The present election commission (EC) is quite wily. The past two commissions were criticised for overtly and covertly relenting to government pressure and catering to the government's demands. But political parties were involved in the process of the constituting those commissions. This time the commission was formed by means of a suddenly enacted law, but the selection process was broadly boycotted. In fact, almost half the political parties, particularly BNP which the ruling party takes as its main opponent, boycotted the selection process. And so the Kazi Habibul Awal commission, comprising favoured bureaucrats who are beneficiaries of the government, from the very outset has adopted a strategy to make themselves credible. The commission has tried to promote its credibility by inviting political parties for talks twice already, within less than a span of four months. And they are planning to invite all the parties for the third time next month.

Around half the political parties did not respond to their last two rounds of invitations. The first time was an invitation to check the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) and the second time was to take advice from the political parties about holding the election. Now they are saying that they will scrutinise the over 300 recommendations that they have received from the political parties so far and will draw up a strategy paper accordingly. They have spoken of a possibility of arranging dialogue with all parties to discuss the strategy paper.

At the moment it cannot be said what the outcome will be if the commission organises an all-party dialogue. The two rounds of dialogue already held between the political parties and the commission has no doubt given rise to many questions and the matter is still being mulled over. It is difficult to discern how much of the commission's credibility will be restored, but certain political parties are inching forward. Parties, whose statements never find place in the news media, are now attending the dialogue with the commission and making recommendations to grab the headlines. But if the main opponent in the election does not take part in this process, then undeniably it will not be possible to hold an inclusive election.

From both the phases of dialogue -- one about the EVM and the other about the overall election -- it was more or less clear that no one supported ruling Awami League's stance, other than a handful of parties in its alliance. In other words, even its alliance partners are not supporting this stance, though it would not be wrong to assume that allies like Samyabadi Dal or Workers Party will discard their differences over election time government if they can get back their places in the cabinet. They spoke about placing certain ministries under the commission during the election, but what is the constitutional basis for this? Since the ministers are obliged to be accountable to the prime minister and to the parliament, the election commission too, like other offices under the prime minister, is obliged to answer to executive authority. If the constitution must be amended for this purpose, then it can be amended to restore the caretaker system.

Most of the parties that took part in the dialogue as well as those that boycotted and want a change in election-time government, include 19 registered political parties (10 participating in the dialogue and 9 boycotting) who called for a neutral or all party government during the election. And 12 parties have called for restricting the government's powers during the election and increasing that of the EC. But Awami League remains adamant in its stand for elections to be held in accordance to the constitution, that is, in accordance to the system of its own making. In order to understand how the prevailing system is of Awami League's making, we may recall that even before the Supreme Court ruling was published, the caretaker system was completely abolished by brute majority of the parliament, though the court had verbally given its opinion in favour of retaining the caretaker system for two more terms.

I think there are millions of mistakes in the NID. But we are trying to correct these
Kazi Habibiul Awal, Chief Election Commissioner

The second point where others differ from Awami League is over the question of EVM. The chief election commissioner (CEC) himself has admitted that the EVM had not gained acceptance among all and is not likely to either. The manufacturers and suppliers of the machines will naturally, in their business interests, want the EVM to be used in the election despite it having faults such as not having provision for recounting votes. But what is the reason behind the over enthusiasm of the government or the ruling party in this regard? The EVM makes it convenient to make final any results presented by the government's subservient civil servants. Isn't that a reason for them to support the use of the EVM?

There is another area in the EC dialogue where the others had difference with Awami League. This difference is over the 2014 and 2018 election. The fact that depriving voters of their voting rights is not democratic, is now being admitted to the EC by even those who had taken part in this wrongful act, something normally done by state witnesses. Recommending that the ballots be sent to the centres on the morning of the election day, Jatiya Party secretary general Mujibul Haque said, "This voting takes place at night. It is done and what can I say? We did it too." And Dilip Barua, leader of Awami League's partner in power Samyabadi Dal, spoke of amending the constitution, saying that people wanted the chance to exert their right to vote. The 14-party alliance was formed to ensure people's voting rights. If that is not there, then what is the point of practicing politics? (Samakal 31 July 2022)

Even the disclosures made by the EC itself during the dialogue are no less valuable. Chief election commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal had made an instigative remark about taking up arms and tried to lightly pass it off as a joke, but accepted that this was hardly becoming of the dignity of the commission and also accepted that an understanding among the political parties was indispensible for a credible and fair election. That means, they have also accepted that the dialogue-drama being carried out, is meaningless. The Cumilla City Corporation election has been a rehearsal for them to see how an election will be if the parliament remains intact. So it shouldn't be hard to understand why the parties, other than Awami League, want the parliament to be dissolved once the election schedule is announced. CEC Awal even admitted that a backbone is needed, saying that it was in place. We saw in 2013 how a commissioner claimed on camera to have a backbone, but also saw how the backbone shamelessly bowed and bent. There are similar signs before us as we have seen how speedily the present commission finalised the amendment of the Representation of the People Order (RPO).

In another disclosure on 19 July, CEC Awal said, "I think there are millions of mistakes in the NID. But we are trying to correct these." We have often heard of people not being able to cast their votes despite having smart cards, because their fingerprints didn't match. We need to think of how many voters won't be able to cast their votes in the future because of such mistakes in the NID. More than of the voters, these mistakes are of the employees and officials of the commission who enlisted the names. There are spelling mistakes, someone's place of birth has been registered as Venezuela instead of Sunamganj, in some instances the post code hasn't been included, and so on. And there is no end to harassment in rectifying these mistakes. Yet smart card mistakes can easily be corrected by checking the iris or fingerprints used for the passport or NID. Since they have accepted that it is the responsibility of the government and parties to reach a political understanding for the election, then before that happens, the commission should at least properly carry out the corrections of the voters' ID cards on a priority basis.

* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist.

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir