Inactive and politically affiliated organisations being made election observers

Prothom Alo illustration

The election commission (EC) has selected a number of relatively inactive non-government organisations to register as election observers. Some of the 68 organisations initially selected for registration allegedly have political involvement.  Most of these organisations do not have adequate human resources. This has raised questions as to whether these organisations actually are competent and capable to observe the election impartially.

The EC published a list of 68 local organisations primarily selected to be registered as election observers ahead of the upcoming 12th parliamentary election. Prothom Alo reporters on Wednesday inquired about 32 of these organisations in and outside Dhaka. Seven of the 32 organisations have no operations as they exist only on paper. Members of the board of directors or their close relatives of at least 10 more organisations have political affiliation.

As per the EC’s election observation guideline, only non-government organisations which have been working for democracy, good governance and human rights and have commitment in their constitutions to motivate and raise awareness among the citizens about free, fair and impartial elections, can apply for registration as election observers. Although the primarily selected organisations have such commitment in their constitutions, almost none of these organisations have any programme to motivate people or raise awareness among them about free, fair and impartial elections.

Organisation shut for five years included  

Seba Social Foundation is among the organisations selected by the EC as an observer. This Lakkhipur-based organisation’s name is at No. 2 on the list published by the EC. A certain Jashim Uddin Ripon of Hajir Haat in Kamalnagar applied on behalf of this organisation. He is the executive director of this organisation. A field-visit on Wednesday revealed that Seba Social Foundation’s activities have been halted for the last five years. This organisation has neither office nor staff. Initially this organisation had small-scale activities at a rented office but had no human resources back then. Executive director Jashim Uddin Ripon has been living in Saudi Arabia for five years.

Kamalnagar police station’s officer in charge Mohammad Solaiman told Prothom Alo that the EC office inquired about the activities of Seba Social Foundation. Investigations revealed that this organisation has had no activities in the last five years and director Jashim Uddin is living abroad. The investigation report was sent to the EC.

Human Rights Watch Commission from Manikganj is also on the EC list of the EC. This organisation was founded in 2003. Nurul Islam Sattar is the secretary general. He is known as a close ally of Manikganj pourashava mayor and district Awami League vice president Md Ramzan Ali.

This organisation has a three-room office on the ground floor and four-storey building at Dakkhin Seota area in Manikganj municipality. The office is kept under lock and key for the better part of the year. At least 10 people of different backgrounds from the locality said they did not notice any activities of this organisation. However, secretary Nurul Islam collected election observer cards issued in the name of different individuals during local and national elections in the past. Allegations are there that these persons worked for certain candidates. The organisation earned a bad reputation among the locals for such activities in the past. The organisation’s secretary is now in hospital in Dhaka. He claimed the organisation has staff.

Three organisations named Somaj Unnayan O Prashikkan Kendra, Social Development Organisaion (SDO) and Rural and Urban Development Organisation in Jamalpur are on the EC list. Field visits revealed that none of these organisations have any activities. Local people have no idea on these organisations.

Azampur Sramajibi Unnayan Sangstha observed the national election in 2018. This organisation has been listed this year too but it is not active nowadays.

Staff will be recruited before polls

Human Economic Development Society (HEDS) based in Mymensingh’s Muktagachha upazila does not have any activities. The organisation has an office and a signboard but no staff. The office remains shut for the whole year. Prothom Alo correspondent at 11:00am found the office locked. No one was available despite waiting for an hour. At least 10 local people were asked about the activities of the organisation but they said they did not have any idea. The organisation was founded in 1994, as per the signboard. A local resident named Alal Uddin said he never found this office open.

HEDS founder Ruhul Amin is from Moishadia village located seven-kilometer away from Muktagacha upazila. He lives in Dhaka. Replying to a query of Prothom Alo, Ruhul Amin said the organisation observed some union parishad elections in Muktagacha. The organisation had recruited some staff at that time.

