Challenges before the clueless commission

One method of research is to scrutinise and analyse newspaper reports on various issues and to write on certain topics. If there is no information that counters the reports published in the media, then these can be taken as more or less credible and can be used for analysis and commentary. The reason behind this 'preamble' is that information from various media outlets has been used in writing this article.

Voter turnout in the recently held six by-elections was extremely low. Election commission sources put the turnout at 15 to 25 per cent. No matter what logic may be offered to explain these low figures, the fact remains that people have lost interest in non-competitive elections. Over the past few years most of the elections, particularly the by-elections and the local government elections, have been without contest and so the people have lost the impetus to turn up at the polling centres. Also, the manner in which uncontrolled irregularities have destroyed the election system, the candidates in these one-sided elections consider voter turnout to be of little significance. It hardly matters whether the candidate who is being placed before the people is even liked by the people at all. The culture of uncontested elections that started from 2014 has seriously impacted local government elections.

I do not think the election commission has any study on this issue. That is why it has become totally clueless and stumbles in carrying out its constitutional duties. In the by-election held recently in Brahmanbaria, a certain candidate went missing some time before the election. I do not know if such serious incidents have taken place before in the election history of the country. A few days before the election, in order to save face, the election commission ordered the matter to be investigated through the local administration. The election was completed before the results of that investigation emerged. The election commission should have investigated the matter itself, not through the local administration. It should have suspended the election until the matter was resolved. After the election, the candidate who have been missing, said the activists of his rival party Awami League can say why he had gone into hiding.

Only time will tell whether similar incidents will occur in the forthcoming national election. I feel that the election commission had been either unable or unwilling to exert its authority here. This will simply serve to increase people's lack of trust in the commission. This lack of confidence in the institution and its management is a disincentive for the voters.


There may not have been much agitation over the recently concluded six by-elections, but the situation was considerably heated before and after the by-elections to the Brahmanbaria-2 and the Bogura-4 seats. Also unprecedented was the manner in which the candidate who had broken away from BNP, was made to win with a deluge of votes by the ruling party, even though he contested purportedly as an independent candidate. Perhaps in the future, therefore, we will see many such candidates who have broken away from their parties, contesting in the election from some new party or independently, This is called a 'controlled vote'. This election has given rise to many questions in view of the national election looming ahead.

The people would hardly have given a second thought to the six lacklustre by-polls had Ashraful Hossain Alam, better known as 'Hero Alam' not lost only by a very narrow margin in the Bogura-4 by-election, to the candidate of an established political party. Hero Alam could not accept this defeat. He has been way ahead in many of the centres, but in the final results it was seen that he lost by a few hundred votes. He has spoken about going to the court.

However, if he did not get a record of the votes immediately after the counting, and if he did get this and the results do not differ from the published results, then there is not much he can do legally. After all, the voting was done by means of EVM and there were no allegations of widespread rigging. Recounting the EVM results are not likely to display any change. That is the biggest weakness of the EVM. Once the counting is done, it's done. Rigging or technical manipulations cannot be caught.

No matter what the results of Hero Alam's election may be, his sudden rise makes one message clear. The voters cast their votes in a show of protest against the candidate of the old political parties. Another message to the political parties is that symbols alone are not enough for swing votes or to win over new voters.


The coming election is not only complex for the election commission, but will pose many problems before it. The indications are visible. The new party 'Trinamool BNP' was not given registration by the election commission as it failed to fulfill the required conditions. The same party in the past too hadn't been given registration for the same reason. The party placed an appeal with the Supreme Court and the court ordered not only that the party be registered but also that it can be given an election symbol of its choice.

The question is, if the party has not met the requirements for registration and if the election commission deems that it is not qualified for registration, did the commission place this clearly before the court? Apparently not. And that is why the verdict went in favour of providing the registration. This is a clear display of the commission's weakness.

The challenges before the commission are huge because around 100 new parties have applied for registration. These include a few parties who have long been in the political area and are visibly active. The election commission has not deemed some of these parties as qualified and they too have resorted to the court. The question is, will the commission provide registration on its own accord or just wait for court orders?

The reason this issue has been raised here is that the coming election will not be just complex and difficult, but it will place new challenges before the election commission. It is the election commission's responsibility to ensure a free and fair election. How far is the election commission ready to accept that challenge? The people, the voters and other stakeholders will be watching keenly.

* Dr M Sakhawat Hossain is an election analyst, former army officer and SIPG senior research fellow (NSW)

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