Bangladesh: Can the Election Commission regain public confidence?

Shakhawat Hossain     17 August 2018

Elections were considered to be festivals in Bangladesh, but now are perceived as source of fear.
As many have expressed their apprehensions regarding fair national elections in December this year following the massive irregularities in the latest five city corporation polls, the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) KM Nurul Huda has recently admitted the fact that the election commission cannot guarantee a major election to be free from irregularities.
Although he is constitutionally oath-bound to carry out their constitutional responsibilities freely and fairly, the CEC has surprised that nation by saying that he can not guarantee that the coming election will be free from any irregularities.

However, he assured that the election commission would take due measures if any irregularities crop up in the process.

In other words, the head of the election commission is not interested in preventing the crime. He will act only after the crime is committed. And his assurance certainly has not allayed the apprehensions of the people to any extent at all. During recent City Corpopration polls, the people were not just disappointed at the commission’s performance, they were angry too. Referring to the widespread irregularities and rigging in the recent elections to the three city corporations, journalists had asked the CEC if this would be repeated in the coming national elections. He virtually admitted that there would be irregularities in the election. It would be a gross understatement to term what happened in the city corporation polls as mere ‘irregularities’.
He said he took more measures in Barishal as more irregularities had occurred there. What were these measures? He suspended voting in 10 to 12 polling centres. That is the measure of his actions.

But what was the Barishal experience? Even before noon, supporters of the ruling party candidate took over the polling centres and stamped all the ballot papers. Polling agents of the opposition candidate were evicted from the centres. Five mayoral candidates boycotted the election from the afternoon. The people were taken aback by such a farce of an election. First and foremost, the commission must ensure a level playing field for all parties and candidates. They failed to do so before and during the election.

The CEC has spoken about irregularities during the election. But can the rampant stamping of ballot papers and evicting the opposition candidate’s polling agents from the centres merely be termed as ‘irregularities’? He has so long been maintaining that the elections would be hundred per cent free, fair and peaceful. And yet the five cities was a blatant rehearsal of widespread irregularities, rigging and forceful takeover of the polling centres. Now he says that the irregularities cannot be entirely controlled. If so, why have an election commission at all? Wherever the candidates have the muscle power, they can simply take over the centres and declare themselves the victors.

Whatever credibility the election commission had gained by conducting more or less fair elections in Cumilla and Rangpur, has all been eroded in the farcical elections of the five cities..
And evidently, the ruling Awami League and the Election Commission not only missed out an opportunity to win the confidence of people and the opposition political camps but also proved that it even does not have the political will to hold free elections due at the fag end of this year..

Against such backdrop, election and political analysts now doubt its capacity for making the next polls free and fair. They are also raising question if the EC had held the dialogue really with a desire for making the polls free and fair.

Under the circumstances, the opposition political camps, as well as democratically oriented sections of society, are left with no option but to mobilise public opinions to dissolve the politically illegitimate parliament, reconstitute the Election Commission and initiate a process of negotiation with all concerned over the composition and jurisdiction of a party-neutral government to supervise the next general elections.

Though it is not clear to many what to make of the CEC’s comments that the election commission cannot guarantee irregularity-free national elections, the statement is not only imprudent, it is an irresponsible and uncalled for comment, particularly from a person whose constitutional duty it is to give the nation a free, fair and untarnished election, and one that would allow the voters to choose their candidates without hindrance or let.

However, what is equally ominous is that the CEC’s statement is giving the impression that he is preparing us for what is to come in the next parliamentary elections; and he is also admitting, in advance, his powerlessness to do anything about it.

In spite of our repeated calls, the EC has repeatedly failed so far to live up to the expectation of all the stakeholders, as demonstrated in the last three mayoral polls. And much as the CEC refuses to acknowledge that the three elections, and the Khulna election preceding those, were marred by irregularities, the evidences on the ground, the pictures and reports, belie his individual perception of the quality of the elections. Inaction in the face of gross violation of electoral codes, and the pretexts for that has not added to the EC’s credibility at all.
It is also mention worthy here that the CEC in a projection meeting in Barisal had also said that those who would not participate in the local council elections would fall 5 years behind. What does it mean? Is it part of his duty to caution the candidates?

EC makes no move to make next polls free, fair

People from all walks of life had supported the roadmap which the EC drew up after the commission led by Nurul Huda took over. The commission held dialogues with the representatives of political parties, media and civil society. It raised a hope. After the city corporation elections in Cumilla and Rangpur, people’s expectations rose further. However, it is now difficult to have confidence in the EC after the massive irregularities and vote rigging in five city corporation elections.

Shortly after the reconstitution of the commission in early 2017, the election organising authorities published a roadmap towards holding the next polls with a pledge that it would leave no stone unturned in order to ensure that every voter can cast their votes fearlessly and the votes are counted.

In order to implement its roadmap, it also held dialogue with election stakeholders last year and sorted out the dialogue recommendations into three categories – political, constitutional and election commission affairs – for smooth implementation of them. The commission published a booklet containing the recommendations as well.

But, the election commission has taken no visible initiatives over the past one year to make the next crucial general elections free and fair apart from carrying out day-to-day work.
Besides, election experts said such remarks would erase people’s confidence in the election commission. Many of them also said the CEC’s remarks just exposed the commission’s helplessness and the reality on ground.

In the dialogue, stakeholders spoke both in favour of and against deployment of armed forces during the general elections, use of electronic voting machine and introduction of ‘no-vote’, but the commission took initiative to address those recommendations by just saying, “those are political affairs and should be dealt with by the political leadership”.

(Shakhawat Hossain is Dhaka-based freelance Journalist and Political Commentator)

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