An uphill task, yet Sakku fought well
The split in the pro-BNP vote bank because of the party's two expelled leaders running for mayor was a big advantage for the ruling Awami League candidate in the Cumilla City Corporation election.
Arfanul Haque Rifat won by a slim margin of 343 votes, beating his closest competitor Monirul Haque Sakku, two-time mayor and an influential local leader who ran as an independent candidate being disowned by the BNP.
The third place went to Nizamuddin Kaiser, another independent who bagged nearly 30,000 votes, most of which would have gone to Sakku had he not been in the race.
The total number of votes Sakku and Kaiser secured was around 80,000.
Both were expelled from the BNP for contesting the polls disobeying the party's decision. Moreover, the party had instructed its leaders and activists not to engage in any sort of election campaign.
"If Kaiser was not in the race, Sakku would have got most of his votes. Basically horse [the electoral symbol of Kaiser] ensured the defeat of table clock [electoral symbol of Sakku]," said Ramjan Ali, a grocery owner in Kandirpar of the city.
The other reason behind Sakku's defeat could be that he served as mayor twice and there were corruption allegations against him, and he failed to solve some civic problems, including waterlogging and traffic congestion, said a number of locals.
Khairul Azim Shimul, former general secretary of Sammilita Sangskritik Jote, Cumilla unit, said the AL checked intra-party feuds to some extent and also engaged various social organisations to woo voters. Sakku, on the other hand, did not get any party support.
Then there was the "Bahar factor".
Although Rifat won the polls, many voters said it was due not to his personal charisma but the popularity of ruling AL lawmaker AKM Bahauddin Bahar, who lent all-out support to the party candidate.
Rifat contested the polls with the party symbol "boat" and local AL leaders and activists, especially the followers of Bahar, campaigned vigorously for him.
Bahar is an influential ruling party leader in the Cumilla city politics. In 2012 city polls, he and his followers refrained from working for AL's mayoral pick Afzal Khan.
In 2017, Afzal's daughter Anjum Sultana Sima contested the polls from the AL but Bahar refused to back her. In both cases, the ruling AL contenders lost.
In this election, the party made a "smart move" and nominated Rifat, who is known as a close aide to the lawmaker.
With this election outcome, Bahar's dominance in the local politics became more solid, said local politicians.
Sakku put up a good fight despite all these odds. He was neck and neck with Rifat all along and the race was so tight that who would be the winner remained very uncertain even when the results of over 100 polling centres were announced.
The final tally shows Sakku got 49,967 votes and Rifat 50,310.
The former mayor, however, said he did not lose the polls, rather his victory was snatched away. "People voted for me. Why should I analyse the reasons for the defeat? I reject this election result," he said.
He even claimed a phone call changed the result.
The atmosphere was peaceful on the election day but Sakku, his followers and some local political analysts questioned the electoral process because of the chaos and confusion created centring on the result announcement.
Election was fair but the delay in announcing election results of the last four polling centres raised a question about transparency, Alamgir Khan, president of Cumilla chapter Sujan (Shusasoner Jonnya Nagorik), told The Daily Star yesterday.
"It took nearly an hour to announce the results of only four centres when 101 centres results were already announced … and here lies the issue of transparency," he said.
Ahsanul Kabir, a political commentator of the city, said the election atmosphere was very good but election officials' inefficiency got exposed while the results were being announced.
A hotelier in Tomsom Bridge area said he believes there was no election result manipulation. "The two competitors were fought very well and the margin was very slim, so Sakku could not simply accept the result."
Ehsan Lenin, an expatriate journalist from Cumilla who came home recently to vote in the city polls, said the last-minute drama could be a strategy of Sakku. "But obviously this delay created a huge confusion among common people."
Returning Officer Shahedunnabi Chowdhury rejected the allegation of changing the result after a phone call, and claimed he was actually talking to the CEC, DC and SP over the situation that was created there.
Regarding the delay of the announcing results of four centres, he said it was raining and there was electricity disruption during the voting; so the results of the four centres arrived late.
Besides, a chaotic situation was created at the venue, he told journalists.
"There was no other reason. The situation was against us and that's why it took time. Two sides [Rifat and Sakku] created chaos during the result announcement."
Talking to The Daily Star last night, Election Commissioner Md Alamgir said the returning officer does not have the capacity to manipulate results because the agents of the candidates have copies of the centre-wise tally.
"However, if anyone has any doubt, they can go to the election tribunal. If you are not satisfied there, you can appeal. There is also the scope for going to the High Court."
Replying to a query, he said after announcing the results of 101 centres, the supporters of the two candidates came and ruined the environment.
"Amid the ensuing chaos, how would the result announcement take place? Who would listen? It took 15-20 minutes to restore discipline. The returning officer called the SP and DC and informed us. Then they took care of the situation."
Earlier on Wednesday Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal termed the election a peaceful one and said they were neither happy or gloomy, as they just performed their duties.