EC Dialogue Is a Fair Election Possible? Salman Riaz


Ahead of the 12th National Parliamentary election, the Election Commission called for a dialogue with the registered political parties in Bangladesh. A total of 28 political parties out of the 39 parties participated in this dialogue. Nine parties including BNP did not participate. The 28 political parties participating in the dialogue presented more than three hundred proposals. The Poll-time Government system and EVM were hot topics that were discussed repeatedly in written and oral speeches. There were various important proposals including giving administrative powers to the EC like holding polls on multiple days, installing CCTV cameras in polling stations, deploying the army, etc.

Most of the political parties want some kind of change in the government during the election. In dialogue with the Election Commission (EC), 10 parties have offered to form a neutral or all-party government during the elections. And 12 parties have said to limit the power of the government and increase the power of the EC during the election. And 9 parties, including the BNP, which boycotted the dialogue, are also concerned about the election-time government. However, the Awami League has said that the election-time caretaker government is a ‘past and closed chapter’. Elections will be held under the EC while the current government is in power.

Along with the electoral system, the use of the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) gained importance in the discussion. Most of the political parties have opposed the use of EVMs in the election. However, the ruling Awami League has asked for EVM votes in all 300 seats. Apart from this, some other important proposals include dissolution of the Parliament after the announcement of the schedule of the National election, installation of CCTVs in the polling stations, deployment of the army during elections, giving judicial powers to the armed forces, stopping political cases and harassment, not making Deputy Commissioners as returning officers, stopping the use of religion in the election, taking effective measures to stop the use of black money and muscle power and so on.

In that situation, CEC Kazi Habibul Awal said that the Election Commission has no jurisdiction to implement these proposals like non-partisan political parties during the poll-time, and abolition of EVMs. The issue needs to be resolved constitutionally and politically.

Now the question is; the election under the existing government will be fair and acceptable? If these proposals are not taken into consideration, if one-sided elections are held, then the crisis in the country will increase. And in the light of past experience, it can be said that fair elections are not possible under the party government under the existing situation.

Electoral dialogue called by EC

The Election Commission (EC) started a formal dialogue with all the registered political parties of the country on Sunday, 17 July ahead of the 12th National parliament election. According to the Commission’s claim, the main objective of this dialogue was to consult the political parties with a view to holding fair and acceptable national elections. The EC had no specific agenda for this dialogue. The dialogue was open to the expression of independent opinions. The dialogue ended on July 31. 28 parties out of 39 registered parties participated in it. The parties are; Bangladesh Congress, Bangladesh Nationalist Front (BNF), Nationalist Democratic Movement (NDM), Revolutionary Workers Party of Bangladesh, Khilafat Majlis, Bangladesh Islamic Front, Bangladesh Sangskritik Mukti Jote, Bangladesh Samyabadi Dal (ML), Bangladesh Khilafat Majlis, Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ), Ganatantri Party, Gano Front, Bangladesh Jatiya Party, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSAD), Islamic Front Bangladesh, Khilafat Andolan, Workers Party, Muslim League, Bikalpa Dhara, National People’s Party (NPP), Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam, Krishak Sramik Janata League, Zaker Party, Tarikat Federation, Bangladesh NAP, Gano Forum, Jatiya Party and Awami League.

Nine parties boycotted the dialogue. These are; Bangladesh Nationalist Party-BNP, Bangladesh Muslim League-BML, Bangladesh Kallyan Party, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal-JSD, Bangladesh Samajtantrik Dal-BASD, Liberal Democratic Party-LDP, Islami Andolan Bangladesh, Bangladesh Jatiya Party-BJP and Communist Party of Bangladesh. The Jatiya Party (JP) and the National Awami Party (NAP), a partner of the 14-party alliance, have asked for time to sit for dialogue later.

321 proposals raised from 28 parties

A total of 321 proposals came from 28 parties to organize fair elections. Among them, the four more discussed topics are; abolishing Electronic Voting Machine (EVM), a non-partisan government system, giving administrative powers to EC, and deployment of the army in the election. Several demands are increasing the parliamentary seats, abolishing reserved seats, and prohibiting the use of religion in politics also came strongly into the dialogue. Apart from this, there is a crisis of confidence in the Election Commission that has been raised by some parties.

Sixteen proposals were raised from Bangladesh Congress, one from Bangladesh Nationalist Front (BNF), 13 from Nationalist Democratic Movement (NDM), 20 from Revolutionary Workers Party, 4 from Khilafat Majlis, 9 from Bangladesh Islamic Front, one from Bangladesh Sangskritik Mukti Jote, 9 from Bangladesh Samyabadi Dal (ML), 15 from Bangladesh Khilafat Majlis, 11 from Islami Oikya Jote (IOJ), 5 from Ganatantri Party, 22 from Gano Front, 13 from Bangladesh Jatiya Party, 12 from Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSAD), 9 from Islamic Front Bangladesh, 40 from Khilafat Andolan, 12 from Workers Party, 19 from Muslim League, 7 from Bikalpa Dhara, 16 from National People’s Party (NPP), 11 from Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam, one from Krishak Sramik Janata League, 4 from Zaker Party, 11 from Tarikat Federation, 11 from Bangladesh NAP, 10 from Gano Forum, 5 from Jatiya Party and 15 from Awami League.

Hotly discussed topics in the dialogue

Non-partisan Government:
A total of 19 parties do not want elections under the ruling government. Among them, 10 parties of the ruling coalition want a non-partisan government during the election. Nine parties, including BNP, are adamant in demanding elections under an independent government during the election period.

Besides, the members of the Awami-led 14-party coalition also want to see the election under a neutral government during the election period. Four parties including Awami League (Islami Oikyazot, Bangladesh Samyabadi Dal, and Bangladesh Workers Party) have said to hold elections under the existing government. However, except for the Awami League, all the other three parties have proposed to restrict the government to day-to-day activities. The proposals of those three parties are; the government will not be able to carry out day-to-day activities and development activities so that it cannot influence the election. Ministers and Members of Parliament will not receive the protocol.

The remaining 10 political parties of the ruling coalition have proposed against holding the election keeping the current government. Khilafat Majlis, Revolutionary Workers Party of Bangladesh, Bangladesh Khilafat Andolan, Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam, Krishak Sramik Janata League, and Gano Forum have demanded the introduction of a neutral or caretaker government during the elections. For this, they requested to EC to recommend the amendment of the constitution to the government. Besides, four (Bangladesh Sangaskritik Mukti Jote, Gano Front, Bangladesh Muslim League and Bangladesh Jatiya Party) parties have proposed to form an interim government with the registered parties or represented in Parliament.

Outline of the interim government:
The 10 parties have outlined proposals and outlines the formation of a new government at the time of the elections. Some of them have asked for a non-party government, while others have proposed the formation of an all-party government. Krishak Sramik Janata League, Ganoforum, Khilafat Majlis, Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam, Bangladesh Khilafat Andalan, Revolutionary Workers Party, Bangladesh Muslim League, Gano Front, Sangskritik Mukti Jote and Bangladesh Jatiya Party proposed to form the new government during the election.

Bangladesh Muslim League has proposed that the poll-time government should be formed with the representatives of the registered parties. Sangskritik Mukti Jote proposed to form a National Council with all the registered parties in the EC. This council will be in charge of the government during the election. Gano Front said, a political government should be formed. Apart from the disputed elections since independence (1986, 1988, 15 February 1996, 2014 and 2018 elections), forming a government with the parties represented in the National Parliament. But those who will be in this government, none of them can be a candidate in the election. The Bangladesh Jatiya Party has proposed to form an all-party government for the duration of the election, comprising all registered parties.

However, the EC does not have the authority to implement the proposals given by various parties regarding the outline of the government during the election. To accept these proposals, the constitution must be amended. As a result, these proposals will not be implemented if the Awami League does not want, them because they have an absolute majority in the National Parliament. According to the constitution, the National Parliament will be elected under the ruling government. The incumbent Prime Minister will hold office until the newly-elected Prime Minister takes over.

Most of the parties against EVMs:
Ahead of the upcoming national elections, another debate is going on about the use of EVMs. 22 parties have presented their stand on EVM in the dialogue. Among them, 14 parties, including the main opposition party Jatiya Party have directly voted against EVMs. Apart from this, four parties (Workers Party, NDM, NPP and Bangladesh Congress) have talked about using EVMs conditionally. Four parties, including the Awami League, have directly advocated EVMs. Among them, Awami League, Ganatantri Party, Bikalpa Dhara have asked for EVMs in all the constituencies. Tariqat Federation has asked for EVMs in at least 150 seats.

