How credible will the Gazipur election be?

The Gazipur City Corporation election will be held on 25 May. According to the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Kazi Habibul Awal, this is a very important election and he wants to make this a model one. Needless to say, in order to be a 'model', the election needs to be free, fair and credible. But how is that possible?

Two elections were held in the past in Gazipur city. The first was held on 6 July 2013 under the Rakubuddin Commission. The second was held on 27 June 2018 under the Huda Commission. The first was free, fair and credible, that is, a model election. The second was ‘controlled’ and not credible. If the forthcoming election is to be a model one, the Commission must take lessons from those two elections.

An election is not just a one-day affair, it is a process. There are some important criteria to determine the correctness of the process. These include: 1. Whether those who want to be candidates in the election will be able to become candidates; 2. Whether there will be credible alternative candidates for the voters to choose from; 3. Whether the candidates will be able to campaign unhindered and will be able to have polling agents; 4. Whether those who wish to vote, will be able to do so freely and without fear; 5. Whether the voters will have access to accurate information about the candidates; 6. Whether there will be control against efforts to influence voters with money or muscle; 7. Whether the media will be able to carry out its duties properly and whether there will be neutral observers present; 8. Whether the use of EVM will be free of manipulation and whether the vote counting will be accurate; 9. Above all, whether the voting process will be transparent, free of manipulation and credible.

The main responsibility of meeting these criteria lies with the Election Commission. The other responsible entity to fulfill the criteria of a model election is the government, that is, the bureaucracy and the law enforcement agencies. The Supreme Court also has a role to play in this regard. The media and the civil society can play significant roles in this matter too.

In the first Gazipur city corporation election of 2013, the criteria of holding a model election were fully met. For example, both Awami League and BNP participated in those polls. According to The Daily Star, 934 media workers acted as the ears and eyes of the public in Gazipur. Also, there were 94 international, and 231 local observers present in Gazipur on the day of the 2013 election.

The main reason behind the process of the first election being correct is the Election Commission's neutrality. In that election, neither the administration nor the law enforcement agencies indulged in any excesses. Having lost in all the previous ones -- the Barishal, Khulna and Rajshahi city corporation elections -- the ruling party did all in its power to win the election in Gazipur, but they did not resort to any form of foul play. The main reason behind this was that, having abolished the caretaker government system from the Constitution in 2011 and ushering in the provision to hold elections under the party in power, the ruling party wanted to establish that they could be trusted to holdfree and fair national elections. And so the 2013 Gazipur city corporation election was a model one where the BNP candidate clinched the victory.

On the other hand, the 2018 was an extremely manipulated and ‘controlled’ election. This controlled election had several features: 1. The law enforcement agencies were used to drive many leaders and activists of the main opposition party away from their homes so that they would not be able to campaign for their candidates during the election; 2. The opposition candidates were prevented from appointing polling agents for election day and the agents were obstructed from performing their duties; 3. Centres were captured in a planned manner on election day for ballot box stuffing; 4. The outgoing BNP-nominated mayors in  Khulna, Gazipur, Rajshahi, Sylhet and Barishal were unable to carry out development work to the expected level due to cases, arrests, expulsion and discrimination in allocating funds, and the ruling party used this in their campaign to influence the voters’ decision by propagating that if they wanted development, they would have to vote for the ruling party candidate; and, 5. In many cases the opposition candidates lost by a wide margin to the Awami League candidates due to the Election Commission’s passive role about these irregularities and excesses, the biases of the presiding officers and the harassment by the law enforcement agencies.

If the major political parties do not join the election, there is no legality issue, but the legitimacy sinks to zero
Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal

BNP is not participating in the forthcoming election. Former mayor Jahangir Alam, as a rebel candidate, was a possible challenge to the Awami League-backed candidate, but with loan default charges being brought against him, he is no longer in the contest. So the government no longer has to intervene to ensure their man wins. Thus, other than the absence of any credible alternative contestant, there is really no obstacle in its path to free and fair election in Gazipur. But will it be credible?

An election is the right, power and opportunity to choose among alternatives. So when there are no credible alternative candidates before the voters to choose from, that cannot not really be called an election in the truest sense. This also does not reflect people’s consent, which is an essential prerequisite for a democratic polity.

Competitive election happens when both BNP and Awami League have competing candidates. If not, the election is one-sided and not a credible one.

The CEC recently admitted that “If the major political parties do not join the election, there is no legality issue, but the legitimacy sinks to zero” (Prothom Alo, 7 April 2023). In other words, due to the lack of credible options, the forthcoming Gazipur city election will not be legitimate.

If the election is not legitimate, it cannot be called free and fair, which is our constitutional obligation. So, if there are no credible alternative candidates, the election’s legality will also be compromised. According to the constitutional expert Mahmudul Islam, our “Constitution does not envisage anything else than free and fair electionand any law which stifles the hand of the Commission in ensuring free and fair election will not pass the test of constitutionality.” (Constitutional Law, p. 973).

Accordingly, we hope that the CEC will give due consideration to the possibility that the 15th amendment to the constitution will prevent them from fulfilling the Commission’s constitutional mandate to a hold free and fair election.

Dr Badiul Alam Majumdar is secretary, Shushoner Jonno Nagorik (SHUJAN)