It's actually Sakku vs Bahar: Cumilla city goes to polls

first major one under new EC
Cumilla city election
Electronic voting machines are being loaded onto trucks on the premises of the Cumilla Zilla School yesterday for sending those to different polling centres. The third election to the Cumilla City Corporation is being held today, with the Election Commission using EVMs in all 105 polling centres. Photo: Rashed Shumon

An unusually calm Cumilla city goes to election this morning amid a lack of enthusiasm and excitement among voters about the polls, considered an acid test for the newly formed Election Commission.

Though the city corporation election is partisan in nature, the opposition BNP's symbol is absent in the battle of ballots as it has boycotted the polls. But two of its former leaders -- Monirul Haque Sakku and Nizamuddin Kaiser -- are pitted against each other for the office of mayor.

Ruling Awami League candidate Arfanul Haque Rifat, on the other hand, is facing opposition from a section of own party leaders. He, however, is getting the full blessing of local AL lawmaker AKM Bahauddin Bahar, who went on violating the electoral code of conduct to support Rifat.

Despite issuing notice, the EC could not make Bahar leave the city as the MP from Cumilla-6 paid no heed to the commission's directive. Most of the mayoral candidates considered this a failure of EC in its first major assignment.

In fact, the lawmaker's attitude made many voters believe that the race will actually be between Bahar and Sakku with the lawmaker putting in all his efforts to keep his reign intact.

This will be the third election of Cumilla City Corporation, formed in 2011. The last polls held in March 2017 saw Sakku winning a second term with the party support.

According to voters, Sakku, now expelled from the BNP, is highly experienced in electoral politics while his two main competitors -- Rifat and Kaiser -- are contesting for the first time in any polls.

They also said the political equation this time is different from the previous two elections held in 2012 and 2017.

"When Sakku won the last election, he teamed up with Bahar to work for the city corporation. They were very close. But this time the MP is working for his close aide Rifat as he wants total supremacy in the city," said Billal Hossain, an owner of a shop in the town.

"So, the battle is between Bahar and Sakku," he added.

Though voters are less interested in the polling, they said the unusual calm before the election could be a sign of possible violence on the polling day.

"All the contenders are desperate to win the polls and many outsiders are roaming the city areas. That could be the reason for the unusual calmness before the election," Mamun Yusuf, a voter in Pathuria Para area, told The Daily Star.

"People this time are not very interested in voting. We will see what happens in the morning. If we find the situation is good, only then we will go to cast votes," he said last night.

Today's election is significant also because all political parties and analysts are waiting to see how the EC led by Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal performs and if it can ensure fairness in its first major polls.

This commission only has the experience of holding union parishad elections.

Except for Rifat, both Sakku and Kaiser have already said the commission in its first big assignment has failed to create a level-playing field.

The CEC, on the other hand, expressed helplessness about the issue involving Bahar, saying the Election Commission cannot do anything against a lawmaker if he "dishonours" its directives.

Another major feature of the polls is that the EC will use electronic voting machines (EVMs) in all 105 polling centres today -- after a fresh debate surfaced of late centring on the voting system, strongly opposed by the BNP.

A total of 229,920 voters, including 117,092 women, are eligible to exercise their franchise during the polling, which will start at 8:00am and continue till 4:00pm without any interval.

Five candidates, including Rashedul Islam from Islami Andolon Bangladesh and independent Kamrul Ahsan Babul, are vying for mayor while 106 for councillor posts and 36 for reserved posts.

Law enforcement agencies have taken tight security measures in the city, deploying some 3,608 police personnel for the polls.

As there was no campaign last night, the mayoral contenders were busy fixing the last-minute election strategy including polling agent appointments.

Both Rifat and Sakku stayed in their homes. Talking to The Daily Star, both the contenders reiterated that free and fair polls will ensure their victory and they will accept the result whatever it may be.

Sakku said they got information from various sources that the ruling party contender is bringing outsiders to the city and planning to gather them in every polling centre. "If voters are scared of going to polling centres, how fair the voting could be?" he questioned.

Kaiser held a press conference and demanded the commission announce a general holiday in the area. "If offices remain open, the turnout will be low -- this will give an advantage to the ruling party candidate," he said.

Talking to this newspaper, Returning Officer Shahedunnabi Chowdhury said, "Election atmosphere is very good and they hope voting will take place amid festivity."

Regarding EVM, he said enough training was given to the election officials and there is an arrangement for extra EVMs if needed in any centre.

Faruk Ahmed, superintendent of police of Cumilla, said stern action would be taken if any law enforcer is found engaged in irregularities during the voting.

"We will not accept any chaos or irregularities centring on the voting," he warned.