All talk?

Courier Briefing
Thursday, November 2nd, 2017

Awami League in a meeting with the Election Commission on October 18, 2017 Photo: Courtesy


As the newly appointed Election Commission, under Chief Election Commissioner KM Nurul Huda, wrapped up a series of dialogues with different stakeholders – touted as an early confidence-building measure ahead of the all-important 11th parliamentary elections that it will be organizing in a little over a year from now – one question predominated above all others in the minds of Bangladeshis: did it work?


It’s useful to just break that down a bit. What we’re really asking of course, is whether Bangladeshis came away from the nearly 2-month dialogue phase, more confident than they were going into it, that they will get the opportunity to exercise their all-important right to franchise in the next election, and meaningfully participate in the process of electing their representatives for the 11th Jatiya Sangshad. Without pointing the finger of blame at anyone, what is inarguable is that this is the fundamental right that was denied to the vast majority of the electorate when it came to electing the 10th Jatiya Sangshad. By now, no-one wants to belabour all the different points anymore. The most telling statistic, by which one can grasp the worth of the electoral exercise that produced it, is that on Election Day – January 5, 2014 – voting was not even held in what amounted to a majority of the 300 constituencies, with 153 candidates already elected unopposed.


The parliament that we got, the one we still have today, in the course of four years has not failed to reflect this disquieting genesis. One of the better pieces of advice you  may have heard over the last four years is to not pay it much mind. In 2015, the local chapter of Transparency International actually had to abandon its regular review of parliamentary activity, ‘Parliamentary Watch’, as its findings became too embarrassing for sitting MPs, who started issuing threats to cancel their NGO license. Thankfully though, after a gap of 18 months, and presumably things deemed to have cooled down a bit, Parliamentary Watch returned with its 13th volume in April 2017.


By now though, even conscientious, politically engaged citizens probably prefer not to dwell on it all that much anymore. They want to look forward, with the hope and the belief that what happened in 2014 was just a one-off, that couldn’t possibly repeat itself. Could it?


Unfortunately, despite the best-laid plans of the new Election Commission and its 7-stage roadmap, the visible steps it has taken to differentiate itself from the diabolical reign of the last EC (for example the willingness to engage with civil society, who took part in the dialogues, after being completely shut out by the previous EC) led by Rakibuddin Ahmad, and all the good intentions it put on display during the dialogue phase, we cannot yet rule out the possibility that it could.


More than the EC


The reasons for this are mainly three-fold. Part of it is what was mentioned by an ex-CEC, the venerable ATM Shamsul Huda, when he took part in the EC’s dialogue on its very last day, during a session held with ex commissioners and election experts – that the Election Commission is not “solely responsible” for holding a free and fair election, and reminding the political parties of their responsibility. Another former chief election commissioner, Abdur Rouf, also joined ATM Shamsul Huda during the electoral talks  with the commission there.


“We hope all political parties will join the next general election while the Election Commission would refrain from doing anything that can hurt the trust of the constitutional body,” Huda said. Stressing the need for strengthening the Election Commission as an institution, he also suggested the EC appoint its own officials as returning officers in all the polling centres. The first Huda Commission (Huda I going forward) had recognised this pressing need and started working towards it, making significant progress till its time was up in 2012.


Then came Rakibuddin, and one can never appreciate the scale of the ruinous legacy the present EC inherited till you recognize the steps that were taken during his tenure that actually undermined the progressive steps initiated under Huda I.  The fact of the matter is that the electoral mechanism in Bangladesh suffered a total and systematic breakdown in the last three years of the Rakibuddin commission. No one expects even the road back to where we were to be easy.


Same but different


The second reason we don’t or cannot yet expect the next election to be any different from the last one, is the fact that nothing has actually changed yet. One may reasonably expect some reforms to the rules or code of conduct stipulated for the polls, given the kind of election they produced in 2014. As things stand however, the election is set to be held in accordance with the same set of rules that applied to the last election four years ago.


It’s not just that the main opposition BNP’s principal demand for a supportive or caretaker government looks set to be ignored. The 40 political parties that sat with the EC over the last two months each presented it with a list of demands. The Awami League submitted 11 demands, while the BNP came up with 20. Upon aggregating all the parties’ demands, we find that  most political parties wanted the deployment of the army and dissolution of parliament before the next general elections.


At least 25 out of 40 parties that talked with the EC since August 25 demanded army deployment. Six others left it to the commission to decide whether such a deployment was necessary. Three parties opposed the idea of army deployment while the rest did not say anything about it. The ruling Awami League and its alliance partners have either opposed it or have suggested that the army only be deployed without magistracy power and only if required.


At least 19 political parties demanded dissolving the parliament before or after the announcement of election schedule while 19 others insisted that the next polls be held under a non-partisan interim administration. They, however, used different words for the type of administration they want,  “non-partisan interim administration”.


Seven parties demanded forming an election-time government with representatives of parties that have MPs in parliament or were registered with the EC. Only eight parties, including the Awami League and some of its alliance partners, opined for holding the next elections under the incumbent government, in line with the constitution.


The BNP and some of its partners want the parliament dissolved and formation of an election-time supportive government. Eight political parties wanted reintroduction of the “No Vote” system while the Awami League and eight other parties demanded introduction of Electronic Voting Machines. The BNP and some of its alliance partners demanded deployment of the army during the polls with magistracy power.


And yet, since the dialogue wrapped up it has become clear that none of these suggestions will actually be taken on board. The EC has announced as much, saying it received three categories of suggestions, which to be implemented require actions beyond the EC’s remit, such as constitutional amendments. That in turn has fuelled the view that the EC’s ‘dialogue’ initiative was all just an eyewash. Leading scholar Dr Salimullah Khan, though clearly disappointed with the outcome, is increasingly inclined to agree. “It was an eyewash in the name of dialogue.”


