There has been detailed discussion and debate over the recent by-election to a parliamentary seat in Gaibandha. Some have praised the election commission (EC) for their action while the ruling Awami League reacted in anger. In fact, in Gaibandha, Awami League even brought out a procession demanding the resignation of the commission. The reaction displayed by Awami League's general secretary Obaidul Quader and some of the ministers may have been unwarranted, but not surprising in the prevailing political culture of the country. What is obvious, however, is that the EC is perturbed, uneasy. Why else would they then feel the need to hurriedly call the former election commissioners to garner their support? It seems as if they have lost their self-confidence and are now looking for a backbone.

Why is the assessment after suspending the polls? In reply, chief election commissioner (CEC) Kazi Habibul Awal said, "This assessment is extremely necessary. On any given issue, we ask our colleagues as judges whether it was right or not, whether we took a correct decision or not. We feel it was correct, but then again, maybe it was not. We would have had to review our decision if anyone went to court and challenged the decision saying it was wrong."

He said, everyone was of the same opinion, that the decision to suspend the voting was correct. He even said they felt reassured with the statements of the former commissioners (Samakal 20 October 2022). They perhaps were so frightened that they forgot that seeking validation from the formers can be dangerous. The precedent they have set is giving rise to many questions.

The law clearly enunciates under what circumstances an election is to be suspended. So once the law has been implemented, why should the necessity arise to validate the decision? And since the former commissioners have finished their constitutional responsibilities, does the law see any difference between them and any other common citizen? Say, for example, a former commissioner wanted to be Awami League's candidate in the last election, he is given nomination in the future and a Gaibandha-like situation emerges in his seat, will the commission give his views special consideration and follow his opinion?

There are also questions about the list of those who responded to the Awal commission's invitation and turned up there. We do not understand under what consideration a former secretary or senior official of the commission is invited. As the majority members of the present commission are former bureaucrats, surely there is a special camaraderie with their former colleagues in the civil service for them to seek their views.

The deputy commissioner and the police super are associates of the politicians. In an election under a political government, even if the EC pleads with the deputy commissioner and police super, they will only listen to the government
Abdur Rauf, former CEC

Awami League has a logical argument against the commission's decision regarding the Gaibandha by election. They argue that the commission's duty is to run an election, not to suspend it. The civil society organisation SHUJAN echoes this criticism. The major reason that the commission could not conduct the by-election is that they failed to assess and preempt the possible risks in advance.

The ruling party's candidate in the by-election was a former president of Chhatra League and not too long ago much had been written about him in the media. If they were aware of his muscle and money power, the commission's preparation should have been different. From all appearances it seems that the present commission feels that the use of technology is the cure to all maladies.

The Gaibandha by-election has a silver lining, though. Firstly, it has proved that unless unlawful entrance into the voting booths and the stealing of votes can be halted, the EVM will be of new use. Taking over the paper ballot or taking over the EVM means that anyone can cast votes forcefully. So using the EVM instead of paper ballot is nothing but a waste of money. EVM has no purpose other than to fulfill the wishes of the government.

Secondly, the administration and the law enforcement did not heed the commission's words. They were not under the commission's control. This was explained very well by former CEC Abdur Rauf who had been in charge during the controversial Magura by election. He said, "The deputy commissioner and the police super are associates of the politicians. In an election under a political government, even if the EC pleads with the deputy commissioner and police super, they will only listen to the government."

Thirdly, the commission must find an effective way of establishing its authority over the administration and the law enforcement agencies. This was possible under the caretaker government system, which Awami League abolished to its own advantage. Without an alternative to this, no commission will be able to conduct a free and credible election.

Outside of all this, the use of CCTV also has provided certain lessons. Former commissioner who has done his PhD on the election systems of the subcontinent, Sakhawat Hossain, has advised the present commission to pay attention to increasing CCTV cameras in the polling centres instead of EVMs. His words hold logic. Had there been no CCTV this time, the commission would have had to rely on the doctored reports of the administration and given a clean chit to the election.

This is one place where the ruling party leaders have been caught off guard and have questioned the efficacy of their so-called Digital Bangladesh and 4G mobile service. With internet connections, one can monitor the election from anywhere in the world, yet in the fever of their political fervour, they question how the commission could see the irregularities sitting in their Dhaka office.

While this monitoring capacity of CCTV is helpful in the election, it will only be effective as long as the commission has the capacity to monitor. If it is not possible to prevent the cameras from being shut down or the connections from being snapped, or if a partisan bureaucrat of the administration is in charge of the monitoring, then neither paper ballots nor EVM  can be protected against the vote robbers. It is hard to believe that the commission will gain this capacity any time soon.

Politicians of the opposition very correctly asked how a commission that was at a loss to conduct a by-election just to a single seat, would be able to manage 300 seats, and that too with the parliament in place and the MPs enjoying all their benefits and facilities. Even after being warned about violating the election code of conduct, a certain MP paid no heed to the warning. Has the commission been able to do anything about it? The Cumilla experience does not say so. The picture is dismal too in the districts where the ruling party failed to resolve their infighting in the almost contest-free zila parishad elections.

There have been no reports of any accountability or punitive action against the administration or the police in the places from where snippets appeared in the media about vote trading and violence (as in Narail). As in the previous two commissions, the performance of Kazi Habibul Awal commission also proves that this institution is unwilling and incapable of tackling the ruling party and political pressure from the government.

* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist.

* This column appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir