The role of the law enforcement agencies is becoming increasingly crucial in the elections to city corporations with the election commission repeatedly showing its failures to assert its lawful authority over them during the polls.
As per the electoral rules, the law enforcement administration ideally should work as per instructions of the election commission during any elections.
But it has been a million dollar question as to how far the commission is keeping its authority over the law enforcement agencies.
Political parties and election observers have alleged, the election commission - the constitutional body to organise elections - is not taking any effective measures to contain breach of electoral rules, resulting in the absence of a level-playing field, a prerequisite for free and fair polls.
In the latest elections - Khulna and Gazipur civic polls - the role of the election commission was apparently very weak.
These two city polls witnessed all sorts of election irregularities ranging from driving out the opposition activists to the electioneering through arrests and drives by police, ballot stuffing after occupying polling stations by the ruling party thugs, abduction of and driving out opposition polling agents.
The country’s main opposition political party - Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) - had alleged then that it was not the activists of ruling Bangladesh Awami League (AL) who took part in the polls; rather it was members of the police and detectives who did the elections.
People observing elections closely said they see the same symptoms in the ensuing polls in Rajshahi, Sylhet and Barishal. The three city corporations are going to elections on Monday, 30 July.
The role of the law enforcement, particularly that of the police, and the weakness of the election commission are becoming visible by the day with the day of balloting nearing.
Failing protection from the election commission, opposition BNP candidates are seeking interventions from the higher court. Following two writ petitions, the High Court too has instructed the police authorities not to harass and arrest opposition activists in Sylhet and Barishal.
However, the police are resorting to new tactics against the court orders.
Former election commissioner M Sakhawat Hussain said the election commission alone cannot organise a good election unless the administration as well as the police do cooperate with it. “However, the EC needs to be more pro-active.”
Arrests and harassment of the BNP activists began in Rajshahi on 10 July with the start of formal election campaigning. The police are seen resorting to newer tactics to harass opposition activists.
Until recently, the police used to show BNP activists arrested in various sabotage and explosive cases, but now the police are showing the opposition activists arrested in cases filed with the police stations of Rajshahi’s surrounding districts.
The police arrested 11 BNP activists from Rajshahi city on Monday night and sent them to various polling stations of three surrounding districts.
In a complaint letter to the returning officer, the BNP alleged that the police have arrested as many as 43 activists recently, alleging that the law enforcement agency is selectively arresting active party workers and prospective polling agents.
Last Monday, the police arrested Jurez Abdullah Gulzar - the key election aide of the BNP’s mayoral candidate in Sylhet Ariful Haque - who collected the nomination paper in favour of Ariful Haque.
Talking to Prothom Alo, Sylhet district BNP general secretary Ali Ahmad, said seven BNP leader and activists were detained so far and raids were conducted in the houses of over 100 leaders and activists.
The BNP's standing committee member Amir Khosru Mahmud Chowdhury alleged that members of detective branch of police are conducting raids from house to house to intimidate opposition activists in all of three cities. “Preparations are afoot to hold unilateral elections.”
Allegations are rife that the police are harassing in Barishal as well. BNP standing committee member Mirza Abbas, who is overseeing the electioneering in Barishal, alleged that some 19 BNP leaders and activists were arrested so far.
When contacted, the spokesman at the Police Headquarters, Soheli Ferdous, (assistant inspector general - media) said the police authorities have not received any complaint from the election commission as yet. “We’ll look into the matter seriously if we get any such complaint.”
He said the police force works under the election commission during the elections and the police headquarters does not interfere in it.
When his attention was drawn to the police’s biased role in the civic polls, ruling AL general secretary Obaidul Quader said the BNP is losing the elections even before the balloting. “And that’s why they [BNP] are raising allegations based on assumptions so that they can brand the allegations after their defeat.”
When asked at a press conference at the election commission secretariat in the capital about the police’s biased role, the EC secretary, Helal Uddin Ahmed, simply evaded the question.
During a meeting with the chief election commissioner, KM Nurul Huda, on 23 July, a BNP delegation alleged that the police are arresting and harassing opposition activists, even without any cases, in all of three city corporations.
The CEC had assured the BNP of taking necessary steps to address the problem. The EC held a meeting with the police commissioners of the three cities on 25 July.
After the meeting, EC secretary Helal Uddin Ahmed told newsmen that the commission had enquired about the allegations raised by BNP or which came through different media. “The police commissioners have told us that they made the arrests based on specific allegations, not to harass anyone.”
Breach of electoral rules is widespread in the three city corporations. According to the electoral rules, the EC has the authority to fine the concerned candidates or even to cancel the candidature, but the election commission has accomplished its job by only serving notices.
The EC is making preparations to announce the schedule for the crucial 11th parliamentary elections to be held in December and the general elections will be held under this very Awami League government.
Political analysts say the constitutional body will have to suffer from the crisis of confidence if it fails to prove its efficiency even in these local government elections which cannot change a government.
*The article originally published in Prothom Alo print edition has been rewritten in English by Abu Taib Ahmed