Gaibandha polls irregularities: EC blames it on local admin
The Election Commission holds the local administration and presiding officers responsible for the polling irregularities that ultimately led to the suspension of Gaibandha-5 by-election on Wednesday.
The EC pointed the finger at them over their failure to maintain discipline at the polling stations.
It formed a three-member probe committee to find out how the irregularities took place during the by-polls -- the first under the current EC -- and who were behind them.
"Me and [Election Commissioner] Rashida Sultana talked to the SP, DC and the returning officer [ on the polling day]. We requested them to enforce law and order to make it a beautiful election," Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal told a press briefing at his office in Dhaka yesterday.
"But the situation did not improve," he said.
Munira Khan, president of Fair Election Monitoring Alliance (Fema), however, said the commission cannot skirt its responsibility as the local administration remains under it during polls-time.
"The whole thing about the by-polls shows there was a lack of planning on the part of the Election Commission. The commission should be held accountable and asked why the officials would not follow their directives."
She questioned: "If the DC and SP do not go by the EC's decision, how will the commission hold elections in the future?"
It doesn't matter whether the election was held using ballot or EVM, Munira also said, adding, "What matters is who is behind the election."
Barely a week ago, at a meeting between the commission and the DCs and SPs of 61 districts, Election Commissioner Anisur Rahman raised the allegations that many officials show bias while discharging duties and in many cases, they do not spend the allocated budget properly.
Talking to The Daily Star yesterday, former election commissioner Brig Gen (retired) M Sakhawat Hossain questioned the role of the field-level election officials deployed by the EC to conduct the polls.
"The Election Commission is investigating and we have to wait for the probe report," he added.
The probe body led by EC Secretariat's Additional Secretary Ashok Kumar will have to submit its report in seven working days.
Explaining how things got out of hand, the CEC yesterday said when the commissioners were watching CCTV monitors at the EC office in the capital on Wednesday morning, they noticed illegal presence of some persons in polling booths and they were influencing voters.
"Immediately after fingerprints of voters were matched [on the EVMs], polling agents entered the secret booths and cast votes in place of actual voters. Some of the polling officials did the same."
At that time, the commission over the phone asked the presiding officers to restore discipline at the voting rooms.
"But they were not seen taking any effective steps to restore order. So, the commission first issued the instruction to halt the voting at three centres."
While monitoring elections at 50 out of 145 polling centres till 1:30pm, they found the situation there was almost the same. In the meantime, the returning officer halted the election at another polling centre.
Around 2:30pm, the EC halted the entire election of Gaibandha-5, which includes Phulchhari and Saghata upazilas, saying the situation went "out of control" amid widespread electoral irregularities.
Election Commissioner Rashida Sultana at the press conference said they closely monitored the situation inside the polling booths and took the decision based on that observation.
CEC Habibul Awal said the decision to halt the by-polls was not made in "haste"; rather it was a collective decision of all commissioners.
Replying to a question regarding a top Awami league leader's comment that how the EC can halt an election by monitoring CCTV footage sitting in Dhaka, the CEC said they did it in line with clause 91 of the Representation of the People Order, 1972.
"The law says if the EC -- sitting in Dhaka, Chattogram or even on a ship -- considers that the polling was not being conducted properly, it can stop the polling at any centre."
Deputy Commissioner of Gaibandha Waliur Rahaman and Gaibandha Superintendent of Police Touhidul Islam were not available for comments after repeated phone calls and text messages.
Md Belal Uddin, presiding officer of the Bharatkhaly Government Primary School polling centre (male) under Saghata upazila, said the voting was halted around 10:30am following a phone call from the EC office.
"The EC office asked us to arrest a man in panjabi who entered the secret booths unlawfully and cast votes. Later, we found that the man was the AL candidate's polling agent," said Belal.
"I called the police and took him to my room. Later, a magistrate came, scolded him and took his bond sign. Sometimes later, local AL leaders took away the agent in presence of police."
AKM Farruk Alam, presiding officer of the Bharatkhaly Government Primary school polling centre (female), said the EC office observed that more than one person entered the secret booths.
The commission ordered stopping the voting around noon, he added.
Meanwhile, several hundred AL men demonstrated at the Phulchhari upazila complex yesterday and demanded the announcement of the by-polls results. They also blocked the Phulchhari-Gaibandha road, causing sufferings to commuters for hours.
The ruling party men also demanded resignation of the CEC for halting the polls.
The parliamentary seat of Gaibandha-5 fell vacant after the death of lawmaker Fazle Rabbi Miah on July 23. According to the constitution, by-elections to a vacant seat should be held within 90 days.