Interview: Badiul Alam Majumdar
'Election Commission must prove itself in action, not words'
People would have been able to give their opinion if it was revealed whose names had been proposed and who had made the proposals. If the election commission had been formed in a transparent process, then it would have been possible to do away with the lack of trust and the various questions that surfaced about the previous election commission
The new election commission (EC), headed by Kazi Habibul Awal, took oath on 27 February. The two past general elections, in 2014 and 2018, were both controversial. This new commission will conduct the 12th general election. Secretary of Shushashoner Jonno Nagorik (Citizens for Good Governance or SHUJAN), Badiul Alam Majumdar, in an interview with Prothom Alo, speaks about the new commission, its challenges, the way ahead, and more.
For the first time Bangladesh’s election commission has been formed by means of a law. What do you think of this new election commission?
It is difficult to say how the new commission is because, before it was formed, we had demanded that the search committee be transparent in its recommendations. In fact, many of those invited to talks with the search committee had demanded the same. The law related to appointing the chief election commissioner and the other commissioners clearly states that the search committee must carry out its duties with transparency and neutrality. It also says that they will make their selections in consideration of honesty and repute. However, there is no yardstick for honesty and repute. The only determinant of this is people’s opinion and that is vital.
People would have been able to give their opinion if it was revealed whose names had been proposed and who had made the proposals. If the election commission had been formed in a transparent process, then it would have been possible to do away with the lack of trust and the various questions that surfaced about the previous election commission. Questions have even been raised about this new election commission.
There have been reports in the media that the small parties have shown big success in the formation of the election commission. But it actually seems that the ruling party has successfully repeated the process it had taken up in 2017 to appoint their pre-selected persons to the commission. This has created suspicion. This is unfortunate. The search committee could have taken steps to dispel these suspicions.
So the act that was enacted was of no use?
The president would previously issue a notification and make the appointment. That was basically just a legal façade. There are many loopholes in the law. One is that the structure of the committee is the same as it was before in the previous notifications (2012 and 2017). The criteria to qualify or disqualify are ambiguous. What should have been included is party affiliation, any plausible allegations of corruption, whether their lifestyles are congruent with their income, and so on. There also should have been provision to publish the recommended names. The search committee was given 15 days to propose the names. This is inadequate. We are not certain how far any search was actually carried out.
It was required to exercise highest caution and consideration in searching for the names, but there is doubt if this was done. The law failed to change the previous process or method. If the search committee had representatives from at least three parties, there would have been scope for acceptable names to be selected.
There are many loopholes in the law. One is that the structure of the committee is the same as it was before in the previous notifications (2012 and 2017)
You had written to the cabinet division asking for the names and who proposed the names. How far has that been addressed?
I received a letter from the cabinet division on 1 March regretting that they could not provide me with the information. They said that legally the cabinet secretary was not a member of the search committee. The cabinet division only provided the search committee with secretarial assistance to carry out its responsibilities. And so it is not in the cabinet division’s jurisdiction to provide this information. We do not think this is an acceptable response. I will issue an appeal.
In his first press briefing, the CEC said that political understanding is essential for a fair election. But, he said, he cannot take on the role of a boss and the election commission alone cannot ensure an equal playing field. What do you think of this statement?
I take it positively. It is not just the CEC, but many of those who are actually seeking a democratic, peaceful and prosperous Bangladesh, say the same. Professor Wahiduddin Mahmud has said the formation of the election commission is just one step. The next correct step would be form an election-time government.
The election-time government must play a neutral role. The election time government means the administration, the law enforcement. If they try to influence the election, then even the strongest election commission will not be able to ensure a fair election.
The commission in 2018 was biased. This was joined by various actions of the administration and the law enforcement agencies. There were false cases, the opposition was not allowed to campaign and there was massive violence before the election. There were allegations of votes being cast on the night before the election. Many candidates were not even allowed in their own constituencies.
If the EC had adopted stern measures, this could have been prevented. And even then if things spiraled out of control, the EC could have suspended the election. The EC is an independent constitutional institution tasked with conducting a free and fair election. The EC perhaps may not always be able to ensure a good election, but it can resist a bad one. During the election, the government in place must play a neutral role. So it is correct that political understanding is required.
