By holding three parliamentary by-polls on Saturday in an unprecedented situation, our Election Commission has proved that it has failed to assess the gravity of the evolving situation of the deadly coronavirus attack.
The virus pandemic keeps crippling unabated people's normal life everywhere on the globe. We are not shielded against the fallout.
Panic and concerns have gripped people. They are worried about the safety of their lives. In the face of the ferocious speed of the virus, doctors and nurses in many hospitals are also worried about their own safety and are refraining from treating patients suffering from flu and cold as they are not equipped well.
City roads are getting empty. Offices have been asking staff to work from home since last week. All have been advised to avoid gatherings and maintain social distance to contain the spread of the virus.
To enforce social distancing, the government has imposed a ban on all sorts of gatherings – be it social, cultural, political or religious. It has moved to purchase one million testing kits and other necessary things to face any possible outbreak of the virus.
Yet, experts keep decrying that our preparedness still lags far behind the measures taken by the developed countries struggling to contain the virus, which has been causing more and more new deaths and infections every day.
When people's right to life is under threat, our EC did not hesitate to hold three by-elections, including one in the capital, encouraging gatherings of people in the name of electioneering.
This may sound ridiculous to any rational mind. The reason is simple: no right is more important than the right to life. All other rights can either be curtailed or restricted, but the right to life is inalienable.
At a time when panicked people are preparing for the safety of their lives, the EC asked them to exercise their political rights in the by-polls.
But people did not respond. The presence of only a handful of voters in the polling stations proved that they have little interest in the election in this time of corona outbreak.
They opted for maintaining social distance. This election appears to be a fresh blow to the EC that has already been suffering from a lack of people's confidence for some controversial elections.
According to media reports, three election commissioners last week argued for postponing all the scheduled elections in the wake of the prevailing situation. But the chief election commissioner did not agree and rejected their suggestions, citing the constitutional obligation to hold the polls.
The CEC misread the underlying meaning of the constitutional provisions regarding people's rights and the EC's responsibilities.
It is the constitutional obligation of the EC to hold a free and fair election and for this, it has to properly assess the situation. If the situation is not conducive to holding a free and fair election, it must ask the administration to take necessary measures to this end.
If the atmosphere is not congenial to holding election, it should refrain from holding the polls. And no rational mind will say the prevailing situation is congenial.
The EC had an easy way to refrain from holding the elections citing the evolving situation, which is in no way conducive to the polls. It could have banked on Article 123 (4) of the constitution that allows deferment of any election.
This provision excludes the EC from the constitutional obligation to hold the parliamentary by-polls within 90 days since the day they fell vacant. This provision clearly empowers the CEC to take a wise decision considering the evolving situation.
The constitutional provision reads, "Provided that in a case where, in the opinion of the Chief Election Commissioner, it is not possible, for reasons of an act of God, to hold such election within the period specified in this clause, such election shall be held within ninety days following after the last day of such period."
One may argue whether the pandemic can be considered an "act of God". Till date, there have been a lot of debates on the legal point whether pandemic is an act of God.
Those debates are not fit for today's situation. Global leaders and scholars have repeatedly been saying that none has witnessed such a pandemic in modern times.
Some of the world leaders warned people of the gravity of the crisis by comparing it with the past two world wars. The present crisis, both public health and financial, appears to be larger than the world wars.
In such an extraordinary situation, a law deserves extraordinary interpretation. The history of laws says they keep evolving keeping pace with the social, financial and political evolution.
Thus, the EC could have thought differently had it understood the gravity of the present situation. Moreover, it could have sought advisory opinion from the Supreme Court to decide its next course of action.
The EC did not explore this constitutional provision. It rather made a mockery in the name of elections in the times of corona.
Till Saturday noon, the EC stuck to its guns to hold the Chattogram City Corporation election at the end of this month. However, good sense prevailed at last as it postponed the polls.
This should have been done in case of all three by-polls held on Saturday.