The ruling Awami League mayoral candidate is leading his rival BNP candidate in yesterday's high-voltage Gazipur City Corporation election, marked by incidents of irregularities and heavy showdown of ruling party men in and around polling stations.
At the time of filing this report 2:45am today, results of 247 polling centres (out of 416) announced by the returning officer were available. The result shows AL candidate Jahangir Alam got 2,18,818 votes while his BNP counterpart Hasan Uddin Sarker bagged 1,22,638 votes.
A win by Jahangir, just six months before the national polls, will ensure an AL comeback there after five years in the AL stronghold. It will also boost the party's morale after the win in Khulna City Corporation election in May, which too was marred by widespread irregularities and vote rigging.
No major incident of violence took place during yesterday's voting, but it lacked any sort of festivity because of an atmosphere of intimidation created by the AL men soon after polling began at 8:00am.
Allegations of ballot stuffing and driving out or barring BNP polling agents were rampant at different polling centres. No polling agents of the BNP mayoral aspirant were seen at over dozens polling stations.
Voting was suspended in nine centres as miscreants snatched ballot papers and cast votes forcefully and creating chaos, said Returning Officer Raquib Uddin Mondal.
Law enforcers were present in large numbers, but they were mostly silent observers, as AL men broke election rules.
Voters' turnout was between 55 and 60 percent, down from 63.69 percent in the 2013 election there, said the returning officer.
The Election Commission claimed the polls were free, fair and credible.
The AL also termed the election free and fair, but the BNP claimed there were “massive irregularities,” including casting of false votes.
To cover the election, The Daily Star assigned nine correspondents and three photographers. They visited 72 polling centres and witnessed how AL activists and supporters influenced voting in many of the centres.
During their visits, The Daily Star journalists did not find BNP candidates' polling agents at 42 centres.
They found people wearing badges of boat, the electoral symbol of Jahangir, were in total control in and outside many stations in violation of the election code.
During the voting, no campaigns and showdowns are allowed within 400 yards of the centres. Anyone violating this provision may face up to two years in prison.
Many AL men also took position inside polling booths and wandered from one booth to another at will.
At 13 centres, they were seen snatching ballots from voters and then putting seal on them.
For example, at MAH Arif College polling centre in Konabari, a group of people were stuffing ballot papers at 11:30am.
Asked, they claimed they were AL supporters. One of them, who identified himself as Selim, made no efforts to hide it: "This is how voting takes place.”
Asked to comment, Presiding Officer Mahmudul Amin said the group went to the centre just to see how voting was going on and that they would go away.
There were no polling agents of the BNP mayor aspirant at the centre.
By 10:00am, 282 out of the 2,010 votes were cast there, although The Daily Star saw only a few voters in front of the booths.
Voting was suspended at Great Mack Primary School centre, adjacent to the Arif College centre, for around an hour as a group of four to five people snatched and stuffed ballot papers.
Presiding Officer Abul Mansur said he was not aware of any such incident.
At Shaheed Smriti High School polling centre in Joydevpur, around 20 people were seen stuffing ballot papers with boat symbol around 11:45am. Polling agents of the BNP mayor candidate were not found there at the time.
Presiding Officer Kafil Uddin Bhuiyan said the illegally-stuffed ballot papers were cancelled.
Later, law enforcers drove those people away.
Momena Parvin, a voter, was wandering in front of the Deo Ali Bari Degree College polling station at Gazipur's Konabari.
"When I went to the Jail Gate centre, they told me I was a voter of another centre. When I went there, they asked me to come here. When I came here, the polling officials said my vote had already been cast," she said.
Asked, Presiding Officer Abul Kalam Azad said she was not a voter of this centre and asked her to go to another centre.
At Kolomeshwar Government Primary School polling centre in Sadar upazila, no BNP polling agents were seen but dozens of AL mayoral candidate's supporters were found going inside the centre and later chanting slogans inside the centre.
Presiding Officer Kawser Ahmed said that the AL supporters had been driven away by a striking force once in the morning, but they came again. They will call the striking force again, he said.
About the absence of the BNP mayor candidate's agents, the presiding officer said that they did not allow the agents as they did not bring proper documents with them.
Visiting the Nilerpara High School at 1:45pm, this newspaper saw no queue of voters. Only a few female voters were inside.
There was no BNP agent in the polling centre either.
Rozina Akter, an agent of a ward councillor candidate, said someone entered the polling centre and asked the BNP polling agents to leave.
"Leave the centre. Go home, take a bath and have a sleep after lunch. We will take care of it,” she said, quoting the man.
Razia said the BNP polling agent then left.
Sumon Kumar Bosak, presiding officer of the centre, said he was not aware of the incident and would look into the matter.
"Some may go to the washroom or to drink water," he said.
One correspondent of The Daily Star was in the centre for more than 40 minutes, but none of the BNP agents who went “to the washroom or to drink water” returned.
At Noagaon MA Majid Mia High School, no BNP polling agents were seen as well.
Asked why no BNP polling agents were at the polling station, Presiding Officer Md Rafikul Islam said, "No polling agents of BNP came since voting started in the morning."
It was a bizarre picture at Pubail Adarsha University College centre.
There was a camp of the BNP mayoral candidate outside the centre but no BNP agents were there around 10:40am. Instead, ruling party agents were distributing Jahangir's slips from there.
Around 50 to 60 men with AL badges were inside the centre during voting. Many of them even went inside the booths and stuffed ballots at booth 1, 4, 6, 7 and 8.
One man identifying himself as Jubo League leader Ashraful Alam said, "We have a target to cast around 2,700-2,800 votes here for boat."
Inside the centre, the ruling party men were asking each other how many ballots they had stuffed.
"I cast 50-60 votes alone. 100-200 is not a big deal," one of them was heard telling another.
Another said women's votes were easy to cast, because they don't protest.
Asked, Assistant Returning Officer Nazmul Islam said it was going on peacefully.
A large number of young men were seen at the polling centres. Our reporter stationed at the Komoleshwar Rokeya Girls High School polling centre, saw people casting fake votes using the names of other voters.
Around two hours before voting ended, BNP mayoral aspirant Hasan Uddin Sarker called for stopping the voting, bringing allegations of massive irregularities, including casting of false votes in 100 polling stations.
"False votes were cast after driving out my polling agents from over a hundred centres. They were manhandled by the ruling party men. As a result, I am urging the Election Commission to stop the voting," he said.
He met Returning Officer Raquib Uddin Mondal at his office and placed the demand.
Earlier, after casting his vote in the morning, Hasan told a press briefing at BNP's Gazipur district office that his agents were driven out from various centres.
He criticised law enforcement agencies for their “partisan role”.
He also alleged that BNP leaders, activists and supporters were harassed in many ways and many of them were detained deliberately in the run up to the election.
"VOTING FREE AND FAIR"
Jahangir Alam cast his vote at Kanaiya Government Primary School polling centre.
He later told reporters that voting was being held in a free and fair manner.
"People are coming to cast their votes on their own. I seek cooperation of all so that people of Gazipur can cast their votes spontaneously and freely. We welcome the voters of all parties," he said.
THE AL BASTION
In the maiden election to the GCC in 2013, which was lauded for its free and fair manner, AL candidate Ajmat Ullah Khan lost by more than 1,00,000 votes to BNP's MA Mannan.
That defeat had stunned the AL as Gazipur has always been an AL bastion. The AL fared well there in all the national polls since 1991, when the first democratic election was held in the country after the fall of autocrat Ershad.
In the 2008 national election, the AL won all the five seats in the district by big margins. In the 1996 elections, the district was divided into four constituencies and the party won in all of those.
The BNP had managed to win two seats in 1991 and one in 2001, while the AL won two and three seats in the two elections respectively. In 2014, the AL won all the constituencies as the BNP boycotted the polls.