The election commission (EC) led by KM Nurul Huda is departing amidst controversy, failure and allegations of destroying the electoral system. Questions have arisen over all local government elections, save a few, held over the past five years as well as the EC’s role in this. Questions have arisen over the elections even from within the EC itself.
Eminent citizens sent a letter to the president twice, demanding the formation of a supreme judicial council to investigate into the allegations of serious misconduct and financial irregularities by the EC in the national election.
The incumbent EC led by chief election commissioner (CEC) KM Nurul Huda took the charge of five-member commission on 15 February 2017. The other election commissioners are Mahbub Talukdar, Md Rafiqul Islam, Kabita Khanam and Shahadat Hossain Chowdhury.
Since its formation, there was debate over the commission in the political arena with CEC KM Nurul Huda at the centre of this. Opposition parties including BNP said the appointment of KM Nurul Huda was in question, highlighting the CEC’s professional experience and his involvement in the pro-Awami League ‘Janatar Mancha’ while he was the deputy commissioner of Cumilla. Over the past five years, controversy has followed the CEC and the commission he is leading. And now the commission will depart on 14 February amidst various allegations.
After taking over, the commission earned applause for the elections in Cumilla and Rangpur city corporations in March and December of 2017 respectively. Lastly, the election of Narayanganj city corporation was also fairly and free from controversy. Other than these, the role of EC was in question over the elections in various city corporations, upazilas, municipalities and the on-going union parishad election.
Allegations mainly began surfacing over various discrepancies during the elections of Gazipur and Khulna city corporations held on 15 May 2018 ahead of the national election. Prior to the national election, a tendency had prevailed to hold the election in a controlled manner during the city corporation polls in Khulna, Rajshahi, Barishal and Gazipur, keeping opposition candidates and activists, and media workers under pressures in various ways.
Opposition parties made various allegations, including the ousting of the opposition mayoral candidates’ agents, taking over the polling booth by the ruling party men and ballot box stuffing, police excesses and their biased role. But the EC was not seen taking any effective measures in this regard.
According to the constitution, one of the main responsibilities of the EC is to hold the national election. The 11th national election was held under the Nurul Huda-commission. There was no level playing field during that election. There were various allegations that include obstructing election campaigns, ousting agents of Jatiya Oikya Front from polling centres by threats and assaults, stuffing ballot boxes for the candidates of the "grand alliance" the night before the election, finishing off ballot papers in some centres by 11:00am, forcing voters to cast ballots in some centres in broad daylight, barring voters to enter polling centres despite long queues outside and using the election officials and the law enforcement agencies in the interests of the ruling party.
But the EC never took up any of the allegations ahead of the election or after. Following the national and local elections, opposition political parties and civil society have often said this commission has destroyed the electoral system of the country.
Speaking to Prothom Alo, election commissioner Rafiqul Islam said he saw in the newspapers that many people made such comments, but they never say what and how the EC had destroyed. He said he matter is not clear to him.
During debate in parliament, a section of lawmakers said the electoral system has been destroyed while other lawmakers say everything is in place. The section talking about the collapse of the electoral system is just a small part of the parliament, Rafiqul Islam added.
So did the EC work for the ruling party? In reply to this query, Rafiqul Islam said, “To us, there is nothing called ruling party. We have nothing to look at other than candidates and voters.”
Abnormal results in national polls
Like local government elections, the EC failed to exercise its authority over the administration and law enforcement agencies. Opposition parties including BNP alleged ruling party men stuffed ballots the night before the 11th national election on 30 December 2018. Discrepancies were found in the results of various polling centres later.
Usually, polling station wise results are published after ballot casting. But the polling station wise results of the 11th national election were published six month later. It shows voter turnout was 100 per cent in 213 centres of 103 constituencies, 96-99 per cent in 1,205 centres, 90-95 per cent in 6,484 centres and 80-89 per cent in 15,719 centres. On the other hand, voter turnout was less than 10 per cent in 11 centres, 10-19 per cent in 20 centres and 20-39 per cent in 301 centres.
According to a BBC Bangla report published on the the election day, the BBC correspondent saw the ballot box stuffed with already stamped ballots at a polling centre in the Shahid Nagar City Corporation Girls High School in Chattogram-10 constituency.
Transparency International Bangladesh (TlB) on 15 January 2019 released a report on the results of the 30 December election. TIB monitoring found evidence of discrepancies in the results of the 30 December election in 47 out 50 constituencies. Ballots were stamped on the night before the voting day in 33 constituencies, according to the TIB report.
