Awami League candidate Arfanul Haque Rifat won the Comilla City Corporation mayoral polls yesterday, defeating the immediate past mayor Monirul Haque Sakku by 343 votes.
Arfanul Haque Rifat bagged 50,310 votes while his rival Monirul Haque Sakku got 49,967 votes in the polls that turned into a neck and neck race during the last minute of counting on Wednesday night.
Thousands of Rifat's supporters roared in joy and chanted slogans as the Returning Officer Shahedunnabi Chowdhury announced the results at the district's Shilpakala Academy on Wednesday night.
Sakku, the expelled BNP leader who won the last two elections by huge margins, claimed the results were rigged, and said he would challenge it in the High Court.
Sakku entered the control room at Shilpakala Academy at around 9pm as hundreds of supporters of Rifat started chanting slogans. Police later intervened in a bid to clear the supporters from the building and calm the chaos.
Nizam Uddin Kaiser, another expelled BNP leader and one of the key contestants for the office, got 29,999 votes, according to the returning officer.
"I will carry out development according to my election pledges," Rifat said in an immediate reaction. "We will work together for Cumilla," he added.
Polling was mostly peaceful throughout the day except for some irregularities. In yesterday's polls, 229,920 voters, including 117,092 women, were eligible to exercise their franchise in the city corporation polls, while voting at all 105 centres were by electronic voting machines (EVMs).
Two major setbacks – one natural and the other technical – slowed down the voting. It started raining at around 9 in the morning dampening the voter turnout.
Besides, there had been widespread complaints about the electronic voting machines (EVM) for slowing down the ballot casting throughout the day. Both ruling party-backed and opposition candidates were vocal against the EVM issues.
As the day progressed, voter presence at the centres started to improve. Many centres saw long queues of people at noon waiting to practise their voting franchise. Most of the centres could not cast 30%-40% of the votes till noon.
Earlier on Wednesday, Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal assumed the turnout was around 60%.
In the 2017 Cumilla city elections, voter turnout was nearly 64%, while it was 75% in 2012.
Political observers had been terming the Cumilla city elections a litmus test for the Election Commission formed in February. The Kazi Habibul Awal-led EC will hold the national election in late-2023.
On Wednesday evening, the CEC told the journalists in Dhaka that Cumilla city polls had been peaceful, fair and transparent. He said he did not get any complaints from the voters except a few saying they were having difficulties with the EVM.
'EVM slows down voting'
Zahera Begum, a voter at Thira Pukurpar Centre, told The Business Standard at 2:00pm that she had been standing in the queue since 8:00am. "How would I vote if it takes so long? A while ago, a woman collapsed after waiting for hours. I do not understand why it takes so long."
Nurpur Ward 18 Presiding Officer Sultan Ahmed told TBS that the EVMs were slowing down the voting as people were still not familiar with it.
Councillor candidates complained that voting at the Chauara Islamia Fazil Madrasa centre at ward no 27 was suspended for about half an hour in the morning due to a power outage.
In the morning, voting at Comilla High School started 15 minutes later as the centre faced EVM glitches. Meanwhile, many voters at ward 14 complained that the voting got slowed down due to the EVM.
"I have been standing here for three hours, but my turn is yet to come. Each voting by the machine is taking 10-15 minutes," Nazrul Islam, a voter of ward 14 told TBS. Officials at the centre said they could cast 1,000 votes in the first 5 hours.
After casting his vote at Hochcha Mia High School centre at 9:30 am, Monirul Haque Sakku said the poll's atmosphere was quite fine. "It's raining. More people could have come if the weather had been better."
Sakku alleged, "The machines are not working properly. After tapping on the machine, the symbols are not appearing on the screen."
Even then, he said he was satisfied with the voting environment.
Machine displays only Boat, magistrate barred from checking
Kazi Golam Mostafa, a voter at ward 19, told TBS that he could not vote for his mayoral candidate as the EVM had been showing only the Boat symbol. "I could not change it [Boat] despite several attempts."
Nazmul Amin, the presiding officer at the centre, barred Judicial Magistrate Omar Faruk from entering the booth as he wanted to verify the allegation.
"During the polling, some voters claimed that the EVMs being used at the Neura MI High School polling station were showing only the 'Boat' symbol. The presiding officer stopped me when I tried to enter the polling station to see the EVM. I was told to leave immediately," Omar Faruk told TBS.
However, the presiding officer told TBS that he did not stop the judicial magistrate, he just told the magistrate that he cannot go to the secret voting room according to the law.
AL men stage showdown
Since the morning, there were individuals in the secret voting room at several centres who claimed to be assisting the voters.
At most of the centres, Awami League leaders and activists, with badges around their neck, were seen standing by the entrance. They also staged showdown at intersections and key points of the city.
In many centres, there were no polling agents of the other mayoral candidates except Arfanul Haque Rifat's supporters.
"We are basically helping the voters and guiding the elderly citizens for the voting," Hafizur Rahman, a supporter of the Awami League-backed candidate, said.
However, law enforcers became active and dispersed them at noon.
In the morning, police held Ilias Hossain Sabuj, president of Cumilla University Chhatra League, for offering voters cash at Salmanpur. As the executive magistrate appeared at the scene to arrest the ruling party student leader, students took Ilias away from police and assaulted the public officials.
Mobile courts sentenced 11 individuals for election frauds. One of them was sentenced to three months, while five were sentenced to one to three weeks.
AL candidate satisfied, ruling MP saddened
Awami League's mayor candidate Arfanul Haque Rifat said the election was free and fair, but he did not get any support from the administration.
He alleged police harassed his supporters at several polling stations.
In a separate development, Member of the Parliament AKM Bahauddin Bahar, who breached the electoral code of conduct by campaigning for the Awami League candidate and was ordered by the EC to leave the constituency, criticised the commission over its action.
"The language of the EC letter was inappropriate and it was out of EC's jurisdiction," said the Cumilla-6 lawmaker after casting his ballot at Comilla Victoria Collegiate School centre.
"An election commissioner said I violated the law even after being a lawmaker. This was very disturbing and saddening," Bahauddin told reporters.
In the evening, CEC Kazi Habibul Awal was asked about the remark by the lawmaker.
"For me, the issue of the honourable MP is past and closed. I would not comment on that," said the CEC.