Ruling Bangladesh Awami League’s candidate Simeen Hussain Rimi and dissident AL leader Afsaruddin Khan were the two frontrunners in the Gazipur-4 by-polls held on 30 September 2012.
On 29 August 2012, AL candidate Rimi organised an election meeting at the Kapasia Pilot High School hall with AL advisory council member Tofail Ahmed as the chief guest, in violation of specific electoral law which disallows candidates to launch election campaigning 21 days before the polling date. Along with several central AL leaders, Gazipur district deputy commissioner at the time, Akhtaruzzaman, also attended the meeting.
As we newsmen approached the election commission the very next day about the meeting, it said it was unaware of any such meeting.
The election commission had not dared to look into the allegation that the then ruling AL picked Simeen Hussain Rimi as its candidate for Gazipur by-polls in breach of Article 12A of the Representation of the People Order – 1972 which stipulates that a party candidate must be a three-year member of the relevant party.
As in every other election, some of us newsmen went to Kapasia about one week before the by-polls to cover the news of the elections. And we found violation of electoral laws, particularly by activists of ruling party candidate, is rife. And literally no action by the authorities concerned – the election commission in particular – were seen. The local administration is supposed to act for the election commission. But the scenario was quite different. It was as if they were engaged in the election campaigning in favour of the ruling party candidate. We felt like there is no existence of any authorities called the election commission.
I called up one of election commissioners over phone and said, “Sir, it seems there is no existence of the election commission here in Kapasia.” The election commissioner replied, “Let me visit the election tomorrow.”
Politically conscious citizens, particularly concerned newsmen, know how the election was held and the outcome of the election.
The scene was almost similar in Tangail-3 (Ghatail) by-polls where AL rebel and omnipotent Amanur Rahman Khan Rana, now in jail in a murder case, swept to victory in November 2012.
One Friday before the polling day, I was saying my Jumma prayers at the mosque of the upazila headquarters complex in Ghatail where the makeshift office of the Returning Officer was located. Both the returning officer and the strong candidate, Amanur Rahman Khan Rana, also turned up at the mosque.
To my utter surprise, the “mighty” candidate Rana stood before the minar of the mosque just after the lecture of imam and took the microphone from the imam and sought votes from the devotees using the public announcement system of the mosque in clear violation of the electoral code of conduct, right in front of the returning officer.
As usual no action was taken, although I got a scoop for my newspaper.
The balloting was underway in the upazila elections in 2014. I along with my photojournalist was visiting different polling stations in Keraniganj, on the outskirts of Dhaka. We found a chaotic situation in a school where two polling stations were located.And you can guess exactly what was happening there. As we entered, law enforcers and people of the ‘authorities’ became alert and immediately stopped doing what they were doing.
When we were coming out, some policemen at the entrance of the school requested us to stay more in the polling station saying, “As soon as you leave the centre, they will start stuffing the ballot box again.”
That upazila election saw a “festival of irregularities and chaos” and a good number of people lost their lives in the local government polls despite the fact that the military was deployed albeit with no magistracy power.
During our visit to different polling stations, we could not even locate where the troops were stationed, not to speak of seeing the armed forces patrolling.
During the union parishad elections in 2016, the Rakibuddin-led commission asked the police authorities to withdraw the Gazipur police superintendent for the “smooth holding of the election.”
But the police authorities didn’t give a damn about the commission’s request. It didn’t withdraw the troublemaker police officer although it is constitutionally bound to do so. It just sent the “influential police officer” on leave.
And nothing happened afterwards. The commission which is empowered by the constitution to “do everything” for the sake of fair election could do nothing against the police authorities.
There is a strong perception among the people – even experts are often heard saying -- that the elections are held by the commission and elections can be fair and acceptable if it wants as it should be as per the laws. But, this is far from reality.
My experience as a reporter says that the job of the election commission is concentrated merely on announcing the election schedule as per the electoral rules, voters’ list and ballot paper preparations, printing and distribution of these, and identifying the polling stations.
In fact, the election commission plays a role of election manager, not as a conductor. Once the schedule is announced, the responsibility of conducting polls goes to the Returning Officers, law enforcers and magistrates and other election officers. Most of as much as 1.2 to 1.3 million people required for holding the general elections are government officials.
