The Election Commission seems to have misread the electoral code of conduct and issued discriminatory instructions to police, resulting in Wednesday's clashes between BNP men and the law enforcers.
On Tuesday evening, the EC secretariat, in a letter, asked the inspector general of police to take necessary actions to thwart gathering and processions by nomination-seekers.
The following day, the police urged BNP men, who thronged the street in front of their Nayapaltan party office, to leave so that normal traffic movement could resume. After they refused, the law enforcers used force to disperse them, sparking clashes.
The incident generated heat in the political landscape ahead of the 11th parliamentary polls scheduled for December 30. It also marred the peaceful electoral atmosphere which had prevailed for the previous two weeks since the 90-day countdown for the polls began.
In the letter, the EC said it was noticed in media reports that after announcement of the election schedule, aspiring candidates of different political parties were bringing out processions with motorcycles and other vehicles in shows of strength during the collection and submission of nomination papers. The EC claimed this was a violation of section 8 of the electoral code of conduct for political parties and the candidates.
But the EC's claim is not in conformity with the section.
The restriction imposed by the section is only applicable to the political parties and nominated candidates to prevent them from electioneering. However, as of now, neither the Awami League nor the BNP has nominated a single candidate to contest the polls with party's symbol.
So, the question of electioneering does not even arise in this case.
In such a situation, the EC suddenly issued the instruction drawing a lot of flak from different quarters.
Besides, Tuesday's instruction came after the ruling Awami League had already completed selling forms among its MP aspirants while the BNP had just begun the sale of forms on Monday.
Strangely, the EC did not find anything wrong with the gatherings in front of the office of the parties until Tuesday evening.
"The timing of the letter issued to the police was inappropriate," said Election Commissioner Mahbub Talukdar while talking to this correspondent yesterday morning in his office at the EC Bhaban.
"We can't shrug off the responsibility caused by our mistake," he said.
He referred to the remarks made by one of his colleagues and echoed his views.
Hours after the EC secretariat issued the instruction, Election Commissioner Rafiqul Islam on Tuesday night told the press that the gathering in front of the BNP headquarters by nomination aspirants and activists did not violate election regulations, according to a Dhaka Tribune report published the following day.
"It's not a violation of the election code of conduct as people are coming to take the nomination form from their party headquarters," said Rafiqul, adding, "This is quite normal. The activists and supporters, along with the nomination aspirants, gathering in front of their party office is by no means violation of the electoral code of conduct."
He even criticised a section of the media that claimed in their reports that the gathering was a violation of the electoral code of conduct.
"If the press decides to call this a violation, then they will be lying to the general people of Bangladesh. This will also be unjust for the parties participating in the upcoming general polls," Dhaka Tribune quoted Rafiqul as saying.
The AL started selling nomination papers on November 9, a day after the EC announced the polls schedule. A large number of nomination seekers and their followers gathered in front of the AL office on Dhanmondi Road 3/A. Many reached there in processions with motorcycles and other vehicles. All three days of nomination form sale since November 9 saw significant traffic gridlock due to the processions that blocked parts of the street in front of the office.
In response to a question on the gathering, EC Secretary Helaluddin Ahmed, on November 10, said: "Any election in our country is like a festival. As all the parties are selling nomination forms centrally, this does not violate our regulations."
The explanation made by Rafiqul Islam and Helal Uddin was in conformity with the electoral code of conduct.
In terms of the electoral codes, the gathering of party men while collecting nomination forms and bringing out procession on the day of filing nomination papers to the Returning Officers are completely two different things.
One is banned, the other is not.
Section 8 (b) of the electoral code of conduct states no procession or showdown is allowed during filing of nomination papers to the ROs seeking candidacies to contest parliamentary polls.
But those who gathered in front of the AL and the BNP offices were not filing nomination papers, they were just collecting it.
This is why the restriction in no way was applicable to the nomination seekers who, along with their followers, had gathered in large number in front of their respective party offices, a number of present and former senior EC officials said.
They only collected forms from their respective parties wishing to contest the polls as party candidates with party's symbol. On getting their party's nod, they will collect official forms from the ROs' or assistant ROs' offices across the country and fill out those with necessary information and attach copies of other documents required to become candidates in the polls.
Then they will go to the offices of the ROs or assistant ROs to file the applications, known as nomination papers. They cannot bring out any procession or showdown that day.
The EC in the second part of its letter correctly cited section 8 (b) in this regard. Copies of the instruction were sent to all returning officers and other departments concerned.
Senior leaders of Jatiya Oikyafront, the alliance of BNP and several other opposition parties, who sat at a meeting with the EC after the violent incident in Nayapaltan, raised the issue. In response, the EC informed them that they were saddened by the unwarranted incident, sources said.
After the meeting, the EC secretary told reporters that the EC hoped such incident would not be repeated. "The EC will investigate the incident and seek to know about it from the police department," he said in a press briefing.
Talking to The Daily Star yesterday, former election commissioner Brig Gen (retd) M Sakhawat Hussain strongly criticised the EC for issuing the instruction all of a sudden.
If it had planned to issue such an instruction considering people's suffering, it should have been done so immediately after announcement of the schedule, he said.
But, its move raised question as it issued the instruction to the law enforcement agencies to thwart the gathering and procession in front of party offices after another party had already completed the sale of nomination forms.
"Police took actions on instruction of the Election Commission. Therefore, it must bear the responsibility for the incident that took place in Nayapaltan,"
The EC should be seen and presumed to be as neutral, he said, but its role regarding the issuance of the instruction appeared biased. "The EC should learn lesson from this incident and it has to handle everything even-handedly."