant worker for the past seven years. Since his student days, he has been a supporter of Abdul Kader Siddique, a freedom fighter and former MP, and his party, the Krishak Sramik Janata League. Ahmed even sent money from his earnings to the party office in his local area.

“I was very excited as before about our upcoming upazila election on June 5. However, there is no election vibe or excitement here like before. Although one person from my supported party is contesting, some leaders who do politics for the AL are also contesting this election,” Ahmed told The Diplomat prior to the voting.

“One of them from the AL will surely win. Basically, AL leaders are fighting against AL leaders in different signs. That’s why I may not vote, and neither will my family members,” he said.

A Lack of Competition

The lack of participation by all political parties stands as one of the major reasons behind the rising voter apathy. When major parties boycott upazila elections, voter enthusiasm wanes. Additionally, the deteriorating law and order situation in some areas discourages citizens from visiting polling centers. This combination of political boycotts and security concerns significantly dampens voter motivation. Addressing these issues – rebuilding confidence in the electoral system, ensuring institutional autonomy, and creating a fair and secure environment – is essential for revitalizing voter participation in upazila elections.

Along with the BNP, some major political parties boycotted the local elections in line with their political stance, while many smaller parties are not participating due to a weak organizational base and the tenfold increase in the mandatory security deposit set by the Election Commission.

The BNP and its allied parties have officially decided to avoid the elections, describing them as a “farcical election.” However, despite the boycott by the BNP, many grassroots leaders of the party around the country participated in the election. As a result, the BNP has expelled at least 193 leaders for participating in the upazila elections — 80 in the first phase, 61 in the second, and 52 in the third.

In addition to opposition parties, many members of the AL-led 14-party alliance are also abstaining. While the Jatiya Party (JP), the main official opposition in Parliament, and some partners of the ruling alliance are participating, their involvement is minimal.

“Currently, there are approximately 100 candidates representing the JP nationwide, a figure that, though notably low, has become somewhat customary,” said Adv. Md. Rezaul Islam Bhuiyan, a presidium member of the JP.

“I personally contested in the 12th National Election from Brahmanbaria-2 in Chittagong division,” he added. “On the day of the election, up until 3:00 p.m, voter turnout was a mere 7 percent. This experience left us disheartened and skeptical about the integrity of future elections, particularly given the prevailing perception that the AL tends to dominate most upazila parishad contests.”

Like Ahmed, Bhuiyan expressed concern that democracy in Bangladesh now means choosing between candidates from a single party: “It’s disconcerting to witness members of the AL competing against each other under the guise of open competition.”

The Awami League’s Internal Woes

In January, the AL decided not to use party symbols in the elections, said AL General Secretary and Road Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader.

The AL has been grappling with issues of control among its grassroots leaders. Despite being in power for three consecutive terms, the party has struggled to maintain discipline, particularly at the local level. Party chief and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has directed central leaders to take strict action against those who have violated party rules. This move comes as the AL prepares for its next national council, with the aim of resolving these issues before the event.

Grassroots leaders have been accused of not adhering to the central committee’s directives, leading to intra-party conflict and rivalry. The central committee’s efforts to enforce discipline have been met with resistance, with grassroots leaders often refusing to follow orders and failing to resolve internal conflicts or complete local unit committees.

The party’s recent strategy to allow both independent candidates and official nominees to contest elections aimed to increase voter turnout, especially in the absence of the BNP. However, this led to significant division at the grassroots level, with multiple candidates from the AL competing against each other. The resulting factionalism weakened the party’s unity and contributed to the spread of influence and incidents of violence in the recent upazila elections.

Moreover, despite the AL central committee’s strict directive against the participation of ministers’ and MPs’ relatives in the elections, it appears that this instruction has not been fully adhered to. Reports indicate that over 50 relatives of ministers and MPs pursued public posts in the four-phase upazila elections. Notably, 10 out of 13 relative-candidates were elected in the first phase of the upazila elections, with similar trends expected in the remaining phases.

Hasina has emphasized that the term “family” in the context of the upazila elections should include the ministers and MPs themselves, their spouses, and children. Despite her clear stance, many relatives of ministers or MPs have defied the party’s decision and contested anyway, introducing a new dimension to the ruling party’s politics.

This situation has created a dilemma for several MP or ministers, as some relatives have complied with Hasina’s order and withdrawn their candidacies, while others have chosen to disregard the directives. The outcome of this directive is poised to influence the future political landscape, as those who fail to heed the party chief’s message risk facing consequences.

Barrister Syed Sayedul Haque Suman, an MP for the Habiganj-4 constituency in Sylhet, also very famous to netizens, has been accused of violating the electoral code of conduct during the Chunarughat Upazila Parishad election. The allegations include campaigning for a chair candidate, announcing donations, and promising cash to voters. A complaint was filed by Md Abu Taher, another chair candidate, to the assistant returning officer and Chunarughat Upazila Nirbahi Officer. In his response to the Election Inquiry Committee, Suman denied breaching the electoral code of conduct.

The declining voter turnout in the upazila parishad elections is a concerning trend that reflects broader issues within Bangladesh’s political landscape. A combination of factors, including perceived electoral irregularities, lack of genuine competition, and disenchantment with local governance, has eroded public trust in the electoral process. The absence of major opposition parties, coupled with intra-party conflicts within the ruling Awami League, has further compounded this issue. As a result, voters are increasingly questioning the significance of their participation in what they view as a flawed system.