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Conducting Credible Election EC’s Challenge to Restore Public Faith By – Md. Hasanuzzaman

Cover Story

The 12th Election Commission led by KM Nurul Huda has taken the office on February 15. This Commission has been formed by President Abdul Hamid from a list of 10 people proposed by the Search Committee appointed by Hamid after talks with 31 political parties. The Search Committee consulted with leading civil society leaders to prepare a set of criteria for the post of CEC and ECs, collected names from 31 registered political parties, scrutinised the background of 20 shortlisted persons and finally proposed 10 names to the president. Bangladesh now has its first female election commissioner- Kabita Khanom, a historical moment in the Election Commission’s 45 years.
The Commission will conduct 11th general election slated for early 2019. Both AL and JP welcomed the new Commission while BNP said that the ‘desire of the Prime Minister and AL President has been reflected’ in the formation of the new EC while further alleging that ‘free, fair and neutral polls under current EC is not possible’. BNP, country’s leading opposition party, which has alternated power with its arch rival the AL party since 1991, boycotted the election on January 5, 2014 as its demand for polls under a non-party caretaker administration remained unfulfilled.
The next Election Commission has now been constituted after two months of consultations that President Abdul Hamid initiated with the political parties. A search panel, constituted by the president, went through recommendations made by political parties, before it gave President Hamid options to choose the chief election commissioner and four commissioners. Criticising the success of the search committee, economist Akbar Ali Khan opined, “Such a committee has never been successful in picking competent, non-partisan and right persons for the constitutional positions”. On the other hand, educationist Syed Manzurul Islam, one of the members of the search committee, expressed his surprise stating “there were three civil society representatives on the list of 10, I had hoped that at least one would find place in the election commission”. Such kinds of debates will continue until the new Commission is able to come up with free, fair and credible elections.

Failure of Outgoing EC
After five years of hostile local and national elections, discussion and criticism, the Election Commission led by Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmed has completed its term. Kazi Rakib, who took over charge on Feb 9, 2012, said he wished to prove his impartiality through his actions.
The BNP and its allies, along with other political parties, have been bitterly critical of the outgoing Election Commission. They often described it as an ‘instrument of the ruling party.’
Most of the elections held from 2014-16 under the previous led commission were not widely accepted. Non-governmental poll watchdog Election Working Group (EWG) director Abdul Alim said the outgoing EC headed by Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad organised many elections during its tenure, but only the four city polls in 2013 and the 2016 Narayanganj city polls were considered to be fair. “That undermined the people’s faith in the electoral process. So the new EC will have to try for a real image makeover by involving political parties, civil society groups, citizen groups, media and election observers from home and abroad in the process,” said Abdul Alim. “At the heart of it lies the EC’s capacity to organise violence-free and fair polls.”
Quest for Free and Fair Election
Elections are the only instrument of democratic and peaceful transfer of power with the consent and choice of the majority. Therefore, the rights to vote and participate in elections are part of the basic human rights. Human rights and democratic principles are valued world over as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. This includes the “freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, the right to take part in the government of one’s country through freely elected representatives, the right of equal access to public service in one’s country, and the  recognition that the authority of government derives from the will of the people, expressed in genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot” (International IDEA on Electoral Integrity).
On October 23, the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in an impromptu reaction in her concluding remarks at the AL Council Meeting said, “We don’t want to hold any questionable election”. She also reiterated the promise “to ensure free and fair elections in a healthy environment” at the beginning of the joint meeting of the Awami League Executive Assembly and the Advisory Council held on January 30, 2017. Civil society leaders and the international community are also optimistic about the new Commission.
The newly appointed CEC warned all political parties that it would reject any attempts to influence the election body. Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) KM Nurul Huda said: “We will not give in to any demands that will be made to influence the commission. We will strictly maintain our activities by the constitution.” Nurul Huda said the execution of a free and fair national election would be the key challenge of the newly formed Election Commission. “We have only one challenge, which is arranging a free and fair election. However, we have not formulated any plans yet on how it should be held. We will chalk out a plan soon through discussion among the election commissioners.” When asked about government influence, he said: “I will strictly deal with those government officials, if any, who will try to exercise influence over the commission. As the new commission was formed constitutionally, the government has no chance to exert its power over the election body.”

