Even though the first city corporation election was not held under any party symbol or candidature, it had support from the two major political parties. That election was held on 5 January 2012 just before the end of the Shamsul Huda commission's term. For the first time then the votes were cast by EVM and Monirul Haque won with a wide margin. The second election was held towards the beginning of the Nurul Huda commission's term, in 2017. That time too it was said that the election was a crucial test for the Nurul Huda commission. That election too was held freely and fairly and with no major disruption or disorder and the immediate past mayor Monirul Haque was reelected as an independent candidate. There were around 200,000 voters and 103 voting centres at the time. Votes were cast with ballot papers. That election conducted by the Nurul Huda commission took place with no rigging or any objections and was quite free and fair. Though the commission passed the so-called test, there are questions as to whether it passed the subsequent tests. So you can't judge a book by its cover, as was seen in the Nurul Huda commission's management of the second election of the Cumilla city corporation. So it would hardly be logical to cite the Cumilla election to ascertain the present commission's competence.
Now to come to the issue of the recently concluded Cumilla election. An election normally has three phases and an analysis of the election takes these three phases into consideration. One, pre-voting phase. Two, during the voting. And three, the post-voting phase. In the Cumilla election, management of the election commission pre-voting, during the campaign and during the voting may have seem in excess, but it took much more precautionary measures than in the past. A huge amount was spent on closed circuit cameras. It is still not clear how much was spent on the management, but hopefully the expenditure figures will be available shortly. The commission must think of the expenditure in the coming elections. A study of the election history of each region would be helpful in planning.
In that election there had been 55 centres. An easy EVM had been used then. It had been used despite strong objection from BNP. As it had no biometrics attached, the common people didn't face much difficulty as they did this time. And this time the voter turnout has been the lowest, around 59 per cent. According to reports in the media, many voters did not cast their votes due to the inordinate delay and waiting. In some centres the voters had to wait for over an hour in line. As a result, the voters, particularly the elder voters, lost interest in voting. That was evident from the statements made by many over electronic media. The main reasoning behind using the EVM was for speedy voting. But it will invariably be delayed because of biometrics. All said and done, the voting did go smoothly.
In the pre-voting phase, there was quite a ruckus over the election commission's letter to the local MP, calling for him to leave the area. The lawmaker paid no heed to the prevailing regulations and challenged the election commission's authority. It is apparent that the election commission issued the letter in keeping with the prevailing Code of Conduct section 14 (Ka) and there is a provision to punishment if this code is violated. It is not clear whether this member of parliament had been appointed as the party's chief agent. Even if the election commission didn't have the code of conduct in hand, Article 119 of the constitution was enough to issue the letter and take action. There are innumerable of such precedents in the subcontinent, even in Bangladesh itself. The Habibul Awal commission was thrown off balance in this case, it seems. It is not a matter of who lost or won or whose dignity took a blow. The main point here is now the commission will deal with such situation.
The member of parliament told newspersons that he had gone to court over the matter. But we do not know whether, in keeping with Article 126 of the constitution, there anyone standing in for the election commission during the hearing. If not, that means the election commission must be more cautious and attentive about such matters.
If he is to prove that there was manipulation of the results, then there has to be a recounting of votes which is not possible without written results which cannot be availed in the EVM system. There is no 'audit trail'. This is the biggest weakness of this EVM.
While the second phase of the election, the voting, went very peacefully, the trouble erupted during the counting, particularly when, according to the media, the returning officer suddenly held up announcing the results following a disruption in the returning officer's office. By then the results of 101 centres had been announced and till then independent candidate Monirul Haque was leading by around 600 votes. When the so-called trouble broke out leading to the returning officer holding up the result announcement, the main two contenders -- the Awami League and the independent candidate -- were almost neck and neck in the race. In such circumstances, the returning officer should have been more cautious.
I considered this election commission official to be quite experienced and honest, as he had worked under me as a junior official. It was not expected of him to suspend the announcing of the results. He could have taken help from the assistant returning officer. In no way should it have been delayed when the results were at this stage. This has given rise to suspicion in the public mind, scarring the good initiative of the election commission. I hope that the election commission published the centre-wise results of the election and clears its position.
The independent candidate has rejected the results of this Cumilla election and said he will seek legal recourse. If he does seek legal recourse, then technically speaking it cannot be said that the election is over, until the verdict is passed. But he will have to wait till the gazette is published before filing a case. The question is, if he is to prove that there was manipulation of the results, then there has to be a recounting of votes which is not possible without written results which cannot be availed in the EVM system. There is no 'audit trail'. This is the biggest weakness of this EVM. Without an 'audit trail', questions will inevitably arise about the EVM.
If the election commission, according to the city corporation election conduct law, Section 20 (Kha) has given every candidate centre-wise result forms in accordance to Section 20 (Ga), then the candidates can easily say if there has been rigging of the results, otherwise the EVM will constrict this scope. But the use of EVM in the future elections will be controversial unless a 'paper audit trail' is ensured.
The election commission needs to take more care to ensure that a well-conducted election does not become controversial due to a couple of mistakes (?). The commission's constitutional duties and actual test lies ahead. We hope they pay more attention then.
* Dr M Sakhawat Hossain is an election analyst, former military officer and SIPG senior research fellow (NSU). He can be reached at [email protected]