In an unprecedented move, the Bangladesh Election Commission (EC) suspended the by-elections in Gaibandha-5 (Fulchari-Shagata) in the middle of voting on 12 October.
Such a move in recent history has surprised many and is likely to strengthen the confidence of the opposition and the ‘aam-janata’ (general public), but it would be short-lived.
Nevertheless, the EC is empowered by the state constitution to hold a credible election.
The ruling Awami League did not expect EC would take dramatic action in halting the election in the middle of the electioneering.
The leadership is not all happy with the action of the EC. The nation is eagerly expecting a formal statement from party stalwarts.
Two things made the EC go ahead with a drastic decision to stop the election squarely blaming vote fraud. First, the surveillance cameras in the polling booths were monitored from the control room of the EC, where journalists were allowed to observe.
The suspension of the by-election in Gaibandha indeed will be a warning to political parties, local leaders and their henchmen.
The question has been raised, whether it was prudent of EC to cancel the voting, which is definitely not a solution to vote fraud.
One thing is clear the government did not cooperate with the EC. The government did not lend their shoulder to EC to hold a peaceful election.
Experienced observers of elective democracy, Dr Badiul Alam Majumder of SHUJAN and Dr Nazmul Ahsan Kalimullah of JANIPOP have expressed their reservations over the action by Election Commission on logical grounds.
They explained that the recent parley between the EC, civil administration (Deputy Commissioners) and police administration (Superintendents Of Police) gave a signal of appalling partisanship in the bureaucracy.
They recommended that the gap between the EC and the local civil administration have to be significantly reduced, living no room for confusion and controversy.
Both Dr Majumder and Dr Kalimullah feel that the election is the responsibility of the Election Commission, but successful implementation lies entirely with the district administration and law enforcement.
In short, the involvement of civil society, grassroots leadership and other stakeholders should work alongside the local civil administration and law enforcement. If there are irregularities and the election is cancelled for vote fraud then the responsibility for the failure to hold the polls will be bestowed upon the government.
Well, in most countries, the EC has election cadre service officials to conduct all kinds of elections. But for Bangladesh, it will be an additional burden on the national exchequer.
It is equally true that political parties, especially the ruling party will not agree to strengthen the independence of the EC, which may jeopardise their political career, and weaken the possibility to remain in power by hook or by crook.
Since independence, it would be difficult to say which election was credible and inclusive. Elections in different regimes were tainted.
When the voters in Bangladesh have lost confidence in the ballot; when the ‘aam janata’ fear their life going to the polling centres – then democracy fails. Democracy and electioneering are twins and go parallel.
When the government officers responsible for holding a credible inclusive election fail, who is to be blamed? Blame whom, the Election Commission (EC) or the civil administration?
If the civil service and police administration are recruited on a partisan background, what else the nation should expect from them?
It is also true that the district administration and police are under constant pressure from the local political leadership and vested groups, which restrains them from functioning.
In most cases, it becomes difficult for the local civil administration and police to continue with administrative duties because of political high-handedness and fear of losing their government job.
Like, Magura vote fraud and stark inaction by the Election Commission is still remembered, Gaibandha will also be remembered, when the general elections are around the corner, at end of 2023.
Do the ruling party understand that the whole world is observing the development towards holding parliamentary elections next year? The international community expects Bangladesh will not hold free and fair elections and also credible and inclusive elections too.
First published in The News Times, 14 October 2022
Saleem Samad, is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org>; Twitter @saleemsamad