The Cumilla City Corporation elections, the first polling of note to take place under a new Election Commission, turned into an unexpected own goal for the current dispensation. Till almost the eleventh hour, literally the last 30 minutes, it had all gone smoothly for the government, at least on election day itself. But in those 30 minutes to an hour, it all fell apart.
The shadow of the influential MP from Cumilla-6, AKM Bahauddin, had hung somewhat uncomfortably over the overall campaign, but the tradition of a good political culture particular to the region and incident-free voting, with a pretty good turnout on voting day, had created the conditions to come away from it all with a good feeling about the democratic process. The intriguingly close contest that emerged during the counting process made it even better.
If only things had been allowed to progress along that route, that would have been a clear win for the government, even if its candidate ended up losing. But with almost 90 percent of centres reporting, and its candidate trailing, something happened to overturn it all. Results from the 105 polling centres, which had been coming in thick and fast since around 6pm, suddenly stopped.
The Election Commission, which had taken over the Cumilla Shilpakala Academy for the purpose, had announced the results from 101 centres through the returning officer. It showed Sakku, who had taken a slim lead of 72 votes with 86 centres reporting, had extended his lead and now held a lead of 600 plus. The momentum had definitely shifted in his favour. And then came those 45 minutes.
Voting on the day had started at 8am and ended at 4pm. Two candidates-Monirul Haque Sakku, mayor for the last 10 years but running as an independent following expulsion from the BNP, and Arfanul Haque Rifat of the Awami League-were running mosty neck and neck until the election result was suddenly marred by chaos around 9pm, and the result announcement process was suspended.
At that time, the returning officer announced that they need more time to announce the name of the elected mayor as they were yet to receive the results of the remaining four to five centres. A group of leaders and activists of Sakku, smelling something rotten in the air, protested the announcement immediately and started chanting slogans in favour of Monirul, triggering chaos in the returning officer's room.
Sakku was in the room and said he will not leave till the results were published. Then, a section of leaders and activists of Arfanul Haque came to the Shilpakala Academy premises and got into an argument with police. There was a chase-counter chase situation, a uniquely Bengali feature of politics. The results remained halted. After around 45 minutes had passed, the next announcement from the EC said Arfanul Haque Rifat was the new mayor for Cumilla City Corporation. He had won by just 343 votes.
The election result was published a little after 9:30pm. There was no breakdown of the votes from the remaining centres in the announcement. It said Arfanul Haque secured 50,310 votes in 105 centres while Monirul bagged 49,967. However, the circumstances almost invited Sakku to reject the results, and claim he was defeated in a pre-planned manner. How could he not?
Three is a crowd
Alongside Arfanul Haque Rifat, Sakku had to fight against Mohammad Nizam Uddin, a leader of BNP's associate organisation Swecchasebak Dal, who emerged suddenly as a candidate. His candidacy inevitably raised eyebrows. It worked to undeniably split the opposition vote. Nizam too was expelled from the party. Cumilla's voters, political figures and civil society members think that one of the major reasons behind Monirul's defeat was that Nizam bagged around 30,000 votes.
The BNP supporters' votes were split as both of them were from the same party. It is assumed that Monirul would have gotten the majority of the votes Nizam got. Which would actually have turned it into a blowout.
It all allowed him to claim with some conviction that he was not defeated, rather the election results had been snatched in favour of the ruling party candidate. Talking to journalists after the election, he said he contested the polls only to serve the people of Cumilla city.
"The residents of the city would have misunderstood me if I had not contested the polls. I was at the helm of the city for around 16 years. No one was dishonoured by me. I tried to work for the people of Cumilla as a politician of the opposition party," Monirul said.
Asked about the reasons for his defeat, Monirul replied, "Why would I evaluate the reasons for defeat when I have not even accepted the result?"
The accidental lesson
Prior to polling day, the election had been notable for the capitulation of the EC in front of AKM Bahauddin, who had seemed to take an almost unusual interest in the election. Rifat's candidacy was known to enjoy his endorsement above all, and that carries a lot of truck in the AL due to his good standing with the prime minister herself.
Following extensive reports of Bahauddin, or Bahar as he is called, campaigning for Rifat, in defiance of the Code of Conduct that is incumbent upon all citizens with some special requirements for important personalities who can exercise undue influence on elections, the EC on June 8, a week out from the election, issued a letter asking him to leave his constituency.
He openly defied it, and instead filed a petition with the High Court challenging the directive.
In response, the HC issued a rule asking the EC to explain as to why this directive should not be declared contradictory to the constitution. There was no stay however on the EC's directive to Bahauddin.
Yet he continued to stay in the area, and continued his activities. He was even there as part of the AL crowd that showed up during the counting on election day and played its part in halting the process, although he is said to have remained outside the Academy. But there was consensus among reporters that the AL convoys had arrived there under his leadership.
When the Awami League officially nominated Arfanul in May, Bahar organised a huge gathering in support of the party candidate at its local office. Bahar moved the High Court after the EC asked him to explain his action.
As he continued to campaign for Rifat through meetings and bring allegations of corruption against Sakku, the expelled BNP leader complained to the EC about Bahar. Finally, the commission ordered Bahar to leave his constituency.
Voters could clearly see that Bahar was going all out this time to influence the vote in support of the Awami League's candidate. He was using all his influence to convince people in various fields to work for the ruling party, and the audacity he had shown by ignoring the Election Commission's orders worked to convince even more people that he was seriously invested in the result this time.
