Former senior secretary of the defence ministry, Kazi Habibul Awal, was this week appointed as the new chief election commissioner (CEC), at the end of weeks of speculation and a process that at times captured the entire nation's attention.

The four other commissioners are retired district and sessions judge Begum Rashida Sultana, retired Brig Gen Ahsan Habib, former senior secretary Md Alamgir and Anisur Rahman. President M Abdul Hamid appointed them for the next five years, said a gazette notification of the cabinet division on Saturday, February 26.

The search committee constituted to form the next EC handed over the names of 10 persons to president Abdul Hamid on the previous Thursday. The president is vested with the responsibility of forming the EC, but the constitution, however, states that the president would work as per consultation with the prime minister in everything except appointing the prime minister and the chief justice.

The EC has been formed under a law for the first time. The parliament passed 'CEC and EC Appointment Bill 2022' on 27 January. A six-member search committee for recommending names to the president was formed on 5 February as the tenure of the election commission led by Nurul Huda expired on 14 February.

The search committee, headed by Appellate Division judge, Justice Obaidul Hassan, held seven meetings among themselves and organised four more meetings with civil society members.

The committee urged the political parties and individuals to recommend names for the EC. On 14 February, the cabinet division published a list of 322 individuals proposed by different political parties, organisations and individuals.

Some more names were proposed by the civil society members. Some opposition political parties including BNP, CPB, BASAD, Biplobi Workers Party, LDP, Bangladesh Kalyan Party, Bangladesh Muslim League and some others parties did not suggest any names.

In his words

"EC does not have infinite power. A consensus among the political parties is required for a fair election. I, as a CEC, would not act as mediator if there is no minimum consensus among the political leaderships," the newly appointed CEC said on his first day at work.

Kazi Habibul Awal attended the office at Nirbachan Bhaban (election building) in the city's Agargaon office on Monday morning.

After exchanging greetings with the EC officials, the new CEC, along with four other commissioners - Ahsan Habib Khan, Rasheda Sultana, Md Alamgir and Anisur Rahman -- addressed a media briefing in the afternoon.

Kazi Habibul Awal told the media that the commission has a responsibility of creating conducive environment for the elections. But the political parties also have responsibilities for organising a fair election.

While answering various queries of the newsmen, the new CEC stressed on the role of political parties and building a consensus among them. But Kazi Habibul Awal, the former bureaucrat, did not talk much about whether the EC would take any additional initiative and would play a strong role to create a level playing field for all in the elections.

The new CEC, however, said they have not yet taken any decision on what would be the work procedure of the new commission. But they would try to carry out their duties employing their capacity, efficiency and power bestowed upon them by the laws. There will be no lack of attempt from their part to make everyone compete in the elections, he added.

He further told the newspersons to observe the new election commission and take it into your confidence.

Pressed on whether the EC would have any special initiative to earn trust (of all the political parties), the CEC said, "I can't act as mediator if the political leadership do not have minimum consensus. They are far more experienced and wiser than us. I would request them, please have some kind of compromise among you, and pledge that you would take part in the elections in fair way. Don't create any violence there, don't obstruct anyone (from taking part in the elections)."

He said differences would increase if you stay away from the other. There has to be dialogues. Someone has to opt for dialogues shunning their ego. The power of the election commission is not infinite. This is always relative.

Kazi Habibul Awal further said, "The election commission alone cannot create the level playing field. Our agencies concerned will also try for that. What we call political leadership of the country, this does not mean Awami League only. There's a political leadership jointly of the BNP, Awami League or Jatiya Party. That leadership has to try to make a compromise."

Calling on the political parties to perform their duties for a meaningful parliamentary election, the CEC said, "Acknowledge, if you have any failure. Restore the democratic system so that everyone competes in the elections."

Regarding the allegation of stuffing ballots on the night before the day of parliamentary elections in 2018, the CEC said, let's see what happens next time. Voting will be held according to the voting rules. He said he had seen from Australia that voting took place in the day.

Mentioning that he does not want to take part in the discussion of day-night voting issue, the CEC said, "Wouldn't we try to restore people's faith if that is damaged? You observe us, we would not hinder you there. The political parties can have an agreement that they would not carry out any violence or clash at the voting centres."

Kazi Habibul Awal also called upon all the political parties and their supporters and workers to take a strong position at the field. "It would not do if you leave the election field. Stay at the field even if you face difficulties. The Ukraine president could have fled, but he didn't do that."

"I will fight against Russia," the CEC quoted the Ukraine president as saying. "He has been waging the fight."

The CEC said election is also a war, there will be competitions. Where there is a competition, there will be scuffles. The EC will try to control those through law enforcement agencies. One should not leave watching the power of another. They have to stay in the field. The leaders and officials have to stay at the centres.

When his attention was drawn to the de facto opposition BNP's statements that they do not have any interests in the EC and the party would not compete in the elections without any polls-time neutral government, the CEC said, "Wouldn't we invite BNP for a cup of tea with us even if they announced this? Nothing is final."

The CEC said the government does not hold the election. A government remains during the time of election. There will have one or another government. Now, they will try to follow the current constitutional system, so that the people could cast their votes.

Kazi Habibul Awal said they would try so that the people could cast their votes. This is a big challenge, he added.

