Thursday, March 12, 2009

Dispatches from the Frontline : Live blogging from Sylhet during the Elections 08

I just noticed that my writings during the Elections of 2008 have not been posted on my blog site. I was in Sylhet at that time and was live blogging on the Unheard Voice blog site and had not updated my own site. So here for the sake of having all my writing at the same place, I am archiving the material from that time. December 28-30th 2008

Dispatch from the Frontline (hopefully 1 of many)

I spent the evening of the 27th with the AL candidate from Sylhet 4, Mr. Imran Ahmed. Had the opportunity to see the race from up close. Actually from the stage itself. Though he hade closed his official campaign on the 26th with a large rally, we still attended two boktita session. Mostly comprising of party men and “supporters” ( take note, there is a career to be made in shouting slogans).

Few points that stuck out to me:
1. The older people in the crowd (the actual voters there) didn’t seem to react to the message of lower prices and no corruption.
2. In the two rally that I did attend there was no talk of din bodol or first time voters.
3. Zero female audience (but in Sylhet at night I think that was accepted. Though I’ve been told no one could bring out female supporters here)
4. A lot of children. And a lot of them wearing the BNP badge from the day before and shouting “nouka”.
5. The BNP-JI is playing the religious card again. Saying if AL is elected then there will be no more aajan in the masjid and such “truths”.
6. AL is worried that huge amounts of vote will be bought on the last day.

If this election were held in 2006, it would have been a easy ride for Mr. Ahmed. He has won three times before. (Including once when he beat Mr. Nazim Kamran Choudhury). His opponent Dildar Hossain Selim is the corrupt incumbent BNP candidate. But today it is difficult to call. Ahmed got about 25% less vote (approx 15000) the last elections. Despite what the PROBE survey predicts, I don’t see him narrowing the gap much.

Elsewhere in Sylhet seems that AL has locked up one (Sylhet 5 for Hafiz Muzamdar) and BNP one (Sylhet 2 for Ilyas Ali). Sylhet 6 is leaning AL’s way because of a rebel BNP candidate. Sylhet 3 is up for grabs but still leaning BNP way as there is both a JP and an AL candidate for that seat.

And the bellweather Sylhet 1 fight? MA Muhit seems to be inching towards victory. Delimitation has seen the BNP strong hold of Companyganj being taken out and internal feud between Saifur Rahman and Ilyas Ali has crippled BNP. But Saifur Rahman is drawing in some sympathy votes and there is a strong 8% “Islamic” vote there that could be a decider.

I am heading out to another area of the constituency in an hour or so. I’ll be stationed there for the next 2 days. Hopefully will be able to give you regular updates. That is if the cell phone network isn’t cut off.

Dispatch from the Frontline 2

Spent the day crisscrossing Sylhet 4 seats Goinghat area. This time with a neutral union parishad chairman. Well as neutral as one can get. He is a BNP man but isn’t in favour with the party’s candidate. Hence he has taken a back seat this election. I’m spending the night at his place.

I did manage to meet the BNP candidate Dildar Hossain Selim today. That was at about 3 pm. When I reached, he was in his house and still in his pyjamas (night dress as opposed to Aarong one!) He went to sleep late and was meeting people since the morning. When I asked him how he thought his position was, he said he would not say anything because he can’t campaign. Then promptly his aides handed me his introduction pamphlet. He was fuming at the time we met. According to him, his opponents were busy buying votes as we spoke. He called the DC and lodged a complain. He told me how low AL was. He said that the best strategy to win would be to spend 5 years deep in corruption and then spreading the money days before the election. As I was thinking “wasn’t that exactly what you did?” he proved himself (and me) correct! He handed over Tk 30 to a man who had come to see him. First I thought it was for a pack of cigarette but then Tk 500 was given to a union parishad “member” that had just entered. To top it all he had the audacity to ask the abovementioned Chairman who was my host/guide, how much money was needed in the latter’s union. So much for the aggrieved honest candidate.

Rest of the place the opinion was about equally divided. Having just returned to the base, I am confused. I called the seat for BNP (and still stand behind it). But to give the AL candidate his due, this election is far from decided.

There has been a lot written about the first time voters. So I asked a few on how they are voting. The new voters want a new face. But in absence of this it seems their vote is breaking on party lines. In this constituency they actually do not have much of a new choice. The AL candidate has been contesting since mid 80s. The BNP man has contested the last 4 elections (including a by-election because of Saifur Rahman giving up this seat in 1996). So while they, like counterparts in rest of the nation, have a huge potential to make a difference, doesn’t look as if anything much will come of it. Voting will be mostly on family / village lines. Interestingly most didn’t know about the “No” vote option. And when explained the concept (and those who knew) thought that it would not amount to much and would not “waste” their votes.