Of course this was not the first time that Bahar's interest in this year's Cumilla municipal poll had been noted. Remember the communal violence that broke out all over the country during Durga Puja last October? Strangely forgotten during this election, despite all the signs to vindicate it, was the testimony of the leader of the Hindu Mohajote, Gobinda Pramanik, following a fact-finding mission of his organisation into the causes of the violence.
Based on discussions with the people of Cumilla on the very day the violence broke out after a copy of the Holy Quran was found placed on a Puja Mandap at Nanuadighir Paar of the city, Pramanik had relayed that Bahauddin's hand was behind the unrest. The MP's motive? To prepare the grounds for a candidate of his choosing during the upcoming mayor elections, Pramanik stated.
By the time the election rolled around, people were calling it Sakku v Rifat on the ground, Sakku v Bahar in reality. On the day of the election when he turned up at his local polling centre to cast his vote, Bahar drew more attention than the candidates themselves.
"How can I leave the constituency? The last time I left, there was an attack [on the Hindu community] and vandalisation of idols. That was the time I went for Hajj. I had to shorten my trip and come back. Though Cumilla was a target [of the communal powers] at that time, no casualty was reported. In other parts of the country, people were killed for vandalising idols," he said.
"The language (of the letter) was not appropriate and it (the order) was out of their (EC) jurisdiction. The law (under which the letter was issued) was not legislated by the lawmakers, rather by the EC," he told newspersons after casting his vote. These were his fanciful interpretations, but uttered with such utter disregard for the EC's authority, this was a crushing indictment for the new 5-member commission. Of course none more so than Chief Election Commissioner Habibul Awal, who had already raised the white flag, at a time when the imperative was on the EC to display itself as a strong, independent institution.
Shujan (Citizens for Good Governance) secretary Badiul Alam Majumdar said it was disappointing to see the Election Commission failing to compel Bahauddin to leave Cumilla ahead of the city corporation election.
Badiul said that the EC enjoyed huge powers, but there was no execution of the power, which was unfortunate and disappointing. Badiul made the remarks as Shujan presented educational, financial and other details of mayoral and councillor candidates of Cumilla city polls in a programme at Cumilla Press Club, on the last day of campaigning.
Habibul Awal had acknowledged a day earlier that Bahauddin did not listen to their instruction to leave his constituency ahead of the polls, and the EC had proved helpless to compel him.
"Comilla-6 lawmaker AKM Bahauddin was given a letter to leave the constituency but it was not implemented," he said.
Commenting on the CEC's statement, Badiul said that the development was not a good sign. The commission has expressed its incapacity, he said. When EC cannot implement its rules and regulations, the citizens cannot be optimistic and confident, the Shujan secretary said.
He said that the lawmaker was defying the EC's instruction. "If the administration, law enforcers, ruling party, opposition parties all try to defy the commission instructions during the parliamentary elections, what would be the fate of the citizens?"
Support for Bahauddin came from Information and Broadcasting Minister Hasan Mahmud, who also questioned the EC's direction. At this point you were left thinking, doesn't AL even want to give the impression of a strong EC ahead of the next general election?
From the way Bahauddin continued slamming the EC, you would think not. The CEC had tried to draw a line under the sand on the eve of the election, even to the detriment of his own credibility. "Past and closed," he had said, to describe the situation with the MP, as if unable to grasp the precedent that was being set. Even then, Bahauddin goaded the EC the next day at his voting centre.
He said, "They (EC) cannot use 'order' while writing to a lawmaker. The letter was incomplete and the law was not explained properly."
He certainly put the EC in its place. Just this one incident alone can be held up as an adequate exhibit of the EC's utter helplessness.
Those 45 minutes
The narrative emerging of what exactly happened in those 45 minutes that the results were held up is suitably murky. There is no clarity at this stage. What we know is that something caused a break in proceedings, tension built up in the Academy as both leading candidates' supporters gathered there, and then there was a police action, prompted by the activities of the Al supporters. On this much, all the reports are basically agreed. Oh, and the fact that the next thing they knew, Rifat was mayor. Another disturbing aspect that finds a place in most accounts, probably the most damaging detail, is that a number of phone calls were made to or by the returning officer for the election, Shahedunnabi Chowdhury.
He said that he was busy talking to the chief election commissioner, the deputy commissioner or DC of Cumilla, and superintendent of police (SP) during that period. He obviously brushed aside any suggestion from journalists that any of his calls had any bearing on the result.
In reply to a question on whom he was talking to again and again, Shahedunnabi Chowdhury said, "I was informing the CEC, DC and SP about the situation, that was created due to leaders and activists of the two parties taking position against each other while the results of the election were being announced."
"No one else had called. It is being hinted by a candidate that the results had been changed because of a phone call, but that is not correct," he added, while talking to newsmen at the district election office the day after the election.
When asked why the result announcement was suspended for more than half an hour, he effectively 'both sides' it: "There were no other reasons behind this except the chaos. It took time as the situation was unfavourable. Both of the parties were responsible for the creation of the undesirable situation."
At around 9pm, independent candidate Monirul Haque Sakku along with his followers arrived at the Shilpakala Academy auditorium, anticipating victory. Result from some 99 centres were known at that point. At the time, all in the hall room were chanting slogans for the 'table clock' symbol he ran with.
In presence of Monirul Haque, the returning officer declared the results of two more centres.
Just about then, Rifat's followers in a procession entered the auditorium, flooding the zone while chanting slogans of the 'boat' electoral symbol of Awami League. At one stage there was a brawl, and police had to act to clear the hall completely, while the returning officer was kept busy on the phone. Bahauddin presence was reported outside the Academy. You think back to what Gobinda Pramanik had said. It all left room for a single, damning conclusion.
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