The constitution and the laws of the country have bestowed the election commission (EC) with significant powers to conduct a free, fair and neutral election.
In explaining the extent of the EC's power, some say that the commission can do anything that is necessary in the interests of a fair election.
In reality, however, during the election this power of the EC is applied on ground by their representatives of the returning officers and officers attached to the election. The role of the police and the administration is extremely important in this regard. It is the most important to keep the police and the administration under control.
Generally speaking, it is the deputy commissioners who are made returning officers during the election. Just how conducive the environment will be for the election, depends much upon the administration and the police. After all, they are responsible to keep the situation under control. And the election commission is to control them.
If anyone does not remain under control of the EC, or if they disobey the EC's directives, there is scope to take legal action against them. However, during the terms of the last two election commissions, it was seen that the EC had no control whatsoever over the police and the administration during the polls. Then again, there is the question of whether at all the EC had any desire to bring the police and administration under its control. It certainly didn't seem so.
There had hardly been any punitive action against the officials of the police and the administration who were involved in electoral crimes. As a result, committing such election-related crime, directly or indirectly, has more or less become the norm.
It is under such circumstances that the present election commission, headed by Kazi Habibul Awal, around over a year before the next general elections, has attempted to deliver the police and the administration a stern message. But they have tripped up at the very outset.
With the zila parishad elections and other elections ahead, the Habibul Awal commission called all the deputy commissioners (DCs) and superintendents of police (SPs) to Dhaka on 8 October. The message that the EC wanted to give was that the police and the administration must carry out their duties during the election as officials of the government, not as party activists.
At the meeting, election commissioner Anisur Rahman raised questions about the neutrality and honesty of the DCs. The DCs broke out in an uproar in response to his comments. They were unwilling to listen to anything that he had to say. He finally did not speak any further. That itself raises the question, can the EC keep the DCs under control?
Just three days after the awkward situation, the Gaibandha-5 by-election took place on 12 October. It wasn't possible to maintain secrecy of the ballot there. Unable to keep the situation under control, the EC suspended the entire by-election. Halting the election was the EC's last resort. But why did EC have to use its last resort?
The words of the chief election commissioner (CEC) reflect the helplessness of the EC
According to the law, all officers and employees involved with the election, as well as members of the law enforcement on election duty, will dispense of their duties under full control of the election commission. But was the police and administration under the EC's control during the Gaibandha-5 election? Did they follow the directives of the commission?
The words of the chief election commissioner (CEC) reflect the helplessness of the EC. At the press briefing held on Thursday to explain the situation that emerged on the day of the by-election, Kazi Habibul Awal said he and the election commissioner Rashed Sultana had spoken over telephone to the returning officer, the deputy commissioner and the police super, but the situation did not improve. The CEC's words indicate just how little control the EC had over the police and the administration in the Gaibandha-5 by-polls. This was just a by-election to one seat and the situation was such a mess! During the national election, there will be voting in 300 seats on the same day. What will the EC do then?
Normally, the police and the administration are directly under the government, not under the election commission. However, according to the constitution, if requested by the election commission, the president will make arrangements for officials and employees to be at the election commission's disposal as required. It is the responsibility of all executive authorities to provide assistance to the election commission in carrying out its duties.
The election-related Representation of People Order says that the election commission can issue directives for any persons or authority to carry out any duty or provide any supports as required. While these clauses exist in the constitution and the law, reality is a different matter. And this was clear in the Gaibandha-5 by-election.
The Gaibandha DC was not the returning officer in this election. But it is the constitutional obligation of the DC, SP and everyone to assist the EC. But the CEC's words indicate just how little assistance the commission received from them.
The election commission had held dialogue with the political parties regarding the forthcoming 12 parliamentary election. Most of the parties expressed concern about the election-time government. And most of the parties also proposed for some sort of change in the election-time government.
During the dialogue, 10 parties proposed that a neutral or all-party government be formed during the election. And 12 parties spoke to limiting the authority of the government during the election period and increasing that of the EC. They recommended that the public administration ministry, the home ministry and several other ministries be directly placed under the EC during the election. Members of the Awami League-led 14 Party alliance -- Workers Party, JSD and Samyabadi Dal -- made such recommendations. However, even if the EC wanted this, it would not be possible. This would require an amendment to the constitution. The EC has clearly said that they can do nothing about anything to do with the constitution.
The matter of concern is, how did the EC trip up at the very beginning? Will they deliver a message by taking stern action against the police and administration officials? Will they propose that certain vital ministries be placed under its control during the national election? Or will it clarify what strategy it will adopt to keep the police and administration under its control?