The Election Commission has suspended the Gaibandha-5 parliamentary bypoll, amid widespread accounts of irregularities, four hours after it opened.
Around 2 pm, Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal, and Election Commissioners Ahsan Habib Khan, Rasheda Sultana and Md Alamgir sat for a meeting. The fifth member of the panel, Anisur Rahman, was not present.
They were using CCTV cameras to monitor the election since voting began on Wednesday.
CEC Awal suspended voting after taking the overall situation in the area into account.
“We all monitored the situation. From the start we saw irregularities in voting and unauthorised and illegal entry into restricted rooms,” he said.
Clear evidence was found of people either illegally supporting or forcing voters to cast ballots, he said. Many of the polling agents were wearing clothes that had the symbol of their nominees on them and they had coordinated their outfits to identify themselves in a manner that went against regulations.
“Our officials have noticed these irregularities since 8 am. No one left their stations. These incidents were witnessed and these irregularities and malpractices were widespread.”
The Election Commission halted voting at various polling centres in response to these irregularities.
“We noticed that CCTV lines were cut at certain centres, which prevented us from collecting information.”
The Gaibandha-5 (Saghata-Fulchhari) constituency fell vacant following the death of Deputy Speaker Fazle Rabbi Miah on Jul 23. Although the by-election is of a relatively small scale, the EC took all measures to ensure a fair electoral process.
Voting was suspended at 51 centres before the commission decided that the election was not proceeding properly and started discussions on suspending polls.
“After that, all of the commission’s members analysed the situation and discussed it. We affirmed that if voting was halted at 50 centres, even if the polling environment and results at other centres were proper, it still would not lead to a proper, accurate election.”
“To us it seemed that the election was out control and that one side, or one candidate, was able to influence it. To our eyes it seemed that it was not possible to hold a fair election.”
Decisions on next steps, the possibility of cancelling candidacies, fixing new dates for the polls and a new schedule will be made following discussions, he said.
“No voting is underway anymore,” the CEC said. “Later we will see what we can do according to the rules. The commission will meet and decide.”
The experience will prove useful to the commission in the future, he said.
In response to a question, Awal said that electronic voting machines were not the cause of the election issues, but that the election situation had grown beyond the capacity of election officials to control.
Asked who was responsible for these irregularities, he said, “We cannot say that without an investigation. We have not reached a decision on who was responsible. We must analyse the situation.”
Earlier, in a separate statement, the CEC had deflected blame from EVMs to those interfering in the election.
“I don’t see any fault with the EVMs,” he said. “They are showing their mentality in their behaviour – wearing the same coloured clothes as they violate the law. It goes against orderly voting.”
They are thieves and criminals, Awal had said.
“Those who do not follow the law are criminals. If we cannot develop a proper culture, the Election Commission will never be able to arrange an orderly and fair election.”
This is the first parliamentary bypoll overseen by the Awal-led Election Commission.
The commission had previously overseen about 800 local government polls, including for the Cumilla City Corporation.
The last time voting had been suspended in an entire constituency was in 2015, when the Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmed-led Election Commission halted municipal council polls in Narsingdi’s Madhabadi.
Five candidates entered the race for the Gaibandha-5 seat in parliament.
Awami League candidate Mahmud Hasan was contending for the polls with the 'boat' symbol and Jatiya Party candidate AHM Golam Shahid with the 'plough' symbol. The other contestants were Bikalpa Dhara's Jahangir Alam and independent candidates Nahiduzzaman Apel and Syed Mahbubur Rahman.
4 CANDIDATES BOYCOTT POLL
All candidates except for the Awami League's Mahmud Hasan have boycotted the Gaibandha-5 bypoll, bringing allegations of rigging.
The four candidates, from different parties, announced the decision at a media briefing at Bogerbhita Government Primary School centre in Saghata Upazila around 11:30 am.
They are AHM Golam Shahid Ronju backed by the Jatiya Party, Bikalpadhara's Jahangir Alam, and independent candidates Nahiduzzaman Nahid and Syed Mahbubur Rahman.
“The agents of the Jatiya Party and other candidates were forced to leave the polling centres. Their campaigners and supporters were obstructed from entering the centres as well,” Jatiya Party candidate Ronju said citing the reasons behind their decision to boycott the bypoll.
Awami League candidate Mahmud Hasan denied the allegations and said no such incidents happened during the bypoll.
The ruling party did not understand why the EC halted the polls although there was no report of violence or disorder, said Mahbub-Ul Alam Hanif, a joint general secretary of the party. “There wasn’t even a single report of scuffle anywhere.”
Jatiya Party Chairman GM Quader thanked the Election Commission for halting the polls and demanded a fresh schedule for a re-election.