The election commission’s decision to suspend the by-election for Gaibandha-5 constituency on Wednesday after it spiraled “out of control” due to massive irregularities highlights a number of issues the commission and the the country’s electoral culture are grappling. The Chief Electoral Commissioner, who along with his colleagues was monitoring the election through closed-circuit cameras installed in all voting centers and linked to the monitoring room at headquarters, announced the suspension of by-elections after the commissioners found irregularities, including illegal entry of strangers into secret voting booths and forcing voters to vote. The commission suspended voting in three polling stations within an hour of the start of voting and gradually suspended voting in 50 stations at 12:30 p.m., while the returning officer also closed the polling stations. vote at a polling station. Previously, all but the Awami League nominee had boycotted the elections, citing irregularities at polling stations. The Awami League candidate, however, denounced the election commission‘s decision and demanded the resignation of the chief election commissioner. Local Awami League leaders and activists also reportedly blocked roads and cordoned off the offices of the nirbahi upazila officer and deputy commissioner, demanding the resignation of the CEC following the suspension of the vote.
The irregularities involved, as the Chief Election Commissioner said, human elements – ruling party activists and ruling party candidate agents were implicated in the irregularities and took control of many of the offices of vote while the electoral agents, including the presidents of the polling centers, were also out of control. No problems with electronic voting machines – another major contentious issue in the country’s electoral system – were reported. Such a situation corroborates what an electoral commission said in May 2022 that the biggest challenge is the presence of disbelievers in the secret rooms of the voting booths. What is also remarkable is that the local administrations did not find, as the deputy commissioner is quoted, any irregularity and were surprised by the decision of the Electoral Commission. Both the irregularities at polling stations and the inability of local governments to notice anything disruptive to a fair vote lend credence to the fear expressed by political parties in the opposition camp that a free and fair election equitable is impossible under a political government and that the civil society, the administrations and the forces of order work under the influence of the party in power. The controversy over the effectiveness of electronic voting machines in a country where the majority is digitally illiterate is also hard to ignore.
It is welcome that the Electoral Commission decided not to organize by-elections after finding irregularities. The commission must now come clean and speak out on the challenges of holding free and fair national elections. The challenges the commission faced in the partial polls should serve as a wake-up call not just for the commission, but also for the government and the political parties, and they must find a way to save democracy from setback.