EC still away from its commitment to hold fair polls

Photo shows the Election Commission officeCourtesy

The election commission officially unveiled the roadmap intended to hold a fair election in September 2022 identifying 14 challenges and outlining action plans to deal with those.

Prevention of harassments by government agencies, and controlling money and muscle power are among those challenges.

At the time of unveiling the work plan, the election commission was asked whether the commission assures political parties that the later would face no harassment lawsuits.

In reply, the commission said they want to create such an atmosphere and if everyone cooperates, no harassment cases will be filed in that circumstance.

But, in reality, the election commission could not create such an atmosphere yet in the country even after the announcement of the schedule for the 12the parliamentary election.

The central office of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the major political rival of ruling Awami League, in the capital’s Naya Palatn is still under lock and key since the commission unveiled the polls schedule nine days ago.

Police have remained deployed in front of the BNP office, and such situation continues since the clashes between the police and the BNP leaders-activists during the BNP’s grand rally on 28 October.

A total of 21 central leaders of BNP, including Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, are behind bars. More than 600 leaders holding various positions in BNP and its associated bodies have been arrested and at least 85 of them were sent to jail.

Large number of the party leaders and activists went into hiding to avoid arrest, while arrests and filing of lawsuits are on, but the election commission is not apparently paying heed to it.

The election commission mentioned 14 challenges to holding fair polls during the 12th parliamentary election in its action plan and 19 way outs to overcome these challenges, but the commission is yet to take any effective initiative to implement the important issues of this action plan.

The schedule of the 12th parliamentary election was announced on 15 November. Voting will be held on 7 January.

Election experts said no authority of the election commission is visible even a week after the announcement of the polls schedule, and the commission is not giving any message on a fair election.

The commission no longer revealed the progress of the action plans unveiled a year ago. When contacted, election commission spokesperson and secretary Md Jahangir Alam could not be reached for comment.

EC ‘silent’

The EC has said one of the ways out of the challenges of fair election is to not file any harassment cases by any government agency.

During an interview last July, Prothom Alo asked chief election commissioner (CEC) Kazi Habibul Awal, "How will you ensure that?”

The CEC in reply said, “Wait and see.” No guidelines or steps from the election commission to stop political harassment cases have been noticed in reality, though.

Concerned sources said that the EC feels that EC’s responsibility is to ensure security for only those parties joining the polls. 

They will not do anything about any other political harassment, apart from that. And, the BNP has already announced that they won’t participate in the election and has denounced the schedule also. In this case, the EC has nothing to do at this moment, concerning the arrest and cases being filed against BNP leaders.

Election commissioner Md Alamgir told Prothom Alo last Sunday that the election commission will leave no stones unturned to ensure equal opportunities for the parties that will come to the elections.

The EC had also stated in their action plan that they would strictly enforce the electoral code of conduct as well as investigate and take immediate action against those violating the code of conduct.

But, the EC has been noticed being relaxed on this issue, right from the beginning.

The official election campaign will be starting from 18 December. Earlier on 16 and 17 November, parliament member for Rajshahi-1 constituency, Omar Faruk Chowdhury, held two programmes in the constituency violating the code of conduct. The commission decided to ‘warn’ Omar Faruk Chowdhury or the organiser of the programme after five days of the incident.

Apart from this, thousands of leaders and activists gathered at Awami League central office on Bangabandhu Avenue in the capital between 18 and 21 November to collect party nomination forms. 

Many of the aspiring candidates also made a show of their ‘strength and power’ with a convoy of motorcycles and pickup vans. Many appeared with placards featuring the boat symbol, urging people to vote for Awami League nominated candidates.

Though these incidents of violating the code of conduct have been reported in different media with photographs, the EC is still ‘silent’.

In this case, this constitutional body claims that it is not a violation of the code of conduct to seek votes for the party symbol before the scheduled time of election campaign.

Election commission did not keep words

The election commission held dialogue with the stakeholders including eminent citizens and journalists several times, and, as per the recommendations of those dialogues, the commission said they would appoint returning officers and assistant returning officers from its manpower as much as possible, but no officials of the commission were made returning officers. Two divisional commissioners and 64 deputy commissioners were appointed as returning officers while 495 upazila nirbahi officers (UNOs) were made assistant returning officers. Among the officials of the election commission, 56 upazila election officers were made assistant returning officers.

Questions arose on the role of police and administration during the last two parliamentary elections in 2014 and 2018, as well as in the local government elections. The matter was also highlighted during the election commission’s dialogue with stakeholders. The commission took the matter seriously at the beginning, and one of the challenges to holding a fair election, as identified in the roadmap, was to ensure impartial role of the police and administrative officials, but the commission said nothing on how they would implement it effectively. The commission took no special initiative on the matter either. They will also not reshuffle the administration ahead of the election.

Election commission secretary Md Alamgir Hossain told journalists on 22 November a chaos will arise if thousands of officials are transferred. Replying to a query from journalists, election commissioner Md Ahsan Habib Khan said on 23 November if any allegation comes up on the field administration, action will be taken, but there will be no sudden reshuffle in field administration because local administration knows everything including roads, polling centres, and polls atmospheres.

Less implementation despite having plan

In its action plan, the election commission mentioned the instalment of CCTV cameras aimed at preventing fake ballot casting and vote rigging, but, finally they backtracked from this plan. They think it is not implementable and they do not have the capacity to observe the CCTV camera at 300 constituencies simultaneously.

The election commission also spoke about deploying striking forces of law enforcement agencies including executive magistrate from the next day of the announcement of polls schedule, but the matter is yet to be decided. The commission, however, instructed the executive magistrate to deploy across the country from 28 November to ensure the implementation of the electoral code of conduct.

Besides, the election commission also spoke about making a proposal to the government so that all political parties can run polls campaign uninterruptedly, but no initiative has been visible yet. The commission also talked about recovering illegal arms and surrendering legal arms before the election, but nothing has been decided yet.

As the election commission is carrying out its duties in a traditional manner, it is difficult to give a message on a fair election, former election commissioner M Sakhawat Hossain observes. He told Prothom Alo that the incumbent election commission talked about many challenges, but they did nothing to mitigate these. No authority of the commission is visible even after a week since the polls schedule was unveiled, he added.

Some political parties are selling nomination forms bringing out processions and rallies by blocking roads whereas arrests and harassment of opposition leaders-activists are on, he said adding, the election commission pays no heed to it.