Situation went ‘out of control’
In a move not seen in recent times, the Election Commission stopped the Gaibandha-5 by-polls, saying the situation went "out of control" due to widespread electoral irregularities.
On CCTV monitors at the EC office in the capital, officials saw illegal presence of individuals in polling booths and voters being forced to cast their votes for a certain candidate.
"We have seen with our own eyes people entering the secret rooms and casting votes unlawfully," said Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal in the morning.
Later around 2:15pm, he announced that the election had been halted in line with clause 91 of The Representation of the People Order, 1972.
"We told the SP, DC, and returning officer on the phone that we saw these from here through the CCTV cameras. That's why we stopped the voting," he said.
Soon after the announcement, ruling Awami League leaders and activists in Phulchhari and Saghata upazilas marched the streets and demanded the result of the election be declared while the Jatiya Party demanded re-election.
Before halting the entire election, the EC stopped voting at 50 out of the 145 centres after noticing what officials said were serious irregularities.
This was the first by-election held by the current EC.
The parliamentary seat of Gaibandha-5 fell vacant after the death of Fazle Rabbi Miah on July 23. According to the constitution, by-elections to the vacant seats should be held within 90 days.
Polling at the constituency, which includes Phulchhari and Saghata upazilas, started at 8:00am using the electronic voting machines (EVM). Around 11:30am, four of the candidates boycotted the election, leaving only the AL nominee, Mahmudul Hasan Ripon, in the race.
At a press conference in Saghata, Jatiya Party nominee HM Golam Shaheed Ranju said, "Today, when polling started, we saw Awami League men forcing people to vote for their candidate and beating up our agents. We can't say it's a fair election."
Bikalpa Dhara Bangladesh nominee Jahangir Alam and independents Nahiduzzaman Nishad and Syed Mahbubar Rahman also announced their decision to shun the polls at the press conference.
Nishad said the AL men didn't allow him to cast his own vote.
After announcing that the election had been halted, the CEC said, "It seems that the voting atmosphere has gone out of control. A party or a certain candidate may influence it.
"We noticed from the beginning that there were irregularities. At many centres, we noticed illegal infiltration into the secret polling booths. They illegally entered [the booths] and forced the voters to vote."
He further said that he received one after another allegations that criminals cut the cables connecting the CCTV cameras.
EC officials noticed that people appearing to be polling agents were wearing outfits with the electoral symbol of a party in violation of the electoral code of conduct, said the CEC.
Whether or not the election will be rescheduled will be announced later, he added.
Asked whether the EC will be able to control the situation in the national election, the CEC said, "Many people will ask this question. It will not be appropriate to say anything now."
Defending the use of EVMs, he said "human elements" were behind the irregularities, not the devices. "We had not seen any mechanical problems. The EVMs did not create any problem. Election officials, including the presiding officers at the polling stations, have gone out of control.
"We will investigate the matters.
"We can see that a lot has gone out of control. You have also seen what is happening in the secret room, and the election is not being held in an orderly manner.
"They are robbers, they are miscreants. We can call those who do not obey the laws robbers and miscreants. Everyone has to respect the law. If everyone does not obey the law, the Election Commission will not be able to deliver a beautiful election."
SITUATION AT POLLING CENTRES
The Daily Star correspondent visited five polling stations and saw small queues of voters. Men wearing T-shirts containing a photo of AL nominee Mahmudul Hasan Ripon were seen inside the centres.
Agents of the other candidates alleged that they were compelled to leave the polling stations by AL activists.
Tarek Rahman, 35, an agent of independent candidate Nahiduzzaman Nishad, said, "When polling started in the morning, the AL activists drove out many voters after they logged in their fingerprints in the EVM machine at Kamarpara Government Primary School.
"We went to the presiding officer and police, but they did nothing. I left later," he said.
Jahidul Islam, 45, a voter, said, "An Awami League agent and others forced me to vote for the boat symbol. I left the polling booth after arguing with them for a while."
AL nominee Mahmudul told reporters in the evening that the election was halted to embarrass the government.
"Goons from Bogura and many other districts came to Phulchari and Saghata. It's a deep conspiracy. My rival candidates are directly involved in this conspiracy," he added.
JP Chairman and Deputy Leader of the opposition GM Quader in a statement demanded re-election and blamed AL activists for electoral fraud.
Badiul Alam Majumdar, secretary of Shushashoner Jonno Nagorik (Shujan), said as far as he could remember, this was the first time the EC halted an entire by-election.