The Platform

A voter casting her vote in Bangladesh's 2008 parliamentary elections. (Commonwealth Secretariat)

Voter turnout is on the decline in Bangladesh. It’s not a good sign for the health of democracy in the South Asian country.

In Bangladesh, a troubling reality has emerged: fewer voters are turning out on election day. For example, a special election to fill the seat of Akbar Hossain Pathan Farooque, who had passed away on May 15, saw only 61 votes cast by early morning despite hosting four polling centers. The voter turnout was a mere 11%, making it one of the country’s lowest in history for a special election. Mohammad Arafat, of the Awami League, easily defeated Ashraful Alom, the independent candidate. Most alarming though was the fact that Awami League supporters openly attacked Alom.

Bangladesh has a history of both high and low voter turnout. In the 2008 parliamentary elections, the voter turnout was an impressive 87%, emphasizing the active engagement of citizens in the democratic process. Similarly, in 2001, nearly 75% of Bangladeshi voters turned out to vote. However, in 2014, the trend had shifted dramatically, with voter turnout plunging to nearly 40%.

There are a number of reasons for low voter turnout in Bangladesh. One factor is the growing perception that voters feel that their vote no longer matters. The controversy surrounding the last two national elections has contributed to a decline in trust. Additionally, there is a widespread perception that the electoral process is unfair and that the results are predetermined. Furthermore, voter interest in certain regions is dwindling due to the lack of alternatives to the Awami League. Incidents of violence and voter intimidation have also been a factor.

A general sense of apathy among many Bangladeshis regarding politics and the electoral process has also contributed to the decline. This sentiment stems from the perception that politicians are corrupt and that the government is unresponsive to the people’s needs. Despite the claims made by AK Abdul Momen, the country’s foreign minister, that the country has a higher voter turnout than the United States, the actual reality is quite different.

Ensuring maximum voter participation in elections is essential for a healthy democratic process. There are several avenues to explore to increase voter participation in Bangladesh. Voter awareness plays a pivotal role in free and fair elections. Unfortunately, a growing sense of apathy among the public toward their participation in the electoral process exists. To address this issue, the Election Commission of Bangladesh could take the initiative to conduct voter education programs. These could encompass various aspects of democracy and be disseminated through diverse media channels. Non-governmental organizations should also undertake voter education initiatives, developing materials emphasizing the significance of voting and other essential topics.

Due to the widespread loss of faith in the electoral process under the governing Awami League, a non-partisan caretaker or interim government could be a viable solution. Such a measure aims to ensure a peaceful, fair, and credible election, thereby restoring trust among major opposition parties and citizens. By conducting elections under an impartial administration, it is hoped that participation will be more inclusive, fostering renewed confidence.

Accessibility for citizens with disabilities is another crucial consideration. The International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) has started a campaign in Bangladesh to encourage greater participation by disabled citizens. Visually impaired voters have expressed concerns about previous elections, and these sessions have informed them of their rights.

Promoting violence-free and inclusive elections is imperative for democratic participation. It is the government’s responsibility to guarantee a violence-free electoral process by deploying security agencies to maintain order and security. Engaging in dialogues with opposition parties can also instill trust that the electoral proceedings will be fair.

With nationwide elections on the horizon, implementing these measures can create a conducive environment, fostering extensive citizen engagement and upholding democracy’s fundamental tenets.

MD Obaidullah Siam holds a degree in Public Administration from the University of Barishal, Bangladesh. Currently, he is working as a Research Assistant at the Centre for Advanced Social Research, Dhaka. He regularly writes on the topics of Public Policy, Politics and Governance, Sustainable Development, and Climate Change.

Meherab Hossain is a Political Science graduate from National University, Bangladesh, who has joined the esteemed Youth Policy Forum-YPF as an Associate in the Politics and Governance team. With a profound passion for various fields, his areas of interest span across Public Policy, Geopolitics, Politics, Governance, and International Relations.