The CEC’s nephew SM Shahzada was elected member of parliament from Patuakhali-3 on Awami League ticket. Shahzada was not actively involved with politics before the election.
CEC Nurul Huda recently said he thinks 100 per cent voter turnout in some centres is abnormal but on the question of voting on the night before the election during the 11th parliamentary polls, He said "These just remain as allegations."
Replying to questions of journalists on the 'night election' on 27 January, the CEC said, “I can’t say anything conclusive based on allegations as I’ve seen nothing. Also, you did not see any voting at night. The truth would have been revealed in the inquiry. If anything were found out (after investigations), the court might have stopped the election. Why political parties did not file any complaint is their internal matter. They have missed the chance.”
Sources said candidates of different constituencies filed a total of 74 cases with the election tribunal following the eleventh parliamentary election. No case has been resolved yet. EC publishes a detailed report after every election but the Nurul Huda commission is yet to publish the report book on the eleventh parliamentary election.
Regarding the allegation of ‘night election’, the election commissioner Rafiqul Islam told Prothom Alo that they did not receive any complaint on the day of election. As per article 39(4) of RPO, EC publishes gazette after returning officers send the election results. Those allegations came out days after the announcement of results but none gave any specific complaint with proof.
He said returning officers could have investigated those centres where 100 per cent of votes were cast. But the margin of victory in those constituencies was so big that reevaluation of votes of those centres could have no impact on overall results.
Low turnout and trend of 'elected unopposed'
The number of voters started to dissipate in by-elections and local body elections following the eleventh parliamentary elections. Voter turnout was a meagre 25.30 per cent in Dhaka North City Corporation polls and only 29 in South city corporation polls held in February 2020.
Turnout was also scanty in pourashava and upazila parishad elections. The number of candidates winning uncontested also rose. A total of 111 persons were elected chairmen in upazila parishad election in 2019. Election commissioner Mahbub Talukdar termed such a low turnout as alarming for democracy.
Turnout in union parishad elections, however, at the end of the current EC’s tenure has increased. Nonetheless, the trend of being elected unopposed and electoral violence has increased. A whopping 1600 candidates have been elected so far in different posts up to the sixth phase of the ongoing union parishad election. A total of 95 persons have fallen prey to electoral violence. CEC on several occasions blamed the candidates and their supporters for these instances of violence and claimed the innocence of the EC.
CEC’s colleague, commissioner Mahbub Talukdar, however, said after the second phase of union parishad polls on 14 November that ‘the election is now in ICU and democracy on life support’.
Disagreement in EC
The disagreement between CEC Nurul Huda and commissioner Mahbub Talukdar came to the fore for the first time in July 2017 over the transfer of 33 officials of the EC secretariat. Their gulf became visible over issues such as deploying the army in the national elections, allowing MPs to campaign in city polls and using electronic voting machines. Rift in the EC was also visible centering Barishal city corporation polls. In these cases, disagreement was seen between Mahbub Talukdar and other members of the EC. The CEC even lashed out at Mahbub Talukdar in the media on the latter’s illness.
Alongside opposition parties, the EC was severely criticized by citizen’s groups. The CEC on 27 January come down heavily on his detractors at a press briefing.
Nurul Huda criticised commissioner Mahbub Talukdar, Shusasoner Jonno Nagarik's (SHUJAN) secretary Badiul Alam Majumder and former CEC ATM Shamsul Huda and the commission under him. He said EC’s responsibility was to hold elections within 90 days (of dissolution of parliament) but Shamsul Huda took a total of 690 days to conduct the general election of 2008.
Asked about the matter, M Sakhawat Hossain, a member of the EC under Shamsul Huda, told Prothom Alo that the CEC should have seen documents and court verdict before making the comment. He wanted to term the election held under Shamsul Huda commission as unconstitutional. If so, the successive governments and their activities become illegal. As a result, the incumbent commission also becomes unconstitutional, he added.
A group of 42 eminent citizens on 14 December 2020 sent a letter to the president and urged him to constitute the Supreme Judicial Council to investigate 9 specific allegations including gross misconduct, financial irregularities and corruption against the present EC. They sent another later on 17 January demanding the same. But no action seems to be taken.
Then 54 distinguished citizens of the country on 25 September urged the government to restructure the EC with the enactment of a law as per the constitution. They said in a statement that bias of the ongoing and preceding ECs have created a lack of public confidence in the electoral system. They demanded the next EC to be formed in a way acceptable to all.
Retired judge of Appellate Division Md Abdul Matin told Prothom Alo that there was nothing to say about this EC. No past ECs were so bad as this one.
This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna and Galib Ashraf