Grand victory for grand alliance

December 30, 2008

People go for change in fair polls; voters turnout 70pc
Star Report

Hasina flashes V-sign after casting vote. Photo: STAR

Hasina flashes V-sign after casting vote. Photo: STAR

The Awami League-led grand alliance has swept back to power after seven years out of office with a stunning landslide victory in an environment of free and fair elections that clearly showed the people’s verdict for a change and has consigned the BNP-led four-party alliance to the political wilderness.
As of 3:30 in the morning, the grand alliance had clinched 175 seats compared to 23, down from 217 in 2001, won by its archrival BNP-led four-party alliance, more than enough to form the next government.
Jamaat-e-Islami, the BNP’s key ally in the four-party alliance, has seen its once-proud seat tally plummet from 17 in 2001 to a humiliating two, in what appears to be a wholesale rejection of the party by the voters.
A ‘rebel’ candidate from Jamaat-e-Islami also won from Cox’s Bazar-2.
The shocking results clearly indicate that the voters, especially the young and first-time voters, were hungry for change that the BNP-led four-party alliance was simply incapable of delivering.
The four-party alliance offered few new ideas to the voters and appeared to have learned nothing from its two years on the sidelines during which many of its senior leaders were incarcerated on corruption charges.
The defeat of the four-party alliance can be seen as the majesty of the public verdict against the unprecedented corruption and tyranny that marked its five-year rule.
While in power, the BNP-led alliance failed to address a series of vital issues, including soaring prices of essential commodities and power generation, instead focusing on consolidating all power in its hands and misusing the same for personal and political gain.
In its lacklustre campaigning around the country in advance of yesterday’s polls, the four-party alliance failed to unveil a compelling vision to the voters for dealing with crucial issues in the future.
The four-party alliance candidates, and in particular BNP chief and ex-Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, paid scant attention to the needs and aspirations of the voters, instead conducting a negative campaign based on identity politics.
Khaleda repeatedly invoked Islam, requesting that the voters vote BNP into power to “save Islam” and “save the country”. It is believed that this kind of negativity and cynicism is what has been punished by the voters.
The near wipe-out of the Jamaat-e-Islami in the party’s worst election showing since independence also lends credence to the notion that the voters, although religiously observant themselves, have totally rejected the misuse of religion for political purposes.
There is much conjecture that the victory of the grand alliance was the outcome of participation of first-time voters, who turned out in record numbers, and women voters, who outnumbered the men.
A key to the elections was information, both about the corruption of major candidates and parties, that had come to light due to media reports and the anti-corruption campaign of the past two years, and also about the individual candidates that was mandated by the election laws and made available to the voters by the Election Commission (EC), media, and civil society organisations.
It was an experience never seen before in independent Bangladesh: A record number of voters — 70 percent — marched up to polling centres and waited for hours to cast their votes. Defying the winter chill in rural areas, men and women, young and old, some on crutches or in wheelchairs, queued up patiently for the opportunity to pick their representatives.
Young voters came out in droves, their eyes full of excitement, looking for their serial numbers, clearly eager to vote for the first time. Election buntings hanging from strings festooned the roads and walkways and brought a festive edge to the day.
The scenes were more of the same throughout the day as the elections to the ninth parliament finally ended after a gap of seven years from the eighth.
Held under tight security, this year’s polls saw none of the deadly unrest that forced the January 22, 2007 vote to be cancelled and an army-backed caretaker government to take control.
Political rivals shuttered their sharp ideological divides, at least for a day, and smiled at each other, often helping identify voters.
Voters, rather than behaving in herd mentality, proudly swung their votes, saying they looked at candidate profiles rather than symbols. Reports of violence were few and far between and that too with less intensity than in the past. Fake voting was almost absent.
It seemed the long-toiling work on anti-corruption and political reforms had paid off — at least to some extent.
The voters walked to the polling centres as traffic was ordered off the roads. One voter in Dhaka-6 constituency said in excitement: “It’s a very pleasant day. I didn’t have any hassles in casting my vote. I came in here by walking.”
