Earlier, 101 persons were killed in this seven-phase UP election. A 13-year-old child went to watch the voting in Satkania, Chattogram. He was knifed and killed outside the polling centre. Yet the election commission couldn’t be bothered about the law and order or the security of the polling centres. The functions were limited to announcing the election schedule and then announcing the results. In the meantime, the parties and candidates participating in the election just shoved ahead with sheer force. It was like land grabbers forcefully occupying ‘chars’.

While we are now taking an account of the Nurul Huda commission, their entrance into the scene comes to mind. The people of Bangladesh are always optimistic. Despite the abject failure of the Rakib commission, the people had hoped the Huda commission would take a lesson from the past and at least take some measures to ensure a free, fair and peaceful election. After taking over responsibility, the Huda commission even held discussions with the civil society and media representatives. This columnist also had the fortune, or misfortune, to join one such dialogue. The journalists and members of civil society at the time had given the election commission all sorts of suggestions to ensure a free and fair election and to remain neutral. Rather than relying on his assistants, CEC Nurul Huda noted all this down himself. However, these recommendations never even came near implementation.

The fact remains that it is almost impossible to hold a free, fair, credible and peaceful election unless the government or the executive so desires

The EC simply carried out orders from above. In police stations there is a standard reply when asked why a person had been arrested – “orders from above.” In Bangladesh, everything runs on orders from above. Does that mean even the constitutional institution that holds the responsibility of the votes of 110 million voters, will merely run on orders from above?

The fact remains that it is almost impossible to hold a free, fair, credible and peaceful election unless the government or the executive so desires. In Bangladesh, all the elections held under non-partisan governments had credibility as there had been no political interference. People had confidence.

Before the Magura by-election in 1994, the chief election commissioner at the time, Justice Abdur Rauf, said that if anyone tried to show their muscle power during the election, the election commission would face them by displaying three times more muscle power. But he still failed to prevent that use of force. BNP was in power at the time.

During the Awami League government when there was vote rigging at the Tangail by-election, the CEC Mohammad Abu Hena issued a gazette and suspended the election. These two CECs failed to halt vote rigging by those in power, despite their efforts. As for the Huda commission, it didn’t even make any effort.

When the CEC’s attention was drawn to the increased violence, rigging, and use of force in the elections, he replied, “What can we do?” Under such circumstances they could have at least suspended the election.

In an interview with Prothom Alo, election commissioner Mahbub Talukdar said that they were about to suspend the Barishal city corporation election, but at the last minute the commission stepped back from this decision. The CEC justified itself saying that their people would not have been able to return safely if such a decision was taken. But the law enforcement and the administration were in their control. If the administration is firm, party aggression can be quelled, as later proven by the Barishal DC and the sadar upazila UNO. All parties and candidates are the same to the election commission.

It is no secret that the Nurul Huda commission failed to hold free and fair elections. But what has escaped the public eye is the procurement of EVM equipment for many more times the actual price, officials of the EC getting huge honorarium for conducting routine workshops, etc. Towards the end of his term the CEC even had to face contempt of court charges. The case was filed by the chief coordinator of Jana Sanghati Andolan, Zonayed Saki. In December 2017 Jana Sanghati Andolan had applied to the EC for registration as a political party. In June 2018 the EC replied that they would not be registered. Later, in response to a writ filed by Zonayed Saki, the Supreme Court in April 2019 issued orders to complete all legal procedures within 30 days for the registration of the party. Even after then when the EC took no steps, this case was filed on 11 February.

The people will no longer tolerate any Huda style election commission. They want an election commission that is capable to properly holding a free, fair and peaceful election. If you are unable to do so because of political intervention, then at least you can display the guts to resign

As I write this column on the Nurul Huda commission, there is a flurry of activity to form the new commission. The search committee has asked the various parties for names. Some have submitted names, and some have said they will not. The search committee is meeting with the civil society and media representatives too. And in the meantime, hundreds of ‘qualified’ persons are rushing to the cabinet division, requesting that they be selected. Most of them are former bureaucrats.

At this juncture when the search committee is struggling to find five individuals, how come so many qualified persons have suddenly emerged in the scene? These persons who have submitted their names to the search committee, haven’t uttered a single word about the elections over the past five years. So why are they now so keen to become commissioners? Is it to bring the election commission to the right path or to spend five years of their retired life in comfort at the expense of the taxpayers’ money? They may be thinking if the Huda commission could get away with such misdeeds over the past five years, they won’t be held accountable either.

There is one thing that needs to be told to these people who suddenly aspire to become election commissioners. The people will no longer tolerate any Huda style election commission. They want an election commission that is capable to properly holding a free, fair and peaceful election. If you are unable to do so because of political intervention, then at least you can display the guts to resign. You must not make a farce of people’s voting rights.

Many friends ask what is the point in writing so much about the election commission, what difference has all the criticism made? It is not that there has been no benefit at all. These writings have snatched away their holier-than-thou facades and exposed them to the public. No matter who takes over the election commission in future, they won’t be able to run in the Huda style.

* Sohrab Hassan is joint editor of Prothom Alo and a poet. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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

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