A dismally low voter turnout is a bad sign for democracy
The dramatic difference in voter participation between last year’s general election (a phenomenal 80% or so) and this year’s Dhaka city elections (officially around 27%) makes us wonder.
Is there a voting fatigue developing in the country? Or is it just manipulation of numbers suiting the occasion?
True, the just-concluded elections for two city corporations of Dhaka are not representative of the state of mind of the general population on voting, but hypothetically speaking, if there were general elections held today, would voters turn out in numbers that were claimed for the last parliamentary elections?
What prevented voters from voting and made them stay home even after university students went on strike demanding that the date of city elections be shifted on grounds that the day conflicted with puja celebrations? The elections were shifted to another day on this demand, and yet the polling booths were empty.
There is no end to hypotheses for low voter turnout in the city elections. These range from intimidation of the voters by supporters of ruling party candidates, to cynicism of the voters on end results (no matter how you vote), to sheer apathy towards city elections because of the perceived inefficacy of the municipal bodies in improving living conditions in the city (no matter who you vote for).
But hypotheses apart, the reality is that the Dhaka mayoral elections had the lowest voter turnout for any elections in the country. Is it really a matter of voter fatigue, apathy, or something else?
A study undertaken after the 2017 UK elections on why people do not vote or participate in voting identified five main reasons.
First is a lack of interest. Voters are tired of what they perceive as empty promises of the candidates.
Second is a lack of knowledge. A good number of voters have inadequate knowledge of how a government operates, or how a government may be made to work for them. In one sentence, they lack political education.
Third is disillusionment with the way things have been going. They do not believe their vote will make much difference.
Fourth is their lack of desire to change the status quo; they are willing to put up with their current representatives.
The last is — and it is most dangerous — voter suppression. People cannot vote even if they want to. Often, it is the last one that leads to low voter turnout.
The above reasons may not all apply to the Dhaka city elections, even though the egregious low turnout flies in the face of the much-touted historic high voter turnout of the last parliamentary elections.
What separates the two are that in the case of parliamentary elections, the country was watched by other nations of the world, but in the Dhaka elections there were no great international interests.
For the parliamentary elections, which were held under threat of boycotts by the opposition (which ultimately did not happen), it was imperative for the government to demonstrate to the world a free and fair election by jacking up the number.
The former were held under great international scrutiny and repeated urging from the international community for wide voter participation.
There was no such compulsion for the city elections. Simply winning by the anointed candidates was the main goal, a massive voter turnout was not necessary. For Dhaka elections, therefore, no attempt was made to change the number of actual participations.
We justified the low turnout by citing numbers from other countries elections, true or not. Is this how we will defend our democracy and future elections in the country?
The most pernicious reason why people do not vote — as per the British study that I alluded to above — was found to be voter suppression. This voter suppression can happen in a number of ways. The most direct form is voter intimidation or prevention of voters from going to the polling booth.
Indirect ways of suppression, which usually happens with government connivance, are preventing people from voter registration, voter impersonation and false voting, lack of voter safety, and many other fraudulent ways which help a ruling party to stop its opponents from voting.
An incredibly high voting percentage or an incredibly low turnout do not augur well for a democracy. The first smells strongly of a high degree of manipulation as it happened in the phenomenal 90% voter turnout in President Ziaur Rahman’s referendum of 1977, and the second of voter suppression because voters did not feel safe to vote.
The melodramatic referendum of 1977 made President Ziaur Rahman go through another election to establish his legitimacy.
The low voter turnout of Dhaka city elections may not lead to another round of elections, but these do not bode well for our democracy. No democracy worth its name can indulge in voter suppression and claim to have free and fair elections.
There are no big elections in the country in the immediate future. But we are supposed to be living in a democracy where we will continue to elect our legislators and local body representatives and there will continue to be elections in the country. People will be called upon to elect their leaders, and candidates will seek their votes.
Will these elections be fair and transparent? Will they be prevented from voting in ways of the past?
The ebb and flow of voter participation depends on the environment the voters live in, and if they can exercise their voting rights freely and without fear. This ebb and flow of participation is not reflected through statistics that may have been manufactured, but through visible voter presence.
In a country where voter safety is contingent upon who you support and who you oppose, the government has a big role in removing the fear from the voter’s mind by ensuring the security and safety of every voter.
It may not be possible for the government to ensure the presence of every voter in the polling booth, but it is possible for the government to ensure preservation of law and order and neutrality of the law enforcement agencies that are entrusted with the safety of all voters.
If we really want a high voter turnout, let us create the conditions for such turnout. Voter turnout will only happen when every voter is assured of their safety and ability to exercise their right to choose.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.