Claiming there is a congenial atmosphere for polls across the country, Chief Election Commissioner KM Nurul Huda yesterday announced that the 11th parliamentary election will be held on December 23.
The announcement came as major contentious issues over the polls still remain unresolved.
In a televised address to the nation, Huda unveiled the election schedule, urging all political parties to join the polls.
A day before, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina wrapped up week-long talks between the ruling Awami League-led 14-party combine and at least 80 parties under the banners of different alliances.
During the dialogue, Jatiya Oikyafront, an alliance of the BNP and several other opposition parties, and some more parties demanded dissolution of parliament before the polls and formation of a neutral election-time government.
But the talks ended on Wednesday without any settlement of the contentious issues.
Moreover, the Oikyafront requested the Election Commission not to announce the polls schedule before resolving the crisis over the election.
The AL and the Jatiya Party, however, in separate meetings with the EC on Wednesday supported its plan to announce the schedule on November 8. Yesterday, both parties welcomed the EC announcement.
Analysts fear the political situation may get complicated further following the announcement of the schedule as major issues remain unsettled with the Oikyafront threatening to intensify agitation in the coming days if the schedule was announced without resolving the crisis.
The Oikyafront may march towards the EC tomorrow in protest at the announcement of the schedule. Top leaders of the opposition combine may announce the programme at its rally in Rajshahi city today, said alliance sources.
The opposition leaders are also protesting the ongoing police drive, arrest of opposition men and the filing of "ghost cases" against their grassroots across the country.
Oikyafront top leader Dr Kamal Hossain wrote to the EC on Saturday, requesting it not to announce the schedule until the crisis over the polls is resolved.
A team of the combine also met the CEC on Tuesday with the same plea.
The Left Democratic Alliance, a combine of eight leftist parties, also sent a letter to the CEC with the same request.
"We requested the EC not to announce the election schedule until the political parties reach a consensus on resolving the current political crisis. But the EC didn't keep our request, which squandered the opportunity to resolve the crisis," said Mujahidul Islam Selim, president of the Communist Party of Bangladesh, a component of the LDA.
"Such a move by the Election Commission is not only harmful, but also dangerous," he told The Daily Star yesterday.
Talking to this newspaper, Ali Riaz, a professor of the politics and government department at the Illinois State University in the US, said the announcement of the election schedule not only makes the situation complex but also pushes it to an unwanted direction.
“I hope the Election Commission members will understand that they will need to shoulder the responsibility for creating such a situation,” he added.
Announcing the polls schedule, CEC Huda hoped that a competitive election would be held with the participation of all political parties.
"On behalf of the people, I urge all political parties to help continue the democratic process and the pace of development by participating in the polls."
He requested all political parties to resolve their differences politically if there was any, and said they should remain careful so that the polls atmosphere does not turn violent.
According to the schedule, the last date for filing nomination papers for candidacy is November 19. The returning officers will scrutinise the nomination papers on November 22 while the last date for withdrawing candidacy is November 29.
This time, the EC unveiled the election schedule in an unusual hurry.
Since the June 1996 polls, none of the four previous ECs came up with polls schedules in such haste.
Following the start of the 90-day countdown to polls, each of the ECs took one month on average to announce the schedule.
But Huda announced the schedule only a week after the 90-day countdown began on October 31.
According to the timeframe, the election must be held on or by January 28.
The EC finalised the schedule at a meeting yesterday morning and announced it in the evening.
In his 13-minute address, the CEC sought assistance and cooperation from all for holding the polls in a free and fair manner.
"We hope we will be able to hold a free, fair and acceptable election."
He said political parties have started preparations for contesting the polls.
"A congenial atmosphere for the Jatiya Sangsad polls is present across the country," he added.
However, in reality, the situation is not the same for all.
The ruling party men are carrying out campaigns in full swing to drum up public support and are using posters, banners and placards to project the government successes.
On the other hand, the presence of the opposition men on the streets is very thin as they are facing difficulties in conducting campaigns due to police harassment and cases filed against them in the past few years, according to reports from our correspondents in different districts.
The CEC, however, pledged that a level playing field will be ensured for the election.
Political parties and candidates would get equal opportunity for electioneering, he said.
More than six lakh law enforcers will be deployed across the country to maintain law and order. Their performance and neutrality will be kept under watch.
"Legal action will be taken against law enforcers for failing to perform duty."
He assured that the voters will be able cast ballots freely for their preferred candidates.
On the much-talked-about issue of army deployment, the CEC said army personnel would be deployed for aiding the civil administration.
The Oikyafront and several other parties have been demanding deployment of army members with magistracy power.
The CEC also addressed the concern of opposition parties with regard to arrest and harassment of their grassroots leaders.
He said the law enforcers will be given strict orders to ensure that no harassment and filing of cases take place against any voters, political leaders and activists, candidates or polling agents.
"I will request and hope that all candidates and their supporters will follow the electoral code of conduct.”
Polling agents should stay at the stations until the results are announced, he added.
Huda also mentioned that the nomination aspirants can file relevant papers online alongside the existing system of submitting those to the returning officers and assistant returning officers.
The CEC said electronic voting machines (EVMs) would be used at several polling stations in constituencies in city areas. "Through exhibitions, voters were informed about the merits of using EVM in elections."
The EC yesterday appointed the deputy commissioners of 64 districts as returning officers (ROs) and upazila nirbahi officers as assistant returning officers (AROs) for the constituencies in district areas.
Divisional commissioners and additional deputy commissioners were appointed as ROs and AROs for the constituencies in metropolitan areas.
Empowered by the electoral laws, the ROs with the assistance of the AROs will do all necessary work to conduct the election. They will enjoy immense legal powers to ensure the holding of a free and fair election.
CODE OF CONDUCT TAKES EFFECT
With the announcement of the polls schedule, the electoral code of conduct took effect yesterday.
The EC is likely to issue directives today, asking all aspiring candidates to remove their posters, placards, banners and billboards from public places. The commission may give a timeframe to complete the task.
If the aspirants fail to do so, the law enforcement agencies would do the task, said EC secretariat officials.
No one can start electioneering until the last date for withdrawal of candidacy.
Ministers and lawmakers cannot use government vehicles or enjoy facilities for carrying out election-related work. They are also not allowed to make any donations to any institution from public fund.
Besides, the government cannot approve or inaugurate any development project to woo voters.