Bangladesh Election Commission’s crisis of confidence

Bangladesh Election Commission’s crisis of confidence

Ahmed Taib,

The country’s politics is apparently heating up with the 11th national elections nearing fast as the political parties have already started preparing to join the vote battle. Ruling Bangladesh Awami League (AL) president and prime minister Sheikh Hasina are seeking votes for her party’s election symbol whenever she is in any public gathering, especially while inaugurating different development projects of the government. And her arch-enemy and former prime minister Khaleda Zia and her party, BNP, is not lagging behind. Insiders say the party has started sorting out names of possible candidates across the country and scrutinizing their possibilities to sweep the election.

A kind of deep uncertainty and fear is, however, brewing over the next general elections – scheduled to be held by January 2019 as per the present constitution – as it’s not clear yet how that election will be held, whether it will at all be a participatory one, or will be like that of 5 January.

Although the rulers’ main opponent Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are saying it would not boycott the parliamentary polls like the way it did during 5 January election, it is tagging a condition that the election should be held under a non-partisan, neutral, supportive poll-time government. It is arguing that the elections will not be free and fair if it is held under the incumbent prime minister and ruling AL party president Hasina.

It is not certain whether the BNP will finally join the polls or whether chaos is awaiting the nation centring the 11th parliamentary polls.

Political analysts say the country cannot afford to hold another 5-Jan-like election. The country’s peace and tranquillity largely depend on how the next general elections will be held. People are asking whether the country will again plunge into a pandemonium like in the run up to the 5 January 2014 polls.

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The ruling AL is however trying to say that it is the election commission which will preside over the balloting. It is sticking to its guns that there is no provision of “supportive government” in the constitution, after the scrapping of the caretaker government system by this very AL-led ninth parliament.

All the past election commissioners including CECs, election observers, and political analysts converge in their views that the election commission alone cannot hold a free and fair elections. Without the support of the government machinery, the elections cannot be held in a free, fair manner.

The election commission has a total manpower of nearly 3000 officials while it needs about 640,000 polling officials – apart from the returning officers assistant returning officers, law enforcers and magistrates – suggesting that the commission is to hire a huge number officials, mainly from the government agencies.

It is the returning officers who preserve almost absolute authority to organize the elections. It largely depends on them as to how the election would be. According to the electoral law, the returning officers are authorized even to cancel the election half way if any irregularities are spotted.

But in the general elections it is the district deputy commissioners (DCs) who are entrusted with the responsibility of the returning officers, with some exceptions. It’s widely known the DCs are appointed by the government, but as per the desire of the ruling party.

Now the question is how far the election commission can exert its authority over the returning officers during the polls.

Donors/Dev Partners no more want to see 5-Jan-like Elections

Local representatives of both the United States and the United Kingdom have already turned up at the election commission and conveyed their message that the next election should be an inclusive one. And they don’t want to see any elections like that of 5 January 2014.

British High Commissioner in Dhaka Alison Blake on 6 June met the chief election commissioner, KM Nurul Huda, and apprised him of UK’s position about the next elections.

“We want to make sure that all political parties take part in the next elections and we extend our support to them who are working to the end,” Blake told reporters at the EC secretariat.

Earlier on 31 May, US ambassador to Bangladesh Marcia Bernicat met the CEC and told him that Bangladesh should no more hold 5-Jan-like elections.

Besides, officials of the UNDP, a key part of the election commission, also met the CEC and stressed the need for holding an inclusive electionsthis time.

Reconstitution of Election Commission 

Ahead of the next general elections, the AL government has reconstituted the election commission with its trusted KM Nurul Huda as the chief election commissioner, although it staged a series of events, if not drama, to reconstitute the commission.

President Abdul Hamid, a formerly AL leader, formed a search committee to choose the prospective election commissioners and the search committee put forth a panel of prospective election commissioners taking names mostly suggested by AL and its partners.

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The president appointed the election commissioners with abnormal hastiness on the very evening the search committee submitted its names to him.

Although there were public aspirations for the search committee to make public the names of prospective elections commissioners suggested by different political parties, but the committee didn’t give importance to the people’s desire.

BNP’s Position

Shortly after the reconstitution of the EC, the BNP said the desire of prime minister and AL president Sheikh Hasina has been reflected in the reconstitution of the election commission.

It alleged that Huda was an organiser of ‘JanatarManch’ leading to a “negative perception about him grown naturally among the people.”