Given the prevailing political circumstances, there are questions as to how far an understanding is possible. BNP has said it has no interest in this commission. What challenges lie ahead of this commission?
The challenge before the EC is the crisis of confidence in each and every person. They must dispel this crisis of confidence with their actions. People didn’t come forward to vote in several of the elections because they felt that even if they went, they wouldn’t be able to cast their vote. And even if they did cast their vote, they were doubtful if it would be counted. The new commission must prove through its actions that it wants a fair and inclusive election.
The EC perhaps may not always be able to ensure a good election, but it can resist a bad one
You all have been saying that the last two commissions have completely destroyed the election system. How can the new commission retrieve the system?
They need a roadmap to ensure a fair election. The EC can hold dialogues with the stakeholders. It can consult with experts. It is not enough just to say that they are carrying out their duties neutrally. This must be visible to the people. They have to look into certain matters such as the EVM (electronic voting machine). This is a terrible machine. The entire world is now stepping away from technology in casting votes. As it is, there are so many questions about the election. This machine simply gives rise to further questions. A decision must be taken in this regard.
It is not possible to have a fair election with this machine. There is discrepancy in the voters list. The gender gap is growing. This is the failure of the EC. They did not properly carry out the house-to-house registration. In some districts the gender gap is alarming. This must be fixed. Specific allegations of corruption were brought up against the last commission and certain officials of the commission. We want to see what action the EC takes against them.
A one-time programmable chip and a paper trail are needed for the EVM. A trial of the EVM must be carried out in front of everyone and then the machine sealed. The Shamsul Huda commission wanted to do so, but no one paid attention
What is the EC to do during the election?
The EC needs to take a clear stand so that all concerned can carry out their political activities freely. This is essential for a level playing field. Tangible measures must be taken to this end and then the crisis will steadily ease. The people will be eager to vote. In the union parishad elections, candidates were not allowed to vote in many areas. The EC did nothing to address this. The people must be given the confidence that they will be able to vote for the candidate of their choice, that their votes will be counted.
It is most important for the law and the rules and regulations to be strictly applied. The new commission can review the law and propose necessary reforms. There are allegations about the EVM procurement. The new commission can investigate this. It is heard that a partisan syndicate has been formed within the EC. The new EC can take measures in this connection. Affidavits are very important. This must be updated and the information of the candidates must be verified. This will prove whether the EC is taking stern action in these matters or not. If they are to win the confidence of the people, they must take these measures and show the people that they are taking action.
What is area of mistrust in the EVM?
The EVM is programmed. If you can programme the machine to record the votes when the boat or the sheaf of paddy button is pressed, you can programme it differently too. A one-time programmable chip and a paper trail are needed for the EVM. A trial of the EVM must be carried out in front of everyone and then the machine sealed. The Shamsul Huda commission wanted to do so, but no one paid attention. Professor Jamilur Reza Chowdhury was the technical advisor to the EC. He had recommended a paper trail. That was not done.
The EC always maintain that they do not get any allegations. What do you have to say about that?
Such comments by the EC are unwarranted. It is their duty to look into whether any irregularities are being carried out.
What are your expectations from the new commission?
The two past election commissions, formed in a non-transparent process by means of the president’s gazette, have destroyed our election system. They have snatched away our voting rights. Their misdeeds have led to people losing faith in the election system and in the election commission. Under the new law, the old process was followed again to form the new election committee. Due to the lack of transparency and the questions that remain, the new commission too faces a crisis in confidence.
I hope the new commission will be able to dispel this apprehension by means of their honesty, transparency, courage and neutrality. That is why the new election commission must win the confidence of the people by means of their actions and their behaviour. The government’s assistance, the court’s assistance will be required for a fair election. But the election commission must take the lead. They must visibly display integrity, transparency, determination and courage, and prove their neutrality. Words are not enough, they must prove though their actions that they want to conduct a fair and credible election.
* This interview appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir