What lesson has EC learnt from the 'night votes'?

While the political conflict over how the election should be held has reached a height, our election commission (EC) is busy with non-political exchanging of views. Such a meeting has been organised today too, on the expectations and role of the media. A similar meeting was held around a month back where the chief election commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal had said that the prime minister has several times reassured that the election would be fair. At that meeting held on 13 September, he seemed quite reassured by the prime minister's words. Perhaps that is why he said, "No previous government had given such an assurance before. For the first time the head of government has made such a commitment. That is why I say that I want to keep faith."

We have no idea when this exchange between the prime minister and the election commission took place. At least it did not appear in the media. Did the commission actually talk to the prime minister about the apprehensions and misgivings of the opposition parties, or do they have faith in the political statements made by the prime minister from time to time? So does that mean no importance is attached to the words of those who maintain that there can be no credible election under a party government, or are these contentions ignored as they are voiced by the anti-government elements?

Ever since the abolition of the caretaker government system, the other cabinet members and leaders of the ruling party have been claiming that all elections under the present government have been free and fair. Referring to the city corporation elections, the local government elections and the parliamentary by-elections, they say, "We have proven that elections under the Awami League government can be free and no one can complain against this."

They have even denied that voting took place on the night before the election in 2018, saying the election was held properly. They say the opposition could not fare well because of Awami League's popularity, the opposition's leadership vacuum, so-called nomination trading and lack of coordination in the election campaign. With the international community in recent times placing importance on the need for free, fair and democratic elections, the ruling party is all the more active in their campaign in order to tackle this pressure.

It seems that the election commission is, in effect, denying the pitiful state to which the election has descended over the past one decade. How many of the elections held under this election commission were actually competitive? Why weren't these competitive? As for the elections that were competitive to an extent, other than for a few exceptions, this was because of the inner power struggle of the ruling party. Did the election commission not see this? Is the election commission unable to comprehend that the nomination of the ruling party is the last word, that the voter's right to choose has become redundant?

Even though the chief election commissioner and the other commissioners do not want to remember, how can the voters who could not vote in two consecutive elections forget that experience? The biggest weakness in our political culture is that other than the ruling party, the activities of the other parties are not carried out in an organised manner. That is why not everything is accessible, even if needed. I do not know of anyone who has recorded the manner in which the 30 December 2018 election was held and published this. I have not seen any researcher doing so on his personal initiative either. That is why the government and the ruling party quite easily come up with their alternative narrative, claiming to have clinched a strong mandate.

Bangladesher Samajtantrik Dal's Rajshahi candidate Alfaz Hossain said during his election campaign, he was picked up on 27 December evening by persons claiming to be from an intelligence agency, driven off in a back car and then released only the next day at the same spot

The BNP-led Jatiya Oikya Front on 22 February 2019 held a public hearing at the Supreme Court Bar Association auditorium. Earlier, on 11 January, the left-leaning parties including CPB also held such a public hearing on 11 January that year. Around 150 candidates were present at the Oikya Front hearing and a few dozen of them shared their experiences. And 147 candidates joined the left front's hearing, with 80 of them describing how the voting took place at their constituencies. We only hear about ballot boxes being stuffed on the night before, but we don't hear about the vote robbery, forced occupation of the centres and the various irregularities as described in the hearing.

In his book 'Nirbachannama', the former election commissioner late Mahbub Talukdar revealed a lot of unknown facts, saying that the scenario of 11th national election shows that the election was not fair. Pointing to irregularities, he said that in 213 centres of 103 constituencies, 100 per cent votes were cast. In 1,205 seats, 16 to 99 per cent of the votes were cast. He said that this was unrealistic.

It was not only that the BNP-led Oikya front, considered to be the opposition, were harassed, faced with cases and not allowed to vote. Candidates of the left front too did not have the minimum scope to take part in the election. Abdus Sattar, the Barishal candidate of Biplobi Workers Party, said that his agents were picked up at 10 in the morning, detained at an unknown location up until 4 in the afternoon. Bangladesher Samajtantrik Dal's Rajshahi candidate Alfaz Hossain said during his election campaign, he was picked up on 27 December evening by persons claiming to be from an intelligence agency, driven off in a back car and then released only the next day at the same spot. Similar stories of the opponents being picked up and detained for a fixed span of time were heard during the city corporation elections too. The commission remained unperturbed by such enforced disappearances and neither did the administration take any action.

In both the hearings most of the allegations were common -- the administration and the police had filled the ballot boxes at least one-third on the night before the election, the agents of other candidates were not allowed to enter on the day of the election, in some areas the Awami League activists wore badges of other candidates and controlled the centres, and the returning officers did not take any complaints of the opposition candidates into cognizance. The book 'Nirbachannama' best describes the role of the administration and the police when it came to complaints of the opposition party candidates. He highlights how he faced so much obstruction and so many obstacles within the commission for adhering to the law and ethics.

At the hearing of the left leaning front, the CPB 'scythe' symbol candidate of Narsingdi-4, Kazi Sajjad Zahir Chandan, said a presiding officer of a polling centre in his constituency admitted to him on the day before the election that the administration had issued orders to ensure that 35 per cent of the votes were stamped on the night before the election. Under pressure from Awami League, that went up to 45 per cent. Satkhira's CPB candidate Azizur Rahman said that he had been attacked by Awami League and the police told him that he could not say anything against the government in his campaign.

There were innumerable such attacks and most of them against the Oikya Front candidates. Two days ago Awami League's former minister Abu Sayeed wrote in a newspaper that two of his vehicles had been smashed in front of the police. He had been attacked around 18 times.

Given the state of affairs due to the politicisation of the institutions and the police, and the commission's vote of confidence in advance, based on the government's political assurances, simply serves to increase doubts concerning its intentions.

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

* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist

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