The credibility of the incumbent Election Commission or EC has taken a hit with a low turnout in Wednesday's by-elections to six parliamentary constituencies.
Apart from the re-election of a former BNP MP, the disappearance of another former leader of the party and the performance of social media star Ashraful Hossen Alom aka Hero Alom as a candidate, the by-elections failed to draw attention.
The Election Commission admitted the BNP staying away from the by-elections to the seats it had relinquished affected the turnout greatly.
The fact that the MPs elected through these by-elections will be in parliament for less than a year until the next general election is another reason behind the voter apathy, the commission believes.
It also denied allegations by Hero Alom of vote rigging in Bogura-4, where he lost by a slim margin of 834 votes.
The seats fell vacant after the opposition lawmakers of the BNP quit parliament in December as part of its movement to topple the Awami League government and hold the general election under a caretaker administration.
Subsequently, the BNP boycotted the by-elections, urging citizens to stay away from the ballot box as it made very clear it would not contest in any vote without a non-partisan administration seeing over the elections proceedings.
However, one of the six former BNP MPs, Abdus Sattar Bhuiyan of Brahmanbaria-2, resigned from the party and stood in the by-elections. He was re-elected with the Awami League's support.
His rival, another former BNP leader Abu Asif Ahmed, was reported missing five days before the voting. He reappeared after the results were announced. Asif said he went into hiding due to pressure but did not give details.
Analysts said voter apathy and a lack of competition were the most concerning factors, especially with five crucial city corporation elections slated for next.
In its first 11 months of the five-year tenure, the former bureaucrat Kazi Habibul Awal-led Election Commission made some positive steps towards creating an atmosphere of free and fair elections.
It hosted dialogues with stakeholders and political parties to make the elections more inclusive, announced a roadmap for the general election, and took a tough stance on the fair use of electronic voting machines and CCTV cameras in polling stations.
However, Wednesday's by-elections have put a dent in the goodwill that the EC has so far earned and instead raised the question among stakeholders: is the current commission capable of holding a free and fair general election after all?
Dr Abdul Alim, an electoral analyst, said what went down in Brahmanbaria is somewhat unprecedented.
"It doesn't often happen when an independent candidate goes missing before the polls open, and ruling party loyalists support another independent candidate, who happened to be the MP of the constituency from their archrival just two months ago."
Dr Alim stressed that the legitimacy of elections will always be questioned if the commission fails to ensure the participation of all the major parties.
"BNP didn't contest in the polls, which means the EC failed to make them inclusive. The ruling party made some backroom deals with allies and rivals, which meant competition was notably absent," he offered. "All these factors dampened people's enthusiasm; hence the turnout was significantly low."
The six constituencies that went to the by-elections on Wednesday were Thakurgaon-3, Bogura-4, Bogura-6, Chapainawabganj-2, Chapainawabganj-3 and Brahmanbaria-2.
The Election Commission says the voter turnout was 28.6 percent on average.
Brahmanbaria-2 saw the lowest turnout at 16.46 percent, while Thakurgaon-3, Bogura-4, Bogura-6, Chapainawabganj-2, Chapainawabganj-3 recorded 46.29 percent, 23.92 percent, 22.34 percent, 34.79 percent, and 29.8 percent respectively.
BNP'S THUMBS DOWN, AL'S THUMBS UP
Unsurprisingly, stakeholders across the political divide took a polar opposite stance regarding the polls.
While the BNP booed the EC for its failure to attract voters, the Awami League hailed the by-elections as a success.
BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said the party estimates the voter turnout in all six constituencies was less than 5 percent.
"Even the EC is saying the turnout is hardly 15 to 25 percent," he pointed out.
His counterpart in the Awami League, General Secretary Obaidul Quader, termed the by-elections a "victory of democracy".
"Except for sporadic scuffling in Chapainawabganj, the by-elections were largely peaceful. So I chalked it as a success," he said.
Rasheda Sultana, one of the election commissioners, said by-elections usually draw fewer voters than parliamentary or local government polls.
"Hence the low turnout. Moreover, the MPs elected will only represent them for eight to nine months, and that fact alone dampened the mood a little," she said.
HERO ALOM, ASIF TAKE CENTRESTAGE
The EC refuted allegations of vote rigging levelled by Hero Alom. Commissioner Rasheda said the allegation of tampering with the results was "baseless".
"We acknowledged his allegation and talked to the deputy commissioner, the district election officer and other officials in Bogura. They are confident their results are completely accurate."
Hero Alom ran for two Bogura seats. In Bogura-4, he received 19,571 votes as an independent candidate, while AKM Rezaul Karim of the Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal-JaSaD won the election with 20,405 votes.
Alom rejected the results and plans to challenge his loss by a razor-thin margin in court.
Independent candidate Asif, who was allegedly missing ahead of the Brahmanbaria-2 by-election, returned home on Thursday.
"I couldn't cope with the pressure of the election; so I disengaged and pulled myself out of the race," he said.
However, Asif neither revealed his hideout location nor did he elaborate on his feeling of pressure.
Asif, a former president of the BNP's Ashuganj Upazila unit, was reported missing by his wife on Jan 27, five days ahead of the polls.
He was expected to be the primary opponent of the Awami League-backed Sattar, who was elected lawmaker with the BNP's ticket five times from this constituency.
Sattar submitted his resignation to the BNP before contesting in the by-election, but the party said it expelled him for that decision.
INCLUSION A CHALLENGE
After the low turnout and boycott of the by-elections, analyst Dr Alim thinks the biggest challenge facing the EC is to ensure the participation of all political parties in the local government polls before the general election.
"Cumilla and Rangpur civic polls under this EC were largely acceptable. Its performance was also good in the Gaibandha by-election after it suspended the ballot due to irregularities. The EC's position has weakened if we compare the recent by-elections with the previous polls."
"Now, it must show the stakeholders and send a message to the public that the commission will be able to keep up its tough stance in future. Otherwise, people will think the elections to five city corporations before the parliamentary polls will be the same as the by-elections."
The analyst suggested a political settlement of the unresolved issues to make the elections inclusive. "The government should make a move to this end. The EC can support the efforts in line with the law."
CEC Awal hopes his commission will be able to hold "meaningful" elections and establish control over the administration before the parliamentary polls.
"The by-elections might have lost the fizz due to a lack of competition. The turnout was also relatively low. We'll have to control and depend on the administration.
"We'll try to make the parliament election meaningful with our sincerity and skills. Our efforts will continue."