Jatiya Party, Bangladesh Islamic Front, Bangladesh Revolutionary Workers Party, Khilafat Majlis, Bangladesh Khilafat Majlis, Gano Front, Bangladesh Jatiya Party, Bangladesh Khilafat Andalan, Bangladesh Muslim League, Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam, Zaker Party, Gano Forum and Bangladesh National Awami Party voted against EVM. Bangladesh Congress and NDM say that paper audit trail should be attached to EVMs. And Workers party and NPP gave their opinion in favor of using EVMs after eliminating the errors.

Administrative power under EC:
Including Awami League, 16 political parties, have proposed to hand over some ministries including Home, Public Administration, and Defense to the EC during the election. On the first day of the dialogue, the NDM recommended that public administration be taken under the control of the EC during the elections and reshuffle of the Deputy Commissioner and Police administration in view of the demands of the political parties. Bangladesh Congress proposed to supervise the Ministries of Home, Public Administration and Defense under the EC during the elections. Workers Party of Bangladesh proposed to vest the Ministry of Home Affairs, Public Administration and Local Government under the Election Commission. At the time of election, Bangladesh Islamic Front proposed to run the Ministry of Local Government, Public Administration, Home, Defense and Finance Ministries and Bangladesh Workers Party proposed to vest the Ministry of Home Affairs, Public Administration, Finance, Information and Local Government under the direct control of EC.

Appointment of EC’s own officers as Returning Officers:
In the dialogue, 10 political parties have proposed not to appoint Returning and Assistant Returning Officers from Administrative Officers. Among them, eight political parties have asked to appoint returning officers from the Election Commission’s workforce. The parties are – Jatiya Party, Bangladesh Congress, Bangladesh Islamic Front, Revolutionary Workers Party of Bangladesh, Gano Front, Bangladesh Khilafat Andolan, Islamic Front Bangladesh and National People’s Party (NPP). Apart from this, Nationalist Democratic Movement-NDM and Bangladesh Muslim League have proposed to appoint returning officers from District Judges.

Voting on multiple days and Army deployment:
Five parties have proposed polling over multiple days. The parties are Jatiya Party, NDM, Bangladesh National Party and Islamic Front Bangladesh. From the announcement of the election schedule till the announcement of the results, 7 parties have voted in favor of army deployment and given magisterial powers to the army. The parties are; Bangladesh Khilafat Majlis, Bangladesh Jatiya Party, Jasad, Khilafat Andolan, Bikalpa Dhara, Tariqat Federation and Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam.

Is a fair election possible?

A total of 19 registered political parties (10 participating in dialogue + 9 boycotting) are calling for the formation of a neutral or all-party government at the time of the election. But the Awami League is still adamant on the question of holding elections according to the constitution. Awami League said that the Caretaker government is abolished by the constitution, so this system will not be applied never and ever. But it is to be said that most of the parties proposed to form a neutral government in different names like all-party government, national council, non-partisan government, etc.

Awami League and others are at odds with each other on the issue of voting in EVMs. That EVMs have not gained universal acceptance is evident in the opposition of political parties and the speeches of prominent figures. BNP Standing Committee member Dr. Khandkar Mosharraf Hossain said, ‘it is a machine for stealing votes.’ SUJAN Editor Badiul Alam Majumdar highlighted the slowness and low vote count in EVMs and said, ‘EVM is an inferior machine, it is established. Because there is no chance of recalculation. The information that the EC will give about the vote should be accepted.’ The Trustee of the Gonoshasthya Kendra Zafrullah Chowdhury said ‘it is a cheating machine.’ Awami League is adamant to vote in EVMs in all 300 seats.

Now the question is, if the elections are held without an all-party government or abolishing EVMs, how fair and acceptable will it be? The government has to be flexible if it wants to make the election acceptable. The proposals of political parties should be reviewed and the special proposals accepted. Otherwise, the country will face grave danger. I think that the following proposals should implement to organize fair and acceptable elections;

n In the interests of the participatory election, the government must step down before the election. In that context, the government can be formed with representatives of all parties.

n The Election Commissioner should be empowered to conduct fair elections without the direction or influence of higher authorities.

n Voting in EVMs should be abolished. Apart from this, half of the votes can be cast on the ballot and the other half in the EVM without canceling the entire system.

n From the announcement of the election manifesto till the announcement of the results, the army should be given magisterial powers.

n Polling may be held over multiple days to ensure the deployment of army personnel at all centers.

n Many times the returning officers themselves rigged the votes. Appointing returning officers from among current and former members of the armed forces will reduce the rate of vote rigging. n