Holding the parliamentary election is the most important and challenging task for an Election Commission. Failure to hold the election in a free and fair manner might bring to an end the right of the chief election commissioner and his colleagues to stay in office. But the Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad is quite a fortunate man. Like his predecessors, he was supposed to hear the music after the controversial January 5 parliamentary election.
Justice Sadek and his team could not survive after holding the controversial parliamentary polls on February 15, 1996. Justice Aziz and his team were forced to leave for holding the controversial parliamentary election scheduled for January 22, 2007. Luck however favours Rakibuddin and his colleagues. They did not face any unpleasant situation after holding January 5 voter less election in which 153 candidates, more than half of the total numbers, were elected uncontested in their seats.
Rakibuddin and his team are now conducting another election. Polls to more than 470 upazila parishads will be held in phases. In the first phase 97 upazila parishads were going to polls on February 19. Holding local government body elections--though non-partisan in nature--will be a crucial test for the EC to prove its efficiency and neutrality to deliver on its mandate. In the previous elections, the EC could not demonstrate strong leadership. There were some dubious activities which have eroded the people's confidence in the current EC. Take the case of Jatiya Party. The EC did not consider Jatiya Party chief HM Ershad's letter for not allocating his party's electoral symbol 'Plough' to any candidate as he announced to quit the polls. Ershad, who was a contesting candidate, was kept confined to a hospital. But the EC did not say anything about this. The EC also opted to remain silent when the ruling AL in a clever manner managed the election to ensure the uncontested win of 153 candidates.
The current's EC's weakness in enforcing the electoral laws was exposed last year during the elections to Rajshahi, Khulna, Barisal, Sylhet and Gazipur city corporations. Though the polls were largely free and fair, the EC could not claim any credit. The government's sincerity has made it possible. In a very careful strategy, the government prevented its party men from using any major unfair means to manipulate the elections. Any blunder would have strengthened the BNP-led alliance's demand for a non-partisan government for the parliamentary election. The five city corporation elections drew huge attention from the media and observers extensively monitored the elections. Now the situation is different. The EC has to prove its efficiency and neutrality to hold the competitive upazila elections.
Both the parties have made hectic efforts to back single candidates in the Upazila Parishad election. But their efforts could not see success in many electoral areas. Dissident candidates of both the parties are running, ignoring their high command's instructions. It has exposed both parties' organisational weakness and the fragile state of their chain of commands.
These elections however have appeared as a win-win situation for both AL and BNP. The elections have generated election fever in locality and have effectively brought the opposition in the battle of ballots by preventing them from street agitations. The BNP grassroots level leaders and supporters will remain busy until the upazila elections are over in March. The BNP policymakers, on the other hand, have taken the elections to boost up their grassroots leaders who were frustrated with the party's failure to resist the January 5 parliamentary election. The BNP high command believes that its grassroots leaders will do better in the upazila elections by riding on people' anti-incumbency sentiments. The big win, if they are able to achieve, will boost up grassroots and they will be prepared for waging anti-government agitations in the coming days.
The upazila parishad elections have also offered voters the right to pick their local representatives. But the fate of the upazila parishads still hangs in balance. The AL-led government did not let the previous upazila parishads function properly. It is not clear whether the government will abandon its earlier strategy of keeping the upazila parishads dysfunctional and take measures to make them dynamic and functional.
At the end of the battle, who will win-- voters, EC, AL or BNP?
The writer is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.