Bangladesh: Analysis of voters reveals lower participation in Dhaka compared to other districts. Can Sunday’s polls set new records?

At a time when so many rights are in question, it’s imperative voters go out and vote to exercise their democratic right and not let anyone take it away.

With contributions from Aniruddha Adhikary and Manash Kumar Mandal

Tomorrow’s election is important for several reasons. The 11th parliamentary polls since independence pits Awami League against the united opposition helmed by Kamal Hossain and is the first election with the incumbent party “duly contested” in the past decade. Of 104.1 million registered voters, 22 percent are aged between 18 and 28 years, meaning majority of this group will be voting for the first time in a parliamentary election. Since 2014, 4.4 million voters have been registered among whom 47 percent identify as female.

In short, women and young voters will have a crucial voice this election in determining who takes office for the next 5 years.

Voter turnout has steadily increased since 1991. The highest recorded voter turnout is not in the capital, but in districts in the west.

Despite missing or highly inconsistent data (shown as dark grey in the maps below) especially during earlier elections, closer analysis of percent of voter participation in 1991, 1996, 2001 and 2008 parliamentary polls show steady increase in numbers, partially owing to growing population. However, densely populated cities such as Dhaka, Chittagong or Khulna show slower increase in voter turnouts compared to semi urban areas in north and south western districts such as Rajshahi, Pabna, Jessore and Satkhira.

Data: Humanitarian Data Exchange, Bangladesh Election Data | Visualizations: Aniruddha Adhikary

Data obtained from Bangladesh Election Commission show, for example, during parliamentary election in 2008, polling centers in Dhaka city collectively had 78.9 percent voter participation compared to 93.4 percent in Jhenaidah and 94.9 percent in Panchagarh. While turnout in Dhaka district had increased from 66.4 percent in 2001 polls to 78.9 percent in 2008, the turnout rate is still lower relative to increases in other districts.

As many as 52 percent of young urban voters still do not know where their polling center is.

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. In a separate Facebook survey, just over 50 percent of young, urban voters who plan to vote said they did not know where their polling center is.

Results from online poll with 100 respondents

Despite Election Commission announcing voters can find their centers online, it seems the web portal or texting service are not working. (update: link and texting service are both working now) Further, some respondents suggested because government polling agents, who incidentally are also campaign officers for the ruling party, are responsible for distributing voter registration forms this election, there has been mismanagement and many did not receive their forms on time or had to visit their local agent’s office to collect them. While the survey is in no way representative and is skewed towards urban, young and educated voters, and chances are neighborhood stores know where the polling center is, it causes alarm on voters’ ability to exercise their democratic rights and the Election Commission’s accountability in ensuring voters end up at the right polling center on Sunday.

Distribution of electoral seats show widening gaps

While Awami League (or subsequent coalitions) has won majority electoral seats in 3 elections since 1991 and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (or subsequent coalitions) has won 2, the gap between the contesting parties has steadily widened over time. Data from Bangladesh Election Commission show the widest gap between the winning party, Awami League (AL) and the opposition, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), in 2008 polls, suggesting a landslide victory for the former. Meanwhile, election results from June 1996 indicate a tougher competition with AL winning 146 seats (37.4 percent of votes) and BNP winning 116 seats (33.6 percent of votes).

Among other things, wider gaps can indicate uncontested polls in majority electoral seats, low voter turnout and polling fraud.

While the odds may seem against us, it’s imperative voters go out to exercise their rights.

The ruling party has invested heavily in campaigning for Sunday’s polls while the opposition was met with regular attacks on candidates. There has been several reports indicating voters fear violence at the polling center and experts worry this may discourage them, especially first-time voters, from going to the centers. The Daily Star survey indicated many young voters do not trust law enforcement agents to provide protection, and that they feel their votes do not matter.

Despite concerns, it’s imperative voters go to the polling centers to cast their votes. The government has alerted law enforcement agencies to provide safe passage to voters — and experts suggest going early means avoiding any chance of violence. Going in numbers ensures Election Commission is held accountable and low voter turnout, as during parliamentary polls in 2014, can no longer be “reason” for concerning outcomes.

Sunday’s polls can set a new record in voter participation and ensure the people’s voices are heard. While there are some indications of polling fraud, showing up can help reduce it and send a message to the corrupted: people care and people have a right to deciding the future of this country.

Let’s make this count. 
Go early, go vote.

Illustration: earki

The unavailability and inconsistency of data resulted in several limitations in the analysis, and data that did not pass quality control was dropped. There is also ample suspicion on whether data was accurately reported for administrative records. Some challenges include mismatching in names or places, over inflated reporting of voter participation in some districts and insufficient sources to validate some of the reported estimates.

All opinions expressed in this piece are that of the author’s or of quoted individuals. They do not represent the views of any organization or entity.