On Sunday, December 30, 2018, millions of Bangladeshi voters will head to 42,000 polling centers in 299 constituencies to cast their vote in the country's 11th parliamentary elections. Voters, however, are faced with many challenges because of the restrictive environment the government has created around the election, including bans and closures amidst a climate of fear. In addition, on the night of December 29, the government has completely shut down mobile internet service.
Elections in Bangladesh have historically been marred with sporadic violence, so this time the authorities have measures to beef up security. Around 600,000 paramilitary forces and police personnel have been deployed, along with 50,000 army personnel.
No transport, how will I go to the polling station?
On Saturday, the day before the election, the notoriously heavy traffic in Dhaka, the nation's capital, was nowhere to be seen.
The capital, #Dhaka, wore a completely deserted look today as there were very few vehicles on the roads just a day before the polls.
Even the highways which usually experience bumper to bumper traffic, were found empty too. pic.twitter.com/mamQNiRRcZ
— Bangladesh Today (@Bangladesh2day) December 29, 2018
One possible reason for this is that millions of voters will have left the capital for their villages or cities to vote. There is also a transport ban in place. All motorized public and private transportation, including ride-sharing services and engine boats/speedboats, have been barred from operating for 24 hours starting from just after midnight on December 30. And motorcycle traffic, including ride-share services like Pathao, has been suspended since the early hours of Saturday until midnight on January 1, 2019.
The only people exempt from the transport ban are the emergency services, the security forces, journalists driving vehicles with special stickers, election officials and observers.
This situation leaves voters are asking how will they go to vote if they live far away from their polling center? They have the option to walk, or travel by bicycle or cycle-rickshaw, but that will work only for short distances. As Facebook user Sadmaan Bin Omar Saikat writes:
আমি ঢাকা-১০ আসনের(ধানমণ্ডি) ভোটার । কিন্তু আমার বর্তমান বাসা বসুন্ধরা আবাসিক এলাকা । আমি ভোট দিতে যাব কিভাবে?
I am a voter of the Dhaka-10 constituency (Dhanmondi). But I live in the Basundhara Residential Area (15 km away). How am I going to go to the polling center to cast my vote?
The satirical website Earki published a number of memes on how to get to the polling station on Sunday using alternative transports like bullock cart, a time machine, etc.
In ancient Egypt, people used to go to vote like this as there were transport ban in place too on the election day.
No Internet, no rumours
On Saturday, December 29, before the complete shut down of mobile internet service, local ISPs had slowed connection speeds from 4G down to 2G, allegedly to stop “propaganda” from being spread through live reporting on social media. This must have had a significant impact on social media users, as Dhaka is deemed the second most active city for Facebook users in the world.
Photojournalist Shahidul Alam, who was imprisoned in August for covering student protests, has asked people to capture any election irregularities on their smartphones:
Since there won’t be many observers monitoring #Bangladesh’s election on Sunday, the country’s prominent activist Shahidul Alam wants the young generation to capture election irregularities on smartphones. Here’s what you need to know about the campaign:#BDPolls2018 @dw_bengali pic.twitter.com/iDzNds9yyl
— Arafatul Islam (@arafatul) December 29, 2018
Voters attempting to do this, however, will be limited by the fact that they are not allowed to carry mobile phones into polling centres.
Security forces on Saturday arrested eight men for spreading “fabricated content” on social media ahead of the poll. 57 special camps have been set up by the Rapid Action Battalion to combat rumours and fake news.
Services that will be suspended on voting day
Election day in Bangladesh is a public holiday, and with Friday and Saturday being the weekend days, it will be an extended weekend.
All of the country's 28 mobile financial service providers have suspended their services from 17hrs on December 28 until 17hrs on December 30, the voting day in accordance with an order from the Bangladesh Bank at the request of the electoral commission. During this period users can send or receive only up to 5,000 Bangladeshi Taka (US$60) from their personal accounts.
Petrol and CNG (compressed natural gas) stations will remain closed half day on election day. However, there are reports that a number of petrol stations in the capital Dhaka have already closed due to the lack of vehicles on the streets.
How will journalists work?
The election commission finally agreed to allow journalists to use motorcycles on voting day provided they carry approved stickers. According to reports, many journalists in Bangladesh have resorted to self-censorship in the lead-up to the election, fearing ever-tightening media laws and intimidation.
On December 24, 2018 at least 12 journalists on election coverage duty at a Dhaka constituency were attacked by a group of about two dozen masked individuals. Amnesty International has called for an impartial investigation into this attack.
#Bangladesh election commission imposes restriction on journalists to use their vehicles and also asks not to go any type of live including on social media. #democracy2018 #bdpolls2018 pic.twitter.com/YeIaSSskif
— muktadir rashid romeo 🇧🇩 (@muktadirnewage) December 23, 2018
A number of extraordinary restrictions have been placed on journalists by the Election Commission ahead of Election Day and the extent to which the media can cover the election on December 30. #Bangladesh #BDElection2018 pic.twitter.com/tXvOem1Qq6
— Ali Ahmad Mabrur (@Mabrur00) December 28, 2018
Lower voter turnout is still a problem
In an analysis of the situation, expat Bangladeshi blogger Sabhanaz Rashid Diya quotes the following statistics:
A recent report published in The Daily Star summarizing results from a survey indicated while 75 percent of the respondents are first-time voters, only 30 percent plan to vote on Sunday’s election. Seventy percent of respondents are still undecided or will not be voting.
The Election Commission has announced the introduction of a push-pull SMS service to provide voters with information. Voters can send an SMS using their 17 digit national ID number to a specific number and the relevant information will be sent by return SMS. Information is also available at the Election Commission website.
The opposition fears that the barriers set up by the government are designed to keep people away from voting centers. If the voters want to exercise their right to decide and choose, they need to show up and vote despite all the impediments.