More questions than answers

Courier Briefing
Thursday, February 16th, 2017

Members of the search committee assigned to recommend people for the reconstitution of the Bangladesh Election Commission handed the names of their preferences to President Abdul Hamid at Bangabhaban on Monday, February 06, 2017, Photo: PID


In one of the most highly anticipated announcements of its kind in the history of independent Bangladesh, President Abdul Hamid on February 6 appointed former bureaucrat KM Nurul Huda as the chief election commissioner, and former bureaucrats Mahbub Talukder and M Rafiqul Islam, former district judge Kabita Khanam and retired brigadier general Shahadat Hossain Chowdhury as election commissioners. Their most important challenge will be the 11th parliamentary elections currently slated for January 2019.


Election commissioners are by law appointed for just one term, with no provision for renewal or extension. That is meant to prevent them from currying favour with the government of the day by compromising the integrity of their work, with a view to gaining an extension. Such are the safeguards put in place to ensure impartiality on the part of election commissioners.


Chief Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha would be administering the oath of office to the commissioners at the Supreme Court Judges’ Lounge at about 3pm on February 15, after Dhaka Courier goes to press this week, according to Supreme Court additional registrar (High Court) Md Sabbir Faiz. To the general public, they are virtual unknowns, and despite the public’s sensitisation to the critical importance of who the president would appoint, there is nothing to suggest why the five were chosen. A Search Committee seems merely to have tallied the preferred candidates of some 30-plus parties, to come up with a shortlist of 10.


Following revelations over the course of the week since the announcement, it would seem 4 of the names were chosen from the lists provided by members of the ruling 14-party alliance, although just one of them, Kabita Khanam – who will serve as the first woman on the commission – appeared on the Awami League’s list. The other was picked from the BNP’s list, and in the beginning the composition was played up as such: 1 each from the AL and BNP, and the rest independently. When sources in some of the parties in the ruling combine started suggesting they had submitted their preferences in accordance with the AL’s suggestion – which was basically to name K.M. Nurul Huda (as CEC ), Rafiqul Islam and Shahadat Chowdhury to go with two names of their own choosing – that whole myth quickly exploded.


These revelations have overshadowed the announcement of the new EC, with the far greater import the public attached to its formation this time around, in the absence of the caretaker government. That should have been the case in 2012 as well, but back then the abolition of the caretaker provision was yet to sink in. This time around, the people got on the case early. But in the end it seems to have made little difference. The BNP on February 8 already urged president Abdul Hamid to reconsider the appointment of KM Nurul Huda as the chief election  commissioner (CEC)  as he is a ‘controversial person’, reported our sister news agency UNB.


“A controversial person has been appointed the chief election commissioner. Even a crazy person doesn’t believe that fair and acceptable elections will be possible to hold under him,” said BNP vice chairman Shamsuzzaman Dudu.


Speaking at a human chain programme, he further said, “Still, there’s scope for the president to change his decision as the CEC and commissioners are yet to be sworn in. We don’t want to say anything about the four commissioners. So, we call upon the honourable president to reconsider making a uncontroversial man as the CEC.”


Speaking at a human chain programme, the BNP leader Zainul Abedin Farroque advocated initiating a dialogue by the prime minister on an election-time government so that the next election can be held in a credible manner with the participation of all parties, including the BNP.


Just the day before, Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said that the allegations of partisanship made by his party against the newly appointed Chief Election Commissioner KM Nurul Huda were ‘proven’, by alleging celebrations by AL activists in the CEC’s home district.


Mirza Fakhrul said that the election under this CEC would not be free, fair and participatory.


“He (Nurul Huda) may not be able to play a neutral role during the election, because it is clear to all that he is a partisan person,” said the leader of the party whose non-participation in effect ruined the last election in 2014, though there is an argument that the conditions should have been provided to ensure their presence on the ballot.


On the strength of the political chatter till now, it is clear that the new EC will have a mountain to climb to win the trust of opposition parties.


Fast and furious?


Hours after the search panel submitted their chosen 10 names to him, President Abdul Hamid constituted the new election commission (EC) making former secretary KM Nurul Huda the chief election commissioner. He also appointed four new election commissioners — former additional secretary Mahbub Talukder, ex-secretary Rafiqul Islam, ex-district and sessions judge Begum Kabita Khanam and Brig Gen (retd) Shahadat Hossain Chowdhury.


The speed with which the names of the commissioners were announced meant that there was little scope for discussion in the media. Bangabhaban’s swift move also ignored calls from some civil society groups to make public the shortlist prepared by the search panel in advance of the appointments. The BNP and its allies were quick to vent their fury. The reaction of the ruling Awami League and likeminded parties was naturally different.


Jatiya Party co-chairman GM Quader congratulated the new commission but said that there was no scope of making any negative comments on the commission right now.


‘We will observe their activities, evaluate the perception of general people about them and then come up with our reaction,’ he said.


Socialist Party of Bangladesh general secretary Khalequzzaman said that people already raised question about the appointment of KM Nurul Huda as the chief election commissioner for his alleged attachment to AL.


Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal faction president Hasanul Haq Inu, also the information minister, said that he had confidence in the commission.


Another JSD faction president ASM Abdur Rob said that the neutrality of the new commission would depend on the neutrality of the election-time government.


Workers Party of Bangladesh general secretary Fazle Hossain Badsha said that their party would give formal reaction after observing the activities of the commission.


Ganatantri Party senior leader Nurur Rahman Selim said that the president fulfilled the aspiration of people by reconstituting the commission with people ‘having no bad records.’

Revolutionary Workers Party of Bangladesh said people’s aspiration for a strong and acceptable commission was not fulfilled.


Bangladesh Islami Front secretary general MA Matin termed all the new election commissioners competent and expected that the new commission would play a neutral role.


Dhaka University supernumerary professor Abul Kashem Fazlul Haque said that it would not be possible for the new commission to hold a free and fair election without political will.


‘I hope that the new commission will carry out their duties neutrally but the existing political culture is not helpful,’ he added.


Citizens for Good Governance secretary Badiul Alam Majumdar said that they suggested to the search committee that it should take initiative to make public its recommendations with reasons while the committee made public the names only and after the president appointed them.


On the other hand the Awami League general secretary Obaidul Quader, addressing a function at North South University, said that they had full confidence in the new commission formed by the president consulting registered political parties. He expressed his hope that the BNP would take part in the next general elections under the new commission.

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