Which brings us to our third point.


The cat out of the bag


The prevailing sense of an eyewash is amplified by the dubious, yet almost mathematically precise way in which Huda was parachuted into the job, which people have certainly not erased from memory. They chose to keep mum about it, and give him a chance to be fair, but it was a gamble and now it looks like it may not pay off. It affects future engagements between the EC and the BNP, since the way things went may encourage others to take a similar line in future, and negotiate with the party in bad faith. The BNP placed a 20-point proposal, leading as expected with its rose by another name, i.e. holding the next polls under a ‘supportive government’(read caretaker). Then came deployment of the army with magistracy power, and dissolving the current parliament before the election, in a dialogue with the Election Commission (EC).


During the nearly three-hour dialogue with the Commission, the party also proposed withdrawing all the ‘false’ cases filed against its leaders and activists, including party chief Khaleda Zia, before the election, the release of arrested party leaders and activists and stopping killing, enforced disappearance and repressive acts. Talking to reporters after the dialogue, BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir briefed reporters about their party proposals.


He said their party proposed the Commission to take steps from now on to ensure the rights of all the political parties to hold public rallies and political programmes. The BNP leader said they also want the EC to take steps for a dialogue between the government and the political parties for ensuring a fair election.


Their other proposals include amending the RPO to define the armed forces as the law enforcement agencies to deploy them a week before the polls with magistracy power, restoring the pre-2008 delimitation of 300 parliamentary constituencies, keeping administration free from politicisation, abolishing the management committees of all the educational institutions six months before the election, and taking inclusive decisions on the election by the Commission and avoiding unilateral decision  by the CEC or any commissioner.


Transferring all metropolitan Commissioners, DCs, ASPs, UNO, OCs, giving priority to EC officials in making returning and assistant returning officers, including Bangladeshi expatriates in the voter list, dropping dead people from the voter list, following a transparent process in selecting polling stations and polling officers, introducing online submission system of nomination papers, announcing election results at every polling station after vote counting in the presence of all polling agents, bringing transparency and neutrality in selection local election observers and encouraging good number of foreign observers to monitor the election.


He said they (BNP) had gained a little bit of hope that the Election Commission will play a positive role. “Under the current political atmosphere and democratic system, the Election Commission can do very little. Despite that, we’re a little bit hopeful after the dialogue.”


Fakhrul said the EC assured them of doing something within their jurisdiction about BNP’s demand for arranging talks between the government and the political parties and installing an election-time supportive government. He also said their party wants to believe that the EC dialogue or roadmap will not be mere eyewash and time-buying one. “The EC must ensure that the dialogue doesn’t turn into a farce.”


The BNP leader said the entire nation hopes that the Commission will take sincere steps without any fear and favour for holding a credible, impartial and inclusive election. “BNP wants to sincerely assist the EC for restoring people’s voting rights, making the election process transparent and acceptable.”


He said the EC must create a level-playing field for all parties from now on.


Fakhrul said the Commission said it will try to present the nation a good election. “They said our proposals are timely and well-thought-out ones which will help them in the future.”


At the beginning of the meeting, the CEC praised different development activities of the BNP founder late President Ziaur Rahman and the different governments of BNP. He said BNP chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia was the first woman to be elected the Prime Minister in the country in 1991. He said BNP governments had contribution to many areas such as it made primary education compulsory, made women education free till Class-XII, and established Open University, National University, Rapid Action Battalion, Anti-Corruption Commission and Expatriates Welfare and Overseas Ministry.


Yet all of it is now being seen in the light of his tactical maneuvering to rope in the BNP, which of course is the big prize for the EC towards arranging an election. It remains to be seen now whether the party walks into a trap.


Later on in the week, the BNP’s staying power was on full display, as Khaleda Zia made her way by road from her Gulshan residence, ostensibly to meet the Rohingya refugees, all the way to the country’s southern edge in Cox’s Bazar. To most people though, this seemed like a testing of the waters looking ahead to an election year. If in fact that was the case, the BNP and its supporters can be very pleased, as people responded in their droves to come out of their homes and greet the former prime minister and her motorcade as it snaked along in single file. There were some untoward incidents along the way, but they will have been overwhelmed by the sheer tide of people who turned out for their leader. The 170-km journey from Chittagong to Cox’s Bazar in particular was remarkable for the crowds it drew, looking as spontaneous as any crowd you’re likely to see. And later down in the camps as she met and consoled the Rohingya, Begum Zia was at her charming best.  Is there one last campaign in her?


Ruling Awami League during its own meeting with the EC placed an 11-point proposal, including introduction of the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs), for holding the next general election in a free, fair and credible manner.


The Awami League placed the 11-point proposal during a dialogue with the Election Commission that lasted for nearly two hours and 15 minutes at Election Bhaban in Dhaka.


The ruling party also proposed submission of the list of polling agents to presiding officers and assistant presiding officers three days before the polling day and strictly curbing the use of black money and muscle power. General secretary of the party Obaidul Quader came up with the disclosure while talking to reporters at Nirbachon Bhaban after the talks.


He said they placed a proposal before the election commission to appoint presiding officers, assistant presiding officers and polling officers from among the responsible government employees, reported UNB. Besides, the party proposed taking necessary steps to appoint local and foreign observers maintaining highest transparency and caution.


In response to a query about AL’s stance over CEC’s remarks hailing BNP founder Ziaur Rahman, he said, “Our position is clear. We’ve got the explanation. All of them, including other election commissioners and EC secretary, talked positively.” A 21-member Awami League delegation, led by Quader, joined the electoral talks held with Chief Election Commissioner KM Nurul Huda in the chair.

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