In the crucial general elections, district deputy commissioner (DCs) are appointed Returning Officers with few exceptions.
As per the electoral laws, the Returning Officers preserve all the authority to conduct the polls. He or she can even cancel the balloting midway. The Election Commission has nothing to do from the capital, other than sending them some instructions.
Alongside, the law enforcers, the police in particular, play a crucial role during the elections. We can say that they can tilt the election field or atmosphere towards a certain candidate if they wish.
In my long stint of reporting on election affairs, I never found that a government official stood in the dock for his failure, misconduct, complicity with irregularities in the elections, although there are a lot of high sounding provisions in the RPO –the mother electoral law – and which speaks of punishment of different terms up to seven years in jail though.
Almost all the reporters who have been covering election affairs for long must have come across at least one incident where the election commission gives an instruction to a DC, SP, UNOs, OCs, but the government officials don’t give a damn to the constitutional provision to cooperate with the election commission.
For all practical purposes, it is the government machinery, to be more specific it is the government which conducts the elections, not the election commission.
The five above mentioned incidents say it all – how the elections are held in the country and how far the commission can control the local administration which for all practical purpose conducts the elections.
Some election experts including former election commissioners argue that election irregularities will be lesser if the polls are competitive with the participation of all, and if rival political parties join the polls. The theory behind this argument is that the strength of the rival candidates will stave each other off resorting to unfair means!
How funny! What a poor argument! Can this be a solution to the irregularities for a civilised society? Will I not be able to compete in an election if I don’t have the muscle power to withstand my “terrorist rivals”? Is it my responsibility or the responsibility of a contender to make sure terrorists cannot reign supreme in the polling stations and the voters can exercise their franchise freely and fairly?
If someone really wants to protect the people’s voting right, he or she wholeheartedly will exploit all the possible means to make the polls free and fair or at least support those means if he or she is not at the helm of power to do so.
AL president and prime minister Sheikh Hasina oftentimes claims herself to be the protector of people’s voting right. The AL leaders used to make lofty speeches in favour of protecting people’s voting rights, during their sturdy street agitation in 1996 and in the run up to the aborted 22 January elections.
Present actions and speeches of the ruling quarter force me to wonder whether those speeches were mere eyewash – a part of their political stunt.
While most of the political parties want army deployment in the next general elections and dissolution of parliament before the elections, the ruling AL has taken a clearly dishonest stand.
It is arguing that it is not against army deployment and the troops can be deployed the way it is now in the laws. If the troops are deployed under the existing laws, they will not get the magistracy power as it’s the AL-led parliament which dropped the armed forces from the list of law enforcers of the RPO.
We all know what happens when the troops are deployed without magistracy power and the 2014 upazila elections remain a glaring example of that as I described earlier in this article.
Again, it’s the AL which introduced the system of holding general elections within 90 days before the dissolution of the existing parliament while scrapping the caretaker government provision in 2011.
It is the responsibility of the authorities, the responsibility of the leadership of our society, and of our state to ensure that I will feel no fear while going to the polling station. This is the universal standard of exercising franchise.
Neutral poll-time administration is a must for ensuring voting rights of the people –which is considered to be the number one basic rights of a citizen – in a society like ours which has all along been sharply polarised from top to bottom and with no hope in sight for an end to that.
At least Bangladesh’s electoral history doesn’t say otherwise and no political scientists of the country have yet developed any different theory.
No elections held under a partisan government have been dubbed fair and neutral since we were born in 1971 through a bloody war. In other words, the outcome of all the elections was exactly what the governments in place wanted.
So, the proposition or the argument that EC alone would be able to hold a fair election appears to be nothing but a myth in Bangladesh and many former election commissioners said so on different occasions.
The question is whether the country’s political leadership or the leadership of our society at large really want a free, fair, credible elections. Do they really have the will to protect people’s voting rights or do they look for loopholes to cling to state power, exploiting the intricacies of the legal system?
*Abu Taib Ahmed is a senior sub-editor at Prothom Alo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org