The words sounded as he was leaving Kamrunnesa Girls High School. The road past the school was teeming with voters — all eager to exercise their right to franchise.
The distinctly festive mood of the election could not be marred by the voting mismanagement that was visible in some polling centres in the capital city and elsewhere.
Some voters were left out of the excitement as they failed to find their voter numbers or their respective polling booths. This prompted some people to stage peaceful protests in the capital and elsewhere, demanding the EC arrange voter numbers and polling booths for them.
There had been some reports of people splurging hard cash in a bid to buy voters in various parts of the country.
Yet, with a record number of first-time voters who represent 33 percent of the 8.10 crore voting population, the mood on Election Day was upbeat from early morning.
“I went to my polling centre in Uttara High School at 7.45am, thinking I would be the first to cast my vote,” says schoolteacher Rosie Rasheed. “The streets looked deserted at the time. But when I entered the school premises, I was surprised to see hundreds of people already queuing up.”
Dhaka University student Erfana Sikdar was strong in her opinion: “I’m exercising my voting right for the first time and that’s why this is an important election for me.”
“I feel I have a role to play in deciding which party comes to power. While this election takes us back to democracy, I would have been happier if there had been more new faces in the race.”
“I believe we will see a new political culture through this election,” said Urmi, a first-timer from Mohammadpur.
“The caretaker government has done reform work for the last two years. Shall we not get any result from it?” said Razib Chakrabarti, a first-time voter of Dakkhin Jatrabari. “We will benefit from it, however small it may be.”
A bulk number of votes were apparently cast by noon. “Out of 500 voters in this booth, around 350 votes had already been cast by 12.30pm,” said a polling agent at Ispahani Girls School in Moghbazar.
Women made an overwhelming presence at the polling centres. The number of women voters stands at 4.12 crore, which is more than half of the total voters.
At the Meherunnessa School polling station, women voters in long queues appeared to be comfortable with the voting arrangement. The station has arranged game facilities for children. Some women left their children there, as they were waiting their turns to cast votes.
“More than 50 percent of the voters in this booth have cast their votes. It has been smooth and there are no complaints,” said a polling agent at Ideal School in Motijheel at 1 pm.
“I have never seen such a smooth trouble-free election in a decade,” said an election observer at New Model Degree College. He had previously worked for an NGO as an election observer in 2001.
Unlike the past elections, the 2008 polls included the provision of “No Vote” allowing voters to express their no-confidence in candidates on ballot papers. The percentage of no-vote casters appeared low.
Of such votes, many were first-time voters who were unsatisfied with their choice of candidates.
Rashed, a first-time voter who gave a “no vote” in Gulshan, made a point: “I don’t like Hannan Shah or Ershad. Other candidates are unknown to me. I didn’t want to waste my vote on people like them.”
Md Shahidul Islam, another first time voter, also settled for a negative vote at Kutubkhali High School near Jatrabari. His argument is: “Both the major parties deployed same old elements. Both of them (Salahuddin of BNP and Habibur Rahman Mollah of AL) are accused of corruption. If the parties had fielded new candidates, I would have considered a positive vote.”
Then there were people who could not cast their votes due to lack of information at the right places.
“I wanted to cast my vote — but I can’t,” said 70-year-old Zahura in frustration in Mohammadpur. She was looking for her polling booth in different schools of the area. Each booth told her to try out the next and none could be helpful. “This might be my life’s last opportunity to cast vote. This is my last voting wish,” she said on a sad note.
In Narayanganj, disappointed by not being able to cast their votes, a group of voters staged a demonstration in front of Narayanganj Girls High School around 11:00am.
“I came here with my national identity (NID) card before the start of voting. When I entered the polling booth to cast my vote after waiting in line for two hours, they asked me to straight away bring my voting number,” Anwar Hossain Anu told The Daily Star.
Anu did not know that NID and the voting number were separate things.
Before leaving the polling centre, the disappointed voters made repeated bids to find out the voting serial numbers. They also sought help from the on-duty police and visiting journalists to get the numbers. But nobody could help them.


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