Booth Capture – Observing Municipal Elections in Bangladesh
May 6, 2015
On April 28, Bangladesh held municipal elections for mayors and ward councilors in Dhaka North, Dhaka South, and Chittagong. The city corporation elections, as they are called, were important for many reasons, and as The Asia Foundation’s director for elections, I had come to Chittagong to observe the process. They were the first municipal elections held in Dhaka City since 2002, and the most significant elections since the controversial national elections held in January 2014, which were boycotted by all major opposition parties over concern that the ruling Awami League was rigging the process.
Although they were meant to be non-party elections, all parties openly endorsed and campaigned for their selected candidates, and many people viewed the contest as a test of the ruling party’s popularity. The campaign was energetic and relatively peaceful. Public interest was high, and turnout was expected to be greater than normal, particularly in Dhaka.
Our observer team arrived at our first polling place at about 7:45 AM, fifteen minutes before opening. In Bangladesh, a polling place or location (usually a school) can have one or several polling stations, each of which may have up to eight polling booths, (a polling booth in Bangladesh is one polling team, and serves 3–400 voters). Some polling locations house as many as four polling stations and serve 8–10,000 voters.
Candidates are legally allowed one candidate agent per booth to serve as their official monitor, and at the first few polling stations we visited we counted an average of five agents at each booth representing different candidates. We were surprised to see that agents openly wore candidate ID cards, which included the candidate’s picture and ballot symbol, inside the booths: Bangladeshi law and international norms prohibit agents from wearing any identifying insignia inside a polling station, because it can intimidate voters.
At the first two locations we visited, agents for candidates of both main parties and several smaller parties were present in the booths, but by later in the day almost all the opposition agents had disappeared, leaving only agents of candidates aligned with the ruling Awami League (AL). Gradually, more and more AL agents arrived at the polling locations, gathering in crowds around the entrance to the schools. Those with the courage to do so ran a gauntlet of agents, who took the opportunity to “encourage” the voters to choose their candidate.
Although this was very intimidating, most voters were still able to cast their ballots. But when we reached our third location, we found agents standing in groups, both outside and inside the polling station. They stood in the road outside the gates and in the school courtyard, controlled the hallways leading to the polling booths, and began crowding into the booths, essentially taking over the polling process. Voters outside began telling us that they had been prevented from entering the polling locations, with agents telling them that all the ballots had already been cast.
In total there must have been about 100 AL candidate agents in and around the polling station, identifiable by the large candidate cards they wore around their necks. Police were present to provide security for the polling process, and we told them we wanted to speak to the presiding officer of the polling station. We were led to a room with an iron door and a big iron bolt on it. The police slid back the bolt and opened the door, allowing us to meet with the presiding officer. He had been locked in the room.
He seemed terrified, and at first didn’t want to speak to us. We told him that people outside were complaining that they had been turned away with the explanation that there were no ballots left. He said that a group of polling agents had arrived at the station at 9:30 AM and taken control, and had then taken all the ballots and started marking them and putting them in the ballot box. They only wanted the mayoral ballots, he said, so he still had ballots for the councilors.
We asked him why he hadn’t called in the police to expel the agents, and he said he had tried, but that the police were controlled, and that the army should have been deployed for election security. Other people also told us that the army was the only security force that could resist the pressure from the incumbent government. Several police officers told us they wanted to do something, but had been ordered by their superiors not to interfere. We asked about the polling agents for the other candidates, and were told that they had tried to protect the polling location, but could not.
At the next polling place we visited, the iron gate was closed, with police on the inside and the area outside the gate crowded with agents. The agents let us through, and the police allowed us inside. The presiding officer told us that the station had been attacked just before we arrived, with agents throwing “cocktails” (large firecrackers) and fighting to get inside to snatch the ballots and take control of the station.
The police had bravely resisted the takeover attempt – physically fighting them off – but by the time we arrived they had retreated inside and closed the gate, clearly shaken. The presiding officer told us he had authorized the police to shoot if the agents broke into the compound. A woman we met inside told us she had tried to vote three times, had been stopped twice before she could get into the station, then finally got in and had been trapped when the station came under attack.
All the rest of the locations we visited had been similarly captured, with staff cowering inside while AL agents marked ballots. At the fifth location we visited, I entered one booth to get a look inside a polling screen. I waited, as I noticed someone was inside. A minute or so later, a man wearing an agent card came out. I went inside and found a pink ballot book – used for the reserved seats for women – a stamp pad and ballot stamp. Leafing through the book, I discovered that on every ballot, the teapot symbol used by an Awami League candidate had been stamped.
We spoke to the police again, and they said they had wanted to do something but had been ordered not to by their superiors. At the last station we visited, a voter told us as we entered, “Democracy is finished.”
Anyone who works in South Asia has heard of “booth capture,” where a group of thugs takes over a polling station and stuffs the ballot box, but I had never seen it in action, and had trouble imagining how it could actually happen. Now I unfortunately have first-hand experience.
Back in Dhaka, I checked in with the Election Working Group, our local partner for election observation. They said their observers had witnessed similar levels of malpractice in all three municipal elections, and in their preliminary statement they graded the entire process as “not credible.”
Tim Meisburger is The Asia Foundation’s director for elections and political processes, based in Thailand. He can be reached at [email protected]. View a slideshow with more images. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation. All photos: Tim Meisburger.
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