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National Election under Political Government Uncertainty looms -By Md. Kamruzzaman (Bablu)

Cover Story

The most crucial issue in present political arena of Bangladesh is whether the upcoming general election will be held in a congenial atmosphere or not as both the ruling party and the main opposition political force are rigid on rival stances. The incumbent Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) government plans to hold the 11th parliamentary election under them while the leaders of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are repeatedly vowing that no fair and credible election can be held under Sheikh Hasina’s regime.
Meanwhile, the Election Commission is holding dialogues with countries most influential bodies with a view to sorting out a solution to take all political parties concerned to participate in the election. Now the booming question is whether a free, fair and participatory election under the ruling BAL can be held or whether people have much confidence to any particular political party to conduct a fair national election.
The long political tradition of Bangladesh since its birth in 1971 as an independent country is to control state’s most significant organs like administration, bureaucracy, judiciary, media, election commission and the like for petty political gains and holding power. Based on previous records and present scenario it is undoubtedly believed that the BAL is more cunning in unfair using of such state organs in prolonging power than any other political parties.
Even the role of the election commission (EC) ahead of the 11th parliamentary election has been criticized and people have little confidence to it for holding a free, fair and participatory national election. The issue came to focus during the dialogue between EC and the members of the civil society on July 31 (2017). Most of the civil society members harshly criticized the reckless comments of the CEC (Chief Election Commissioner) for his comment of not ensuring level playing field without announcing election schedule. What a foul comment! Why do political parties take part in the election without level playing field?
All leading national dailies in both Bangla and English languages focus this point. For example, I have quoted here a few parts of a report published in the national English daily “The New Age” on 1st August (2017) with the headline “Civil society for army deployment, ‘no’ vote provision in RPO.”
“He (Debapriya Bhattacharya, distinguished fellow of the Centre for Policy Dialogue- CPD) said that chief election commissioner KM Nurul Huda drew severe criticism from most of the civil society participants for stating recently that there was no scope for the EC to create level playing field before announcing the election schedule.
Sharply disagreeing on this point, the civil society people categorically advised the EC to proceed for the creation of the level playing field right from now.
Former caretaker government adviser M Hafizuddin Khan said that the EC was advised to amend electoral laws to create equal opportunities for all the parties.
Dhaka University professor Tasneem Arefa Siddiqui said that she suggested for the creation of opportunities for the voters living abroad to cast their votes.
She also said that the participants told the EC in categorical terms that none wanted to see another election lacking legitimacy like the election held on January 5, 2014.
DU professor Asif Nazrul said that he called for the removal of fear of contestants and their polling agents. He said that army deployment in the next election was a common demand.
Dilara Chowdhury, who taught political science at different universities, advised the EC to deploy army to avoid violence in the next election.
Academician Salimullah Khan called for curbing ‘financial terrorism’ in the run up to the elections, on the polling day and after the polls. The best way for the EC to prevent ‘financial terrorism’, he said.”
Meanwhile, the EC has already held dialogue with some other vital bodies of the country including the media personalities. During the dialogue with media journalists provided the EC with contradictory suggestions on army deployment. Some argued in favor of deployment of army sensing the partial role of police and other regular law enforcing agencies while some others opined for not to deploy army. However, a third panel of journalists threw the ball to the court of EC saying that the decision of army deployment would be taken by the EC on the basis of need during elections.
To make the fact more apparent a few parts of a report published in the leading English national daily “The Daily Star” dated 17th August (2017) have been quoted here. The headline of the report was “EC won’t mediate between political parties: CEC”.
“During the talks, Abul Kalam Azad, chief editor of Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha, and Mozammel Haque Babu, chief editor of Ekattor TV, said there was no need to deploy army.
‘The commission has to work neutrally and remain within the constitution…. It has to earn public trust. It is not the duty of the EC to see who is participating [in election] and who is not,’ Babu said.
He suggested brining all 40,000 polling stations under the watch of the TV stations to prevent irregularities during the next national election. ‘We all (TV channels) want to monitor the 40,000 polling stations…. We’ve the capacity.’
Bangladesh correspondent of Voice of America, Amir Khasru, however, said, ‘Army deployment in the general election is important, as we know what the role was of the regular law enforcement agencies in national polls in the past.’
Independent TV Executive Editor Khaled Muhiuddin said the EC’s job was to earn public confidence. ‘The EC will decide if the army is needed.’”
However, the harsh reality of current Bangladesh is that expecting a fair and non-partial role from police and other law enforcing agencies including Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), Detective Branch (DB) and the like is equal to living in the paradise of fool. It is known to all that the regular law enforcing agencies are now playing role as a muscleman of the government. So what’s the problem if the army remains in the field for the sake of holding a free, fair and credible election?
Moreover, the partial role of some journalists in favor of the government is also known very well to the countrymen and is it possible to tackle irregularities in 40,000 polling stations by media or is it their duties? What will be the role of law enforcing agencies then? I think Babu’s comments are more political than journalistic.
