• Saturday, Sep 19, 2020
  • Last Update : 02:06 am

EC slammed for holding by-elections amid Covid-19 pandemic

  • Published at 12:39 am March 22nd, 2020
the Election Commission
Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

Mohiuddin bags Dhaka-10 seat while Chittagong city polls, 2 other by-elections postponed

Political observers have expressed their frustration over the Election Commission’s  stubbornness in holding by-polls on Saturday in three constituencies amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Bangladesh witnessed the voting in the three constituencies at a time when many countries have postponed their local government and national-level elections. 

Voting in Dhaka-10, Gaibandha-3, and Bagerhat-4 constituencies went on from 9am to 5pm without any break despite repeated warnings from two separate wings of the Health Ministry.

Worryingly, people were in such a state of panic that a number of polling centres wore a nearly deserted look, especially in the Dhaka-10 constituency, with many registering no votes in the first two or three hours.

Awami League-endorsed candidate Md Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin won the by-election to the Dhaka-10 constituency, which saw only 5.28% votes from among 3,12,281 voters being cast for the parliamentary seat.

According to unofficial results, he obtained 15,955 votes while his rival BNP aspirant Sheikh Rabiul Alam bagged only 817 votes from 117 centres.

Returning Officer GM Shahatab Uddin announced the unofficial results at the Teachers’ Training College centre on Saturday evening.

With the holding of by-polls in the three constituencies generating criticism from different quarters and even from some social media platforms, the EC finally postponed the election to Chittagong City Corporation slated for March 29.

The decision came at an emergency meeting of the commission in Dhaka, when it also decided the same for the by-polls to Bogra-1 and Jessore-6 constituencies, which had been scheduled for the same day.

Additionally, the move was announced after the country confirmed the second death from the virus, and four new coronavrus positive cases.

Local government expert Tofail Ahmed said the holding of three by-polls on Saturday was not a sign of responsibility from the constitutional body. 

“I’d rather term the move to hold the elections by defying warnings from part of the government itself as negligence,” he said, hinting at the deadly consequences of Covid-19.

Stating that there was always a health risk for voters, election officials and other stakeholders during the polls, he said: “The voters’ presence showed how the voting was viewed by the public.”

Tofail also recalled that the earlier elections to the two Dhaka city corporations saw a slim turnout of voters, and it was even worse in Saturday's by-election.

But he appreciated the EC’s postponement of the March 29 elections, saying: “At least they (the EC) have finally understood what should be done.”

The reaction from Shushashoner Jonno Nagorik (Shujan) Secretary Badiul Alam Majumdar was even stronger as he noted the lack of a minimum sense of responsibility on the part of the commission.

“I don’t think they ever care about the safety of voters. How could they hold the polls while putting the lives of voters at risk?” he asked.

Dubbing the polls as both unprecedented and unthinkable, Badiul said: “I also call the EC’s role of holding the by-elections unforgivable.”     

He further questioned: “Who will take responsibility if any voter gets infected, especially in the Dhaka by-polls, where votes have been cast through electronic voting machines (EVMs)?”

In a post-election media briefing, EC Senior Secretary Md Alamgir said only 5% votes were cast in the Dhaka-10 parliamentary seat, while 40% were registered in both Gaibandha-3 and Bagerhat-4 constituencies. 

“It was not possible for us to postpone the by-polls (in the three constituencies) considering the health risks as all kinds of preparations had already been taken for the voting,” he said.

The EC official defended the voting by saying that the EC had taken all necessary measures, including supplying a number of hand sanitizers at the polling stations, aiming to reduce the health risks attendant on the coronavirus situation.

On March 19, Director General of the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) Abul Kalam Azad had urged the EC to postpone the by-polls in order to avoid public gatherings considering the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak.

The same day, the commission said it was determined to hold the by-polls.

The EC senior secretary at the time said the commission had opted for the by-polls since preparations for the elections had already been taken and the candidates had no objection in this regard.

Even on Thursday, DGHS Additional Director General Dr Nasima Sultana said that using EVMs in the election would increase the risk of contamination as the machines needed  finger impressions for votes to be cast. 

Later in the day, several election officials anonymously expressed concern over the safety of voters in the polling stations as well as the presence of voters in the polling stations as the presence of voters had been almost negligible during mock voting.

Worldwide fatalities from coronavirus exceeded 11,000 on Saturday, with more than 277,000 reported to be infected with the virus.

Polls postponed in parts of the world

In the neighbouring Indian state of West Bengal, several civic bodies, including the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC), panchayet polls were postponed.

France rescheduled its second round of polls, which were slated for March 16 and March 22, while Sri Lanka on March 19 postponed its April 25 general election, in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Britain on March 13 postponed local and mayoral elections in May. In the US, seven states and one territory postponed their presidential primaries.

Presidential polls in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus set for April 29 were postponed too. North Macedonia also did the same about its prescheduled April 12 national election.

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