Challenges for Conducting Credible Election
The newly constituted Election Commission faces a daunting challenge to restore public faith in the poll process. A recent survey conducted by a national organisation in Bangladesh found that only 8.6 percent residents of Dhaka city had trust in the EC; it is 12.4 percent in other urban areas and 12.1 percent in rural areas. However, we realise that building public trust in the election process is of utmost importance to election management bodies around the world. The EC can gain a high degree of confidence through its planning and operation, openness and transparency. It should start stakeholder consultations immediately with political parties, CSOs, media, international community and other professional bodies.
The challenge is getting all parties to contest the next national election due in January 2019. The new EC has to make voters and parties believe it is impartial, out to protect the country’s fledgling democracy rather than the interests of the ruling party. It has to control violence during elections and create an atmosphere for free and fair polls by bringing back Electronic Voting Machines, effective distribution of smart ID cards through a decentralised network of service centres.
Chairman of the National Election Observatory Prof Nazmul Ahsan Kalimullah said, “The big challenge for the new EC shall be the Eleventh National Parliamentary Elections. The EC must prioritise gaining the trust of all and ensuring there is no loss of life.” In his opinion, the EC must highlight the need for reforms to the electoral system and its technical aspects to voters and all others affected.  “The new commission will face criticism and opposition, that is nothing to be surprised about,” he said. “But the EC will have to do its work. They must gain the trust of the current government and the opposition parties and deal with them openly and fairly. Otherwise they will fail to meet the expectations of the people.” Though Nazmul Ahsan Kalimullah had been among the list of eight nominees for the commission, put forward by the search panel, he was not selected.
International IDEA identifies five major challenges which need to be overcome to achieve electoral integrity to meet the attributes of effective electoral governance. These are:
1)    Building the rule of law to substantiate claims to human rights and electoral justice;
2)    Building professional, competent electoral management bodies (EMBs) with full independence of action to administer elections that are transparent and merit public confidence;
3)    Creating institutions and norms of multiparty competition and division of power that bolster democracy as a mutual security system among political contenders;
4)    Removing barriers – legal, administrative, political, economic, and social – to universal and equal political participation; and
5)    Regulating uncontrolled, undisclosed, and opaque political finance.
According to TIB, the EC continues to be confronted with a number of external and internal challenges which it needs to overcome in order to ensure free and fair elections:

Ensuring level playing field for all: A number of factors might impede the EC’s work in ensuring a level playing field for all parties in the upcoming general election. For instance, the EC would have to resolve the dilemma regarding the election date in view of the constitutional amendments. The EC would face difficulties in controlling the potential influence of the ministers and MPs if the election is held without first dissolving the parliament. In addition, the maintenance of law and order, control of black money and ‘muscle power’, and ensuring strict compliance with the Code of Conduct are deemed as serious challenges to ensuring level playing field for all.

Gaining trust of major political parties:  Some activities and initiatives of the EC have eroded the trust of political parties. No controversial initiatives should be taken which may disempower the EC; rather, to make it strong and effective, positive initiatives should be taken with the involvement of different stakeholders. The debate over the deployment of armed forces and the use of EVM in elections has had an adverse impact on the trust of the main opposition party.

Legal reforms: The EC operates within the legal framework prescribed in the Constitution and/or Acts of Parliament. The absence of enabling laws ensuring its independence and neutrality pose a major challenge for the EC in conducting free and fair elections. Legal reforms are imperative in the context of EC’s control over some of the relevant ministries and departments during election, determination of the start of electoral campaigns, and the scrutiny of campaign expenditures. The EC should create space for all political parties to engage and contribute to its reform intiatives and salient activities with respect to conducting an election.

Implementation of electoral laws: Another important challenge of the EC lies in ensuring that strong steps are taken against any violation of the Electoral Code of Conduct and preventing campaign expenditure beyond the prescribed limit. The EC must ensure that the application of electoral laws and rules is free from partisan influence.

Continuing institutional development: It is important for the EC to carry on the institutional development process in terms of transparency in recruitment, transfer and promotion, financial management, and performance of regular activities such as voter list updating and delimitation of constituencies. Finally, the most important challenge of the EC is to gain the trust of the common people.

Using Commission’s own manpower in conducting election: The, EC’s own manpower should be used to conduct Parliamentary elections. Officers of the EC should be appointed as Returning Officers. Measures should be taken, if necessary, to increase the number and skill of its manpower for this purpose.

Making elections more technology-based: The use of technology, for example, EVMs, close circuit cameras, etc. in conducting elections should be increased.

Information disclosure: In addition to the information already disclosed, the EC should disclose information on the annual financial reports of political parties, voter roll for each of the of delimited constituencies, information about cases of election disputes, proceedings of dialogues organized by the Commission, information of local government elections, monitoring and evaluation report of projects implemented by the Commission, and detailed budget and all financial documents.

Role of the media: The media can play an important role in disseminating electoral information for increased transparency in the electoral process. It should publish in-depth investigative reports relating to personal and financial information of candidates, violation of the election code of conduct, electoral expenditure, etc.

Concluding Remarks
To institutionalize democracy, the Election Commission has a significant role in conducting an election which is free, fair and participated in by all. The constitutional role of the EC is to prepare an electoral roll, conduct Presidential, parliamentary and other elections, and delimit constituencies for parliamentary elections (The Constitution of Bangladesh, Artile 119). It performs a few other responsibilities that complement its above-mentioned work.  It is possible to conduct a credible election if the new Commission will receive extended support from the government, political parties, candidates, CSOs, media and other stakeholders. The nation is waiting to see a free and fair election.

Writer: Journalist and geopolitical analyst.