I just want to quote a speech of Professor Asif Nazrul of Dhaka University. He said this while participating in the dialogue with the EC on July 31 (2017). The English version of the leading Bangla national daily “The Prothom Alo” quoted him in a report published in the online version on the same day with the headline “Bring all parties to next elections, civil society members ask EC”. Nazrul said, “Why can’t the army be deployed during the election when they can be used to build filling stations or roads? We have to ensure a congenial environment so that nobody feels scared to come to the polling station. The candidates and the polling agents have to feel safe.”
Besides, the role of police was very partial in the immediate past general election held on January 5, 2014. Even, an advisor of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina admitted it in a program of the ruling party’s student front Bangladesh Chattra League (BCL) on 12th November 2014 at Teachers Students Centre (TSC) of Dhaka University. Almost all Bangla and English national dailies published report quoting HT Imam and there were huge number of follow up reports based on the reaction of such foul speeches of Imam in those newspapers.
The headline of a report in the English version of the influential Bangla national daily “The Prothom-Alo” on 18th November 2014 was “Controversy over HT Imam’s press conference”. A few parts of the report are as follows:
“At a meeting of Chhatra League on Wednesday (12th November 2014), HT Imam had said that they had held the 5 January election with the help of the police, the administration, all those that they had recruited in every upazila and the mobile courts that they had formed.
Imam’s words provoked strong criticism and annoyed the prime minister and other leaders of the ruling party. On Sunday he tried to meet the prime minister at Gonobhaban to discuss the matter with her, but failed. He told Prothom Alo, although he did not get the opportunity to meet the prime minister, he had contacted her. He did not say how he had contacted her.”
The headline of a report published in “The Daily Star”, country’s most powerful English national daily, on 13th November 2014 was “Cheers for BCL: PM’s adviser pledges to help them out with BCS viva test”. A few parts of the report are as follows:
“Imam, also member of the Awami League advisory council, pointed out the advantage of having party men in the administration, and how the AL benefited from them.
Days before the January 5 polls, many pro-AL officials were inducted into mobile courts that helped the government resist the BNP-Jamaat’s bid to thwart the election.
‘They [pro-AL officials] stood beside us. Nineteen of our policemen were killed brutally by Jamaat-Shibir men,’ he said, referring to the pre-election violence across the country.
In his reaction to Imam’s statement, Transparency International Bangladesh Executive Director Dr Iftekharuzzaman said, ‘We are already concerned about politicisation of the administration. Such statements would further aggravate the situation.’”
Now I just want to draw the attention to the one-sided and most controversial immediate past general election under Sheikh Hasina. The headline of world’s one of the leading newspapers “The Guardian” was “Bangladesh election violence throws country deeper into turmoil”. The report was started with the following statement:
“Bangladesh’s ruling party has won one of the most violent elections in the country’s history, marred by street fighting, low turnout and a boycott by the opposition that made the results a foregone conclusion.”
The headline of world’s another powerful newspaper “The Economist” was “A big year for elections worldwide”. About Bangladesh’s 5 January 2014 national election the report said, “The first election of 2014 has gone badly, with bloodshed and boycotts marring Bangladesh’s on January 5th.”
Actually, the history of general elections under political party in Bangladesh is not good at all. Even, the first national election under Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, BAL honored him as the father of the nation and founder of independent Bangladesh, in 1973 was also not fair at all.  Noted historian Willem Van Schendel has written in his famous book “A History of Bangladesh” about the irregularities in the first general election.
He has writer, “In March 1973 Bangladesh held its first general elections. Mujib still retained much of his enormous personal popularity, but ‘a store of resentment had built up among the electorate against the Awami League and it was bound to be reflected in the elections.’ The Islamic right-wing parties were banned, so all opposition parties stood to the left of the Awami League. Among these were the JSD (Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal; National Socialist Party), a recent offshoot of the Awami League; the ‘Islamic socialist’ National Awami Party (NAP) of Maulana Bhashani; and a number of pro-USSR and pro-China communist groups. The elections were marred by Awami League attempts to secure a total victory by means of kidnapping, coercion, vote rigging and the stealing of ballot boxes. When the Awami League announced that it had garnered 97 percent of the seats in parliament, it ensured that the delta’s tradition of election irregularities was extended into the Bangladesh era.”
(Willem Van Schendel, A History of Bangladesh, Cambridge University Press, UK, 2009, page – 180)
In fact, the records of all other elections under late president Ziaur Rahman and Hussain Muhammad Ershad were also vitiated with gross irregularities and partialities. For the sake of shortness of this write up I have not gone through the details of those elections.
It is historically true that the most credible three national elections of Bangladesh were held in 1991, 1996 and 2001. All those three elections were held under non-political caretaker government.
Finally, I like to come to a finishing of this write up with the view that all dialogue and roadmap of the election commission centering the upcoming 11th parliamentary elections, mandatory to be held between October 30, 2018 and January 28, 2019, must be failed if the elections are conducted under any political party. So a non-political government like caretaker government or something like that is a must for ensuring a free, fair, credible and participatory election. On the other hand, deployment of army is also vital as people have little faith to the regular law enforcing agencies including the police. n
Writer: journalist

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