He added that the organisation would observe elections only in Muktagacha and some staff would be recruited before the election for this purpose. He claimed his organisation has an office in Dhaka.

Political affiliation

According to the election observation guideline, organisations led by individuals currently or previously connected to a registered political party will not be granted registration.

Besides, if the chief executive, or any member of the governing body has the desire to be a candidate in the election during the application for registration, the organisation cannot be registered with the election commission.   

But the EC list contains some parties whose leaders are affiliated with political parties. For instance, Shahidul Islam, chief of the Highlight Foundation in Faridpur, contested in the national polls in 1991 from Bhanga upazila with the ticket of Jatiya Party. 

However, he claimed to be a social worker with no political affiliation now. His organisation got registered as an observer with the EC in 2011 and formally observed the national election in 2018. His sibling Sharifuzzaman is the organising secretary of the ruling party’s Bhanga upazila unit.

Similarly, Rafiqul Islam, general secretary of election observer entity SDO in Jamalpur, is the local ward unit president of Awami League in Sharifpur union. His organisation conducts no activities, while the locals are completely unaware of it. 

The EC list also contains organisations led by individuals connected to associate and affiliated bodies of registered political parties. ‘Shishu Pratibha Bikash Kendra’ is one such organisation. President of the organisation Ms Mizanur Rahman is former president of Dhaka City North Chhatra League.

The chairman of Rajshahi’s ‘Shasthya Shikhya Sheba Foundation is RK Dutta Rupan, vice president of Rajshahi City Tanti League. RK Dutta claims he is not active in politics. And EC officials say that registering such an organisation is not a violation of the rules.

Then again, there are some such organisations on the list whose leaders are closely related to politicians. Executive director of Abdul Momen Khan Memorial Foundation, Ruskhsana Khandakar, is the wife of BNP standing committee member Abdul Moyeen Khan. Democracy Watch’s executive director is Taleya Rahman. Her husband Shafiqur Rehman is not directly involved in politics, but is known as a close associate of BNP. However, both these organisations have a sound reputation.

Before the 2015 municipal elections, Awami League raised allegations of political affiliation against Khan Foundation and Democracy Watch and submitted objections to the EC.

The objective of appointing observers is to neutrally point out if the election is free, fair and unbiased
Badiul Alam Majumdar, Secretary, Shujan

Nazma Akhter is the executive director of ‘Esho Jati Gori’ in Faridpur. Her father was Nezayetullah, now deceased and former leader of BNP. Her brother Md Ahsanullah was affiliated with Chhatra Dal back in his student days. He sister Nazneen Akhter is a councilor in the reserved seat for women in Faridpur pourashava and joint secretary of district Krishak League.

Referring to her experience in observing the 2018 elecion, Nazma Akhter told Prothom Alo that the election has been very good. She was not involved in any politics. But Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was her ideal and inspiration.

Md Shahjahan is the treasurer of ‘Bachte Shekha' in Jashore. His bother Nasir Uddin is Awami League member of parliament from Jashore-2. Executive director of BASIC in Dinjapur, Shyamal Chandra Sarkar was attached to Chhatra Maitri politics in Carmichael University.

Speaking to journalists on Wednesday, election commissioner Anisur Rahman said that according to the rules and regulations of election observation, the list of organisations considered for registration has been posted in a public notice. After scrutiny, the election commission has dropped the organisations found to have political affiliations.

According to the EC, if there are objections to any organisations on the list, these can be submitted to the EC in writing within 15 working days of the notice being published.

Secretary of Shushashoner Jonno Nagorik (SHUJAN), Badiul Alam Majumdar, has said that registration of organisations whose board members are close relations to political persons is not a violation of the rules per se, but it is a matter of principle. The objective of appointing observers is to neutrally point out if the election is free, fair and unbiased. He feels that there are apprehensions as to whether observers whose close relatives are in any political post or whose interests are involved, can provide neutral unbiased opinions in this regard.  

(Prothom Alo’s staff correspondents and correspondents of the relative areas helped in compiling this report).