The party also expressed its surprise as to why neither the search committee nor the president took cognisance of the matter in appointing him the CEC.

The party also termed KM Nurul Huda a controversial former bureaucrat and said the commission led by him will not be able to work neutrally and without bias.

“…So, a free, fair, neutral and acceptable election is not possible under the leadership of KM Nurul Huda,” the party secretary general, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, told a media briefing at the BNP chairperson’s Gulshan office after a party standing committee meeting.

Fakhrul referred to a report of The Daily Star which said: “In his service career, he was deputy commissioner of Comilla and Faridpur. Soon after the BNP-led alliance came to power in 2001, he was sent into forced retirement.

“Nurul Huda said he was a joint secretary at that time. He fought a legal battle against the then government’s move.

“But by the time he got a verdict in his favour in 2008, he had already retired in 2006. He was made secretary with retrospective effect after the AL came to power in 2009,” read the report.

“With this information,” Fakhrul went on saying, “He might have grievances against our party. On the other hand, he might have shown his compassion towards the AL as he was made secretary with retrospective effect during the AL regime.

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“There is a logical question among the people as to how far he will be able to remain neutral amid this dual-yet-conflicting situation.

“Above all, allegations have it that he was an organiser of Janatar Manch, a platform against the then BNP government in 1996, when he was the Comilla deputy commissioner, whereas no public servant can engage in any political activities.

“Engaging in such political activities is a breach of the service rule and a punishable offence.

“For these reasons, a negative perception has naturally grown among the people. It is very mysterious that neither the search committee nor the honourable president took cognisance of the matter,” said Fakhrul.

Terming Nurul Huda a “controversial bureaucrat”, the BNP secretary general said, “We think no institution led by such a controversial former public servant will be able to discharge duties with bias.”

The BNP leader said the reconstitution of “such election commission” has bolstered the rationality of their party’s demand for a neutral election-time government.

AL’s Position

The ruling AL brushed aside BNP’s allegation and hailed the reconstituted EC and said it would be able to hold a free and fair election.

Shortly after his appointment, local AL leaders celebrated his appointment, rushed to his ancestral Patuakhali home and congratulated Nurul Huda offering sweets and flowers.

Several newspapers published photographs showing then CEC-designate, Nurul Huda, taking floral wreaths from local leaders of AL and distributing sweets.

EC to Earn Confidence Thru Work

There is another allegation that Nurul Huda was an active Awami Leaguer and the party entrusted him with the responsibility of the party’s Patuakhali district election committee.

When his attention was drawn to the allegation at a media briefing at the election commission secretariat shortly after his oath, Huda said he had no connection with any political party from the moment he took oath of office.

He also expressed determination to earn confidence of all political parties including BNP.

“Not only the BNP, we will continue to work to earn the confidence of all political parties including the BNP and the AL. We have the confidence that we will be able to create an atmosphere of keeping trust [in the EC].”

Several local government elections were held since the commission was reconstituted with new people, but during those elections – including the Comilla city polls and the last three stages of the Upazila elections – many irregularities and fraudulent activities including stamping of ballot papers the night before the election took place.

Supporters of the Awami League backed chairman candidate attack a polling centre in Barisal to snatch ballot boxes during UP elections yesterday. Banglar Chokh Photo

What Experts Say

Muhammed Sohul Hussain, former election commissioner
There is no way to deny the fact that the Nurul Huda-led election commission faces crisis of confidence of the people. A major political party levelled some allegations against chief election commissioner KM Nurul Huda when he was appointed. That’s why this commission must earn people’s confidence before going to organise the next general elections. There are some local government elections ahead which the election commission will have to organise before the general elections. The commission will have to show some ‘visible actions’ to gain public trust during these elections. The steps the election commission has taken so far is good. So far so good.

Badiul Alam Majumder, Secretary SHUJAN (Citizens for Good Governance)
The reconstitution of the present election commission was not transparent. There are questions over the appointment of the new election commissioners. Although, the new election commissioners shortly after taking office had promised to work fairly, their activities have already raised questions. By this time, a sharp division has created among the election commissioners. Toeing the line of immediate-past chief election commissioner Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad, the incumbent CEC has started taking unilateral decision, bypassing other election commissioners. This is a deviation from the law. Any decision should be taken unanimously. The election commission is a joint or combined entity. This situation has triggered confusion and made us worried.