Regarding the opposition parties' allegation that the people appointed in the election commission are beneficiaries of the government steps and would not be able to stay neutral, the CEC said, "Do you think, I myself will go to cast votes at night? Or, I will say stuff (ballots) fast. I was a government employee. Those who were here in the past, who among them was not a government employee? Some say election held under Shamsul Huda's (former CEC ATM Shamsul Huda) was better while some say the better one was held under Sahabuddin (former chief justice Sahabuddin Ahmed who was the head of caretaker government formed before the elections in 1991). These are relative."

Regarding the electronic voting machine (EVM), Kazi Habibul Awal said he does not understand the EVM issue well. They will decide after discussing the matter.

The other commissioners did not speak to media on that day.

In a later interaction with the media, Kazi Habibul Awal said the pledge to protect voting rights is not merely an utterance, but something to be nurtured in the heart.

"Success is unlikely to come but we will have to try in implementing the promise," the CEC came up with this mark on Wednesday in an event at election commission office in Agargaon of Dhaka to mark the national voters day.

He said, "The commission has already made a promise. When a promise is made, then it should be kept in heart and fulfilled. If not, we will be the liars. We have to try our best, we may not succeed. But we will have to play a vital role in ensuring the franchise of people."

Kazi Habibul Awal said the voters might face obstacles while casting their votes. The EC has pledged that it will stand by the people to help exercise their franchise independently.

This promise has been made for all the time. It should be nurtured in the heart. The voters will have to carry the spirit that voting rights is not only a right but it also has a vital responsibility, he added.

The former senior secretary said to the EC officials, "The journalists will keep writing the perception of the people. We cannot bar them from doing that. We will have to show that we are at least trying to perform our duties properly. If we get involved with any irregularities, then it will be a corruption, which is unpardonable."

The Résumé

Kazi Habibul Awal joined the Ministry of Defence as Secretary on 3 March 2014. Then he was appointed as Senior Secretary in the same Ministry on 1 December 2014. He retired on 20 January 2015. He was then reappointed as Senior Secretary in Ministry of Defence on 21 January 2015.

He was responsible, as Chief Executive Officer, for the overall administration and management of the Ministry as well as departments and organisations under the Ministry. The defence services were the principal organisations he was involved with. Apart from those, there are many other allied inter-services and civilian organisations under the administrative control of the Ministry of Defence.

The new CEC was born on 21 January 1956. He received LL.B (Hons.) in 1976 and LL.M in 1978 from Dhaka University. He obtained Certificate of Enrolment as an Advocate from Bangladesh Bar Council in 1980 and became member of Dhaka District Bar Association.

He appeared in the Bangladesh Civil Service (Judicial) Competitive Examination of 1981 conducted by the Public Service Commission and qualified for appointment in the judicial Service. He joined as Munsif (Assistant Judge) in 1981. He was regularly promoted to the next higher positions of the service and was finally promoted to the post of District and Sessions Judge in 1997.

He also worked as Secretary, Bangladesh Law Commission, Chairman, Labour Court and Project Director of Bangladesh Legal and Judicial Capacity Building Project. Kazi Habibul Awal also worked on deputation in the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs as Assistant Secretary and Deputy Secretary. He was appointed as Joint Secretary in the Legislative Drafting Wing of the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs in December 2000.

He was appointed Additional Secretary in the Ministry of Law in 2004. Thereafter he was appointed as Secretary, Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs on 28 June 2007, and served in that position upto 17 December 2009. In 2009, the Supreme Court found his appointment as an acting secretary to the law ministry illegal. The appointment was challenged in a writ petition filed by a district judge. He was appointed as Secretary in the Ministry of Religious Affairs on 24 April 2010, and served in that position before joining the Ministry of Defence.

During his 34 year-long service career, Kazi Habibul Awal attended many international training courses on Legal and Legislative Drafting and various international workshops, seminars and conferences in a number of countries.

He was often invited by different organisations to attend and speak as a resource person. Such organisations include National Defence College, Bangladesh Public Administration Training Center, Foreign Service Training Academy, Judicial Service Training Institute, etc.

The opposition's view holds

As expected, the new CEC's appointment, despite everything, was viewed with scepticism by the main opposition. They said there is no guarantee that his words will be translated into actions.

"The previous Commission also delivered sweet talks initially like the current one. Then KM Nurul Huda shamelessly implemented every program and agenda of the government and snatched people's votes at night," said BNP Senior Joint Secretary General Ruhul Kabir Rizvi.

"So, there's no guarantee of the new CEC's words. His activities in the past suggest that he was rewarded by this government," the BNP leader observed.

He also said people do not believe the current CEC who got so many rewards from the government will be able to hold a free and fair election as the prime minister is there 'on his head'.

As his attention was drawn to the new CEC's eagerness to invite BNP to a tea party, Rizvi said their party joined the tea party of previous CEC KM Nurul Huda where he promised to not use electronic voting machines (EVMs) in the polls.

"But he used EVMs in the elections at the behest of the prime minister and held the day's voting at night," he alleged.

The BNP leader also alleged that the government constituted the new EC with people who hold the spirit of the Awami League.

You can already tell that the new man certainly has a tough task cut out for him.

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