Vol. 4 Num 94 Fri. August 29, 2003  

Netrokona-3 by-polls: Signs of maturity?

When the BNP-backed four-party alliance lawmaker of Netrokona-3 constituency Nurul Amin Talukdar died three months ago, little did anyone assume that his second wife, Khadija Amin, daughter of a Narayanganj industrialist and a devoted housewife and mother of three children would come forward to contest the by-election. In her campaign for the vacant seat, a shy Khadija simply pledged to finish the incomplete jobs that her husband had promised. There was no attack on the opposition and neither was there any serious allegation.

For the district administration in Netrokona everything seemed in line for the by-election of August 21. The Election Commission (EC) stretched its muscles to the limit and provided the district administration with 'a blank cheque' to do everything possible to ensure a free and fair election. A day before the by-election the Deputy Commissioner (DC)-cum- the Returning Officer Hossain Jamil stressed that money was not a factor but conducting the election in a peaceful manner was.

In a move to accommodate hundreds of government officials summoned from different parts of the country for the election duties, the DC ordered all private accommodations including hotels, NGO and state-owned guesthouses to be booked well in advance. The planning went little wrong here as the DC totally disregarded the possible arrival of several hundred journalists and observers for the event. Two days before the election, the visiting journalists and observers were evicted from the hotels without offering them any alternative for accommodation. Many found themselves virtually on the streets and many were seen in the old part of the town looking for accommodation. Some found refuge in the houses of local journalists and some found themselves in Tk 20-per-day accommodations, infested with cockroaches, bed bugs and a pungent smell.

In Netrokona town, political mood was swaying with the arrival of central leaders. Never before in the history of this small town had there been such a union of former and serving ministers, lawmakers and leaders. Tea stalls kept open till late in the evening where scores of people gossiped. Each tea stall became an unofficial centre of campaign for one party or the other. During the last three days prior to the by-polls, in many of these tea stalls, one or the other participating political party paid all bills. Gossip about election expenses ran high among people. An activist of a major political party in Kendua said that the EC's five-lakh taka ceiling for election expenses was a mockery. Thirty days prior to the election, each of the major political party candidates started paying Tk 1,000 a day to its activists at each of the 124 centres of the constituency. So each candidate spent at least Tk 1.24 lakh a day at centre level. A day before the election the activist, who identified himself as Sujon, said his leader had already spent nearly Tk 80 lakh for the election.

Many Awami League leaders arrived in the constituency weeks before the by-election and joined hands with its seasoned candidate Advocate Jubed Ali, who had won the 1991 parliamentary election from the same constituency. In one AL procession on the rural road near Kalizura village under Paikura Union two days before the by-election, a former AL lawmaker from Mymensingh, Major General (retd) Abdus Salam in his Pajero car was leading a convoy of 36 motorbikes and a dozen microbuses full of chanting supporters. The former general and lawmaker had come all the way from Mymensingh to drum up support for Jubed Ali.

The BNP-led four-party alliance was not sitting idle. Top alliance leaders from Dhaka, in an unprecedented show of maturity, especially while being in power, instructed its activists and supporters to ignore 'all kinds of provocation' and stay away from retaliation. The alliance leaders, including LGRD Minister Mannan Bhuiya, Estate Minister for Home Affairs Lutfozaman Babor, Jamaat General Secretary Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, JP (Najiur-Manju) Secretary General Kazi Firoze Rashid and Islami Oikya Jote Secretary General Azizul Haq with a host of lawmakers from elsewhere, were in Atpara and Kendua to urge the voters to vote for the alliance.

During the pre-election period one thing was clear. Most voters of this agriculturally rich northern district were least bothered about the frequent movements of expensive vehicles in their villages. Most voters were toiling in the fields to harvest Aush and sow Aman paddy. They rather kept their concentration focused on their livelihood.

In the Netrokona-3 poll the EC enjoyed a rare luxury. It had the choice, for the first time, to assign 'first class gazetted officers' as Presiding Officer at each of the 124 voting centres. Hundreds of vehicles were made available for about 400 officials and 4,000 security personnel gathered in the 500 square kilometers of the constituency from as far as Khagrachhari and Cox's Bazar. An unspecified number of the armed forces, in full combat gear patrolling the constituency in military vehicles and on foot, eliminated all chance to create any problem. Each of the centres had a magistrate on-duty, backed by armed police, Ansars and and the army patrolling the roads nearby. Even the centers classified as most vulnerable looked peaceful with the presence of overwhelming number of security personnel and officials.

In a bid to monitor the voting AL had deployed about 40 lawmakers at different centers of Atpara thana. None of the lawmakers, who sat just outside the polling centres with groups of local leaders, had any serious complaint about the electoral process. Ekabbar Hossain, an AL lawmaker from Tangail-7 (Mirzapur) sat in front of Nazirganj centre under Shukhari union of Atpara thana. According to Hossain the voting was going on well except he said there were some false votes. Hossain however could not substantiate his claim.

Throughout Atpara and Kendua polling went ahead from 8 am till 4 pm without a single incident of violence or any other untoward incident. At around 9-30 PM it was clear that widow of Nurul Amin Talukdar, Khadija Amin had bagged most of the votes while Jubed Ali trailed behind by nearly 27,000 votes. The five remaining candidates were nowhere near the alliance or the AL candidates.

Following the polls although AL leaders alleged "intimidation" by BNP "activists", to the relief of many, the Netrokona-3 by-polls were over peacefully thanks mainly to some degree of maturity among some of our ruling party and opposition leaders. The blank-cheque EC preparations were merely a feather to the crown.

Morshed Ali Khan is a Senior Reporter of The Daily Star.