Maybe, the returning officers did the right thing by accepting and rejecting nomination papers of aspiring candidates for the 30 December parliamentary elections. Maybe, they are legally right in most cases and wrong in a few instances.
To their credit, during scrutiny of nomination on Sunday, they set the highest record of cancellation of nomination in the country's history, declaring a total of 786 aspirants ineligible. They accepted 2,279 nomination papers -- a number that did not come up for any discussion, however.
The nomination papers are rejected on the ground of what the officers said were the candidates' 'conviction in graft cases', 'default loans', 'wrong information', 'mismatch in signature' and non-compliance with electoral rules.
Whatever may be the legal merit of their decisions, the returning officers' acts have raised questions in the mind of many.
The officers, who are actually deputy commissioners appointed by the incumbents, have apparently reminded the people of who they are and why they did so.
Nomination papers of around 141 candidates belonging to the opposition BNP camp, including almost 50 stalwarts, were rejected, according to the election commission.
The officers stripped the BNP all candidates in six constituencies. As the opposition expressed their grievances about the nomination cancellation, the ruling party leaders referred the issue to the commission.
The opposition got this treatment after they were demanding reconstitution of the election commission and formation of an election-time neutral government for free and fair elections.
Only three nominations of the ruling Awami League candidate were found to have been rejected. On top of this, the officers declared null and void candidature of a good number of the AL candidates who filed for nomination against the party decision.
The coincidence of the higher number of cancellation of nominations from the opposition vis-a-vis three exceptions in the ruling party, has eclipsed the legal interpretation of the bureaucrats.
Khaleda Zia, BNP chairperson and former prime minister, was declared ineligible for contesting the polls on the ground of her conviction in graft cases, although the opposition lawyers made an appeal and called the cases politically motivated.
One of the 'victims' from the AL of nomination cancellation is former member of parliament Zakir Hossain who wanted to contest the polls from Kurigram-4 constituency. The AL leaders said nothing about it.
The returning officers, however, accepted nomination of a number of AL candidates despite legal controversies including that of Haji Mohammad Salim, convicted in a graft case. According to the Anti-Corruption Commission, the appeal of Salim is pending with the High Court.
Nomination of former AL general secretary Syed Ashraful Islam, who is undergoing treatment in Thailand, was allegedly not filled up properly. But the returning officer accepted his nomination.
A returning officer cancelled the nomination paper of former finance minister Shah AMS Kibria’s son Reza Kibria for his failure to pay renewal fee of Tk 5,500 of a private bank credit card.
Reza Kibria wanted to contest the polls from Habiganj-1 constituency after he had joined Gano Forum.
Rejection of candidature of Reza Kibria, who stays abroad, gave birth to question as to whether he is a loan defaulter.
When nomination of the BNP candidates are rejected, like that of party chief Khaleda Zia on grounds of conviction in graft cases, the question arises as to whether if the same principle was applied to the AL candidates who were convicted.
During a recent meeting with the returning officers, the chief election commissioner and other commissioners asked the returning officers to treat all candidates equally.
Did they do so?
The officers were also asked not to reject nomination papers for minor errors.
That is not what BNP candidate from Manikganj-2 Mainul Islam Khan received from the returning officer who rejected the nomination questioning authenticity of party secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir's signature.
BNP candidate from Dhaka-1 Khandaker Abu Ashfaq was denied the right to contest polls as the returning officer said he did not resign from the post of upazila chairman, even though he did.
The officers' performance reflected the doubts expressed by the opposition about any level-playing field during the election process polls and ultimately fair and participatory elections.
* Rabiul Islam is a journalist. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org