I tested out a theory that Zafar Sobhan had presented in one of our nightly political adda. Basically that as the youth have no negative opinion (if any at all) on Ershad. He is bang on. One people believe all politicians are corrupt. At least he served his time and made amends. And like the British Raj, the Ershad days are seen through a coloured glass. Those were the days my friend! No one knows what Ershad did or stood for. I think if he stood from Sylhet 4 he would have won hands down. That is scary! Neither AL or BNP has managed to find a place in the youth’s hearts or mind. The stage is open for the party to go beyond the rhetoric aimed at the youth and actually come up with constructive programs aimed at them. That alone will change the dynamics in the next elections.

Well now that Naeem Mohaimeen’s plea of not switching off the mobile phone networks has worked, I’ll hopefully try to keep updating through out the day. Friends, all the best. Go out, vote, make a difference (or not!)

Dispatch 3

Seems like we are looking at record turnout. Well at least from the two centres that I’ve visited so far. By mid day in Mahturtol Bazaar centre 50% of the voters had already cast their votes. And more people were pouring in. However the ban (or the confusion regarding it) on vechicalur traffic and specially motorcycles have meant difficulties in reaching the centre. Particularly problematic for women voters.

Matter of fact the female turn out at Monikandhi the second centre I visited was really low. They had turned the female lines into male lines there. Females only trickling in. Distance being a major issue sited. Another theory was that they will only come in the afternoon after finishing lunch and the day’s chores. A females job is never done.

While a lot has been said about the first time voter / youth votes. The major parties have failed to activate them and win them over. Similarly close to nothing has been done to court the female votes. Ironic given regardless who wins, our next PM will be from that gender.

Sylhet 4 political equationwise I am currently in the BNP heartland. It seems that AL is gaining grounds here. But that means that while last election in Monikandhi AL got only 200 of the 3000+ votes this time they will get 4 times that number. In actuality 800!

After lunch I’ll be moving to another centre. More balanced view of the outcome hopefully.

As a side, discussions with friends in Comilla, Mymensingh and Sylhet 1 indicates an AL victory.

Dispatch from the Frontline (I forget which number)

By the time polls closed at 4 pm it was clear, Sylhet 4 had seen record turnouts. 90% at places. I was curious why. Was it an endorsement against the CTG / Military backed government? Most people didn’t seem to say so. I don’t think they would be against a longer tenure of the present government. Was it huge support for one of the candidates? No evidence of it. Was it great organisational “get-out-the-vote” efforts? No. Matter of fact that was one bottleneck according to organisers of both the parties. Was it a confidence that a change will come and lives will improve? Most voters I met were not hopeful of that. Was it a desire to elect a government for themselves? Well yes mostly. Somehow they were infused with belief that voting was their right AND requirement as a citizen. Regardless of polling centre or the background of the person talking to me, I was summarily castigated for being there and “wasting” my vote in Dhaka. It were the forceful drives to get voter enlisted and photo id cards issued that showed to the person in a remote village that their vote was important and it did matter. If the CTG should take credit for something it would be this.

Another reason for high turnout in Sylhet 4 was the improvement of the road network. People did not have to put in a lot of effort to get to places. And electricity and media proliferation meant that more people got to know about their duties as a citizen.

Ok back to the Election result in hand. Sylhet 4 polling centre results started trickling in at about 5 pm (an hour after close). I was at the AL candidate Imran Ahmed’s house at that time. He was a happy man. Smiles were seen. Things are looking good for him. On the 40-minute drive back to my place we started getting more results over the phone. Things are looking real good for him. Mobile communication will ensure that the parties will know the results much before the Election Commission has the chance to collate it.

It is 7 pm now. I am seated in the fringe of bell-weather Sylhet 1 constituency. I am hearing “Nouka! Nouka!” chants outside. Things are looking good for Mr. MA Muhit as well. Matter of fact it might be a huge victory for him and the AL. He has to close a gap of 40,000 votes if the last election results are a guide. He lost to Saifur Rahman then. This time in the battle of the finance ministers he seems winning. Might be still close but then he would have swung around a big seat. I hope to be in his place in about an hour. Hope to have a better feel of thing by then.

I’m getting sms/ calls from mostly AL friends. They are talking a landslide AL victory. I am not sure. Probe magazine a few days ago did give the two abovementioned seats to AL but the government to BNP. Nothing indicates that they are wrong. BNP might still be the largest party in parliament (albeit without a majority). We will know in about 12 hours.

Dispatch from the Frontline 5

Boy was I wrong. I didn’t see it coming. As reports come pouring in AL is headed to about 220 seats. And each seat by huge margins. Big heads have (are) falling. Nizami, Amir Khusru, Delwar are few of them. Here in Sylhet MA Muhit has turned his 40000 deficit to a lead of that much. AL will win all 6 seats here and likely all 19 in the division. Saifur Rahman has also lost his Moulvibazaar seat. Even the mighty Illyas Ali’s Sylhet BNP jaugernaut has lost its wheel. I am now at MA Muhit’s residence cum HQ. The atmosphere electric. Huge crowd. It was difficult coming in. Specially through the personal security. Cheers going up every few seconds as another centre or seat is announced. Some have even gotten tired shouting. No one here believes what is unfolding. I am sure this was the atmosphere at the Obama camp two months ago. Ok boys and girls take out the the pens and calculators. New mathematics in play.

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