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A confusion has arisen regarding the recent relaxation of the Emergency Powers Rules (EPR) in four city corporations and nine municipalities where local government polls will be held on August 4, since the home ministry notification did not specify the timeframe for the relaxation.
The Election Commission (EC), in its proposal sent to the government last week, had sought relaxation of EPR from the day the poll schedule was announced till publication of the election results in official gazettes, sources in the commission said.
But since there is no specified timeframe for the relaxation in the home ministry notification, some ministry and EC officials are apparently under the impression that the moment poll campaigns will become banned according to the electoral rules, the relaxation of EPR will also expire, while some others are thinking that the relaxation is for an indefinite period of time.
The electoral rules ban campaigning 32 hours before the polling begins at 8:00am on August 4, and if the assumption of the first group of officials is correct then that will in effect reinstate the total state of emergency at 12:00am on August 3, paving the way for holding of the first ever public elections under a total emergency in the country.
The confusion also puts the voters in an unwarranted uncertainty about the duration of the temporary increase in their political rights in the city corporations of Rajshahi, Khulna, Barisal and Sylhet, and in the municipalities of Manikganj Sadar, Chuadanga Sadar, Shariatpur Sadar, Naohata in Rajshahi, Dupchanchiya in Bogra, Sripur in Gazipur, Fulbaria in Mymensingh, Golapganj in Sylhet and Sitakunda in Chittagong.
The EC's proposal was made in an effort to create an atmosphere conducive to holding free, fair and credible elections while still having the state of emergency in place. It also already promulgated strict election rules and an electoral code of conduct, sources in the commission said.
Had the home ministry followed the EC's proposed timeframe for relaxed EPR and mentioned it in unambiguous terms in its notification, the move could have created an atmosphere where the polls would be held amid a much more relaxed environment, having a positive effect on the voters' enthusiasm, said senior officials of the EC Secretariat.
The EC proposed timeframe for the relaxation would in no way provide additional opportunity for candidates to bring out processions or arrange rallies on the polling day, as the new election rules already restrict such activities on the day of the polls, they asserted.
According to the new election rules, candidates may begin election campaigns on July 14, a day after the deadline for withdrawing candidatures, and may continue campaigning only till 12:00am of August 3.
In fact, the candidates will have only 20 days for campaigning although the chief election commissioner on Friday, while announcing the poll schedule, said the candidates will have 21 days for campaigning.
Moreover, campaign processions and rallies will be allowed only within the constituencies during the stipulated period in line with the strict election rules and code of conduct, which stipulate that none may bring out processions or arrange rallies between 12:00am of August 3 and 12:00am of August 7.
So, none will even be able to bring out any victory procession to celebrate a win in the elections.
The punishment for violating new electoral rules is also harsher than the punishment for violating EPR.
One might be imprisoned for two to five years for violating EPR while the punishment is imprisonment for two to seven years for violating the electoral rules, moreover, the violator's candidature might also be cancelled.
Senior officials of the home ministry and EC do not see any justification for leaving a room in the ministry notification for interpreting the duration of the EPR relaxation, and also do not see any justification for reinstating the total state of emergency in the electoral areas before the election process is over through publication of the results, which are expected to be published in official gazettes by August 6.