In discussions about the suspension of the Gaibandha-5 by-elections, two interpretations have come forward regarding the role of the Election Commission (EC) and the election system. The first interpretation is positive for the EC.
According to this interpretation, the commission took an almost unprecedented step and displayed its gumption in suspending the election. The EC applied the authority bestowed upon it by Section 91 of the RPO. While there were five candidates in this by-election, the main contender was of the ruling Awami League. Thus this decision is proof of the EC's neutrality.
The reaction of Awami League leader Mahbubul Alam Hanif is being taken into consideration in this interpretation. He said that everything was fine in Gaibandha and he has no idea why the voting was suspended. (Prothom Alo, 12 October 2022).
The interpretation diametrically opposite to this is not positive for the EC. This interpretation, in the form of a question, stands as this, "If the EC is unable to conduct a free and fair election in just one seat, how will carry out an election in 300 seats?" Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Kazi Habibul Awal's reply is, "Time will tell. It would not be prudent to say that the elections can't be held in 300 seats properly simply because it didn't happen in one seat. We will be cautious on the basis of this election."
No matter how clever these interpretations may sound, these do not bring forward the actual lessons from the Gaibandha by-election. The Gaibandha by-election has given rise to certain questions. Some of these are old, but now have more clarity.
From the media accounts of the incidents that occurred in Gaibandha election, it is evident that the ruling party people had taken over the polling booths right from the start of the voting and the EC officials could see this by means of CCTV cameras, sitting in their Dhaka office. What they saw was nothing unprecedented. This has happened in the past, in the national election, by-elections, union parishad elections, everywhere.
While this may be the first national-level election for this EC, the members of the commission are well aware about the previous national polls. It is not as if they had been in hibernation over the past decade.
It is evident from the statement made by election commissioner Ahsan Habib on 30 May that the members of the commission were every well aware of the matter. In singing praise for the Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) during a press briefing, he said, "I see only one challenge pertaining to the EVM and no other. That is the vote thief, the goon who stands in the confidential polling booth and says, 'Go away, your vote has been cast.'" ('EVM only challenge is criminals in the secret booth', Prothom Alo, 30 May 2022). The commissioner, however, gave no explanation as to why, despite being aware of these 'vote thieves' lurking on the polling centres, they took no action over the past four months. It is obvious that these miscreants do not simply enter the polling booths and become 'vote thieves', their actions and behaviour are evident from before.
The EC is well aware of the identity of these 'vote thieves'. This is evident in the media reports. The 'boat' (Awami League election symbol) candidate in Chambal union of Banshkhali, Chattogram and the incumbent chairman, Mujibul Huq Chowdhury, said in no uncertain terms, "My people will be in the centre to press the button (of the EVM)." He went on to say that had there been no EVM, he would have had the votes all cast on the night before the polls. And it is not as if such candidates are only in the union parishad polls or only in Chattogram.
It may well be asked, why then would the EC think that such occurrences would not happen in Gaibandha? Some may explain that they had 'hoped' this would not happen. But surely 'hoping' cannot be a strategy to dispense their duty. It surely would not be an exaggeration to say that such dependence on 'hope' after voluntarily taking on a constitutional responsibility, is nothing short of blatant irresponsibility. Doubters may say that the EC had intentionally not taken any measures to tackle such a situation, keeping their trump card in hand till the end.
It was quite some time after the voting began that the EC realised that the situation had gone out of hand. It was before that, though, that four of the candidates had withdrawn themselves from the election. From media reports it is evident that the agents of all the candidates, except the Awami League candidate, had been ousted from the polling centres in the morning.
The law enforcement may not have been able to take action against those who had filched the votes on the day of the election, but they are quite adroit in nabbing the leaders and activists of the opposition
The commission only took all this into account when the situation went 'out of control'. It is ridiculous how the CEC, even after declaring the election suspended at 2:30pm, told journalists, "We do not know how the situation went out of control."
Interestingly, there are no reports of the commission taking any action against those for whom the situation went 'out of control'. Many may argue, what can the EC do, it is the police's duty to nab these 'miscreants'. A certain media report stated that, "The EC basically has to depend on the law enforcement to bring a halt to irregularities. But the EC was unable to use the law enforcement agencies in conducting a free and fair election." That means even in an election to just one single seat, the EC failed to bring the law enforcement agencies under its control. The role of the administration there must also be investigated. After all, according to AL leader Mahbubul Alam Hanif, "No one can say that there had been any irregularities anywhere. I spoke to the district administration and they too had no such information."
These matters demand much more attention, particularly after the situation that arose during the EC's meeting on Saturday with the DCs and the SPs. At the meeting, election commissioner Md Anisur Rahman alleged that many DCs and SPs worked in accordance to the local MPs' directives. That is why no action was taken when the code of conduct was violated. Some DCs and SPs at the meeting raised hue and cry over his comments and Anisur Rahman couldn't continue with this statement (Jugantar, 11 October 2022).
The law enforcement may not have been able to take action against those who had filched the votes on the day of the election, but they are quite adroit in nabbing the leaders and activists of the opposition. Activists of Chhatra Odhikar Parishad were not even spared when they went to hospital to treat their injuries after being assaulted by Chhatra League men.
On the day before BNP's rally in Chattogram on 12 October, the police went from house to house trying to detain the party men. A certain branch of the police recently issued directives for a list to be drawn up of BNP and anti-government persons in all districts. The law enforcement agencies are able to do all this, but they could not assist the EC in holding a free and fair election in Gaibandha. That means that either they did not heed the EC's words, or the EC hadn't approached them in this regard. Neither of these is positive for the EC.
I differ with those who ask how the EC will be able to conduct an election in 300 seats when it couldn't carry out an election in just one seat. They are probably asking the wrong question. It is not a matter of whether the EC will be able or not, it is whether they want to or not. Conducting an election does not mean opening polling centres like opening shops, with the EVMs procured at the expense of the people's money.
An election involves creating an environment conducive to elections, and winning the confidence of the people. This is not done just a day, a week or a month before the election. If the EC imagines that the rare measure they took regarding the Gaibandha election will instil people's confidence in them, then they have little perception of the public mind. Their action has given rise to many more questions. These questions are not just about this by-election, but also about the role of the election commission in the days ahead.
* Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor of politics and government at Illinois University in the US, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and president of the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies
* This column appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir