In a dramatic turn of events with no precedent in the history of independent Bangladesh, the country's Election Commission on Wednesday (Oct. 12) announced that it was effectively scrapping an election in the middle of the voting day. Although the said election happened to be a simple by-election in a single constituency, the incident may bear huge significance in the context of the current political scenario in the country, where the ruling party is determined to hold on despite obvious chinks in the electoral machinery, while the opposition parties, led by the BNP, are engaged in what has been described as a fight for survival.

Chief election commissioner (CEC) Kazi Habibul Awal made the announcement at the EC's head office in the capital's Agargaon area around 2:30pm on polling day - voting was set to continue till 4pm. The CEC said, "We think voting situation has gone out of control and a group or a rival opponent candidate has managed to influence the polls. That is why we think voting is not being held neutrally."

The commission was monitoring the situation in the by-election to Gaibandha-5 constituency from the EC office through CCTV cameras set up at every polling centre - a first for the country.

The CEC said EC officials had monitored the election uninterruptedly since 8:00am, but high officials of the EC informed him about 12:30pm that CCTV connections have been disconnected at many voting centres.

"The section 91 of the Representation of the People Order states voting must be held in a fair and neutral manner and the commission has been bestowed with the authority to halt the voting at a centre or all the centres if the commission deems voting is not being held properly. And we are taking decisions in accordance with the provision," he added.

Voting was suspended at 51 centres out of 143 in several phases - more than one-third - and the EC deemed deciding the result keeping so many centres out of their purview would not be proper. The CEC said the commission would decide on a new date for the by-polls later after studying laws, rules and regulations.

Earlier, the CEC briefed the media at the EC office around 12:00pm. At that point, the CEC had already conceded that the situation in Gaibandha was 'out of control'.

Replying to a query from newsmen as to why the situation went out of control, Kazi Habibul Awal said, "We are observing that the situation has somewhat gone out of control. You are also noticing it. Others are entering secret rooms, voting is not being held properly. But we cannot say now why the situation has gone out of control."

The CEC also said he noticed huge malpractices in the polls and voting has been suspended where more irregularities were found.

Replying to a query on what action will be taken against those who indulged in irregularities in election, the CEC said they have taken primary steps, and they spoke to police, district administration and returning officers.

As to whether they received any complaint on the electronic voting machine (EVM), the CEC said, "We find no fault in EVM. Human errors are causing some problems."

The CEC said he saw many people going to vote wearing T-shirts with some electoral symbols and such activities are being carried out violating the electoral code of conduct. "Those who don't abide by laws, we can call them robbers and miscreants. All of us must respect the law and the EC cannot offer a good election by sitting here," he added.

There were 339,098 voters registered to vote in the Gaibandha-5 (Saghata-Fulchhari) constituency. The constituency fell vacant after the death of deputy speaker Fazle Rabbi Miah. Five candidates contested the by-polls, but all except Mahmud Hasan of Awami League had already boycotted the election prior to the EC's dramatic intervention.

Two days later, CEC Kazi Habibul Awal clarified that the election commission can suspend an election from anywhere, if they deem it necessary to do so. Asked about Awami League general secretary Obaidul Quader's remark that how rational it was for the EC to suspend the election by watching CCTV from Dhaka, the CEC said, "I've already said that Awami League general secretary could have watched with us."

"We've heard many people saying how it could be possible to watch so many polling centres sitting in the office. Traffic is controlled by watching CCTV footage in many countries. The system is developed in a way that facts of 200-400 places can be gleaned sitting in one place. We think it is a suitable technology," he added.

When it was pointed out to him that the AL general secretary did not question the technology but rather his jurisdiction to suspend the election sitting in Dhaka, the CEC replied it is irrelevant where the EC is: under section 91 of the relevant law, they can suspend the election from anywhere on Earth.

"If we think an election is not being conducted in the right way, then the EC can stop the election in any specific polling centre or all centres," the CEC said. He insisted that they took the decision after appropriate discussion and thinking.

Disgruntled AL

The decision of the EC did not sit well with the ruling party, which has been busy questioning the EC's right to pursue the course of action that it did. But the CEC, through Section 91 of the Representation of People's Order, the law that governs elections in Bangladesh, would seem to be on pretty safe ground here. The section clearly states that the EC may "stop the polls at any polling station [or entire constituency, as the case may be] at any stage of the election if it is convinced that it shall not be able to ensure the conduct of the election justly, fairly and in accordance with law due to malpractices, including coercion, intimidation and pressures, prevailing at the election."

Elections expert and political scientist Badiul Alam Majumder, secretary of Citizens for Good Governance (SUJAN), believes the EC was well within its rights to do what it did, and perhaps more importantly, he also believes it was the right thing to do.

BNP vindicated?

The day after the election, BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said the postponement of Gaibandha-5 by-election has proved that a partisan government can never hold a fair election.

"The election commission cannot hold a fair by-election despite using everything at their disposal. Having failed, they were forced to stop the election. This proved the allegation we have been making for so long," Fakhrul told journalists before holding a meeting to exchange views with BNP leaders and activists in Thakurgaon.

About remarks of Awami League leaders on the suspension of Gaibandha-5 by-election, the BNP secretary general said it is a matter of the election commission and AL. He also said BNP has not much interest in talking about the suspended by-election, but are focusing on overthrowing this government and forcing the authorities to conduct a fair election under a neutral government. The EC's apparently independent act in Gaibandha will have no effect on their principal demand.

Fakhrul said their movement to oust the AL government has already started and was gathering the needed momentum. Indeed, as the ill-fated by-election was taking place, on the very same day at the Polo Ground in Port City Chittagong, the BNP was commencing the second phase of its movement to realise elections under a neutral administration - its key demand ahead of the 2023 polls.

This phase will feature 10 divisional rallies in all the divisions of Bangladesh before culminating in what the BNP hopes will be a show of their strength at a rally in capital Dhaka on December 10.

"Thousands of people in Chhatogram have given the people a clear message that the movement to oust this government is on. The movement would spread throughout the country and the government would be forced to resign very soon."

The numbers who turned up at the rally in Chattogram did look pretty impressive, although it is impossible to say how many there were. Some BNP activists have claimed it to be in the lakhs. Although that may have been a bit of an exaggeration, there is no doubt thousands of leaders and activists from Chattogram, Cox's Bazar, Rangamati, Bandarbans, Khagrachhari, Feni, Noakhali and Lakshmipur took part.

Mirza Fakhrul said, "The government will have to resign. The protest that has started off today from Chattogram will have to be spread across the country. The government will be ousted through the movement. The election will be held under the neutral government. The only cry of thousands of people participating in the rally in Chattogram today is: the resignation of the government."

He said to the prime minister, "Warning of an imminent famine, you asked people to eat less food and use less power. So, why are you staying in power? Step down right away, otherwise you will not get the way to flee."

The BNP leader claimed it is not an elected government. That is why they siphoned everything out of the country. The prices of all essential commodities shot up by "three to five fold". The electricity price will also go up. They (government) are building houses at Begum Para in Canada, and London, pickpocketing the people.

Everything, including the judiciary, has been politicised in the country, he added.

The government clearly wasn't liking it. As with other rallies held by the BNP in various parts of the country since it started their 'do or die' movement (Fakhruls own description), local AL, Juba League, Chhatra League, and very often local administration including the police did all they could to pose various obstacles to these rallies, exposing instead the very limited space available for opposition activity. Some 5 of their workers have even been killed attending these rallies (although none on Wednesday). Four of them were killed in what could only have been police firing, but the police shockingly denied these incidents, and engaged in unthinkable shenanigans to evade their responsibility.

On Wednesday, no one died, but one of the motorcades carrying BNP supporters from mostly Feni and the surrounding areas came under attack as it made its way through the district. At least 30 people suffered injuries after unidentified assailants attacked the motorcade.

"A total of 15 cars from our motorcade came under attack in Baryarhat, Mithachara, Mirsarai, Sitakunda, Nizampur and Kamaldah points of the Dhaka-Chattogram highway. The attacks left 30 of our party activists critically injured. However, thousands of our activists attended the rally overcoming many obstacles on their way," said Alal Uddin Alal, member secretary of BNP's Feni district unit.

BNP's Amir Khosru said AL and Jubo League 'miscreants' assaulted the BNP leaders and activists on the way to the rally in Chattogram. Some 'overenthusiastic' police members joined the attack with them. Police conducted raids at the houses of BNP leaders and activists a day before the rally was held. They arrested nearly 50 BNP men, informed Khosru.

An unforeseen element

Most importantly perhaps, it has planted in the voters' minds a process whereby a sham election can indeed be prevented from proceeding.

There is no doubt that this by-election reinforces their stance that a free and fair election would not be possible under this EC, and more specifically, the incumbent government.

The commission meanwhile will carry out an investigation to find out why the situation went out of control in Gaibandha-5, and who was behind it. The CEC said on Thursday that the commission had formed a probe committee to look into the irregularities and submit a report within seven days.

"We have noticed irregularities in the polling since the beginning. In many centres, we have observed illegal entry into secret polling booths. Unauthorised persons forced voters to cast votes. We have clearly observed this. We have seen that most of the polling agents had election symbols printed on their clothes. The girls were wearing the same type of sarees or veils, which was against the election code of conduct," the CEC said on the day of the election. The commission had been monitoring the polls continuously from 8:00 am to noon.

They found Irregularities and illegal activities to be 'rampant'. As a result, they stopped polling in three polling stations at first. After that, another 16 centres were closed, and in the third phase, 12 more centres. By 12:30pm, a total of 43 centres had been closed. Seven more were closed on the basis of information received from officials on the ground. And the returning officer using his authority shut down one centre, before the entire election was eventually abandoned.

Many are saying the EC's decision has proved the independence of the commission, and that it nullifies the demand for a caretaker government to conduct polls. But Badiul Alam Majumder is keen to point out that the exercise of this 'nuclear option' by the EC to cancel polling does not mean it had proved its ability to conduct a free and fair election.

"You have to realise that it still hasn't succeeded in holding a free and fair election. If anything, the EC's decision further strengthens the argument that a neutral election cannot be held under a partisan government in Bangladesh," he told DC on Friday.

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