Before moving on to this issue, we should also flag a concern about the availability and accuracy of public data. Regrettably, the Election Commission does not expose the centre-level data to broader public domain, making the analysis difficult. We believe there can also be some misprints in the available data. For instance, unbelievably high turnout in Sharanpur GPS in the then Jessore-5 constituency may very well be a typo either by the Election Commission or by the NDI who compiled the data and made it available. To avoid using possibly incorrect figures, we will avoid drawing conclusions from single centres.
Voter turnout can be very low in any given polling centre for a number of legitimate reasons such as the geographic terrain or natural calamities. As such, among the 29,978 polling centres, one can very well expect a good number of polling centres where the voter turnout would be much lower than the average national turnout. But one would expect these centres to be scattered around the country. The reality in 2001 was, however, very different.
In the 2001 election, there were some 850 centres where voter turnout was less than half of the total registered voters. Of these, 49 centres were in Bandarban, 67 centres were in Rangamati, and 36 centres were in Khagrachari. In addition, around 87 centres with less than 50 per cent turnout were in Cox’s Bazaar-3. The remaining low turnout centres were almost evenly shared by the other constituencies.
In that election, there are around 35 polling centres where the voter turnout was appallingly low — between 1 to 10 per cent. Among these, 2 centres were in Bandarban, 18 centres in Rangamati, 8 centres in Khagrachari, and 5 centres were in Cox’s Bazaar-3.
Clearly there was something about these four constituencies that made their turnout so low. We know what happened in Cox’s Bazaar-3. And we can guess what happened in the three constituencies in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
In Cox’s Bazaar-3, the election was held on November 1, a month after the national election. In that month, there were allegations of intimidation and harassment against the Awami League workers and supporters. As a result, two days before the election, the AL candidate withdrew from the race in a seat where the party won in 1991 and the margin for 1996 election was below 10 percent. The very low voter turnout in this seat is very likely to be a reflection of a one-sided election where abstaining was used as a means of delegitimising the election.
What happened in the three CHT constituencies? Obviously the terrain may have been a factor. However, there are coastal areas in Barisal and Khulna divisions where geography may make it quite difficult to vote. And yet, these areas don’t show a concentration of low turnout centres. We suspect that the reasons lay elsewhere.
The data do not tell us the ethnic or religious identities of the voters who are staying home. But given the history of the region, we believe the low turnout reflects a lack of participation in the electoral process by the minority voters. We suspect two things. First, some voters could have been intimidated or otherwise prevented from casting their ballots. Second, it could be that these voters were disenchanted with the political system — candidates, parties, institutions — and opted to stay home.
The delicate democracy of Bangladesh cannot afford abstaining as a way of delegitimising a regime. However, this is exactly happened in 2001 in Cox’s Bazaar-3. Low voter turnout can put the legitimacy of the government in question. And particularly in areas such as the Chittagong Hill Tracts, low participation of voters would once again raise the ongoing concerns over the rights and voices of minority groups.
The world has witnessed how a big voter turnout changed the course of history in the American election, which has been for long been criticised for low electoral participation. Ensuring the participation of unheard voices in the upcoming national election will be a major challenge for the government and the political parties given the brief campaign time and the socio-political situation. Swift and vigorous role of the government, political parties, NGOs, and civil society organisations is required in this regard.