There are all sorts of proof that the election commission has reduced the election system to a farce. The latest instance is a statement made by chief election commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal when visiting the Gazipur City Corporation election. He said, "Accept black money if its offered to you, but vote for the candidate of your choice. No one is watching when you cast your vote." (NTV Online 10 May 2023)
The CEC went to Gazipur on Wednesday to look into various allegations of contending candidates and to observe the election management. He also wanted to exchange views with the law enforcing agencies. According to news reports, "The CEC gave various guidelines to make the elections peaceful and for the candidates to abide by the electoral code of conduct." The candidates and voters can decide whether they consider his statements to be 'guidelines'.
The CEC's statement echoes the words of India's West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. On 21 March 2021, Mamata said, "If BJP gives you money, take it. But cast your votes for Trinamool." But while making this statements, Mamata also added said, "Naturally it is a criminal offence to cast votes in exchange of money. However, they are paying you with your own money. So take that money and vote for Trinamool." Protidener News 21 March 2021). Bangladesh's CEC offered no such argument. Also, it is obvious that a chief of an election commission cannot speak in the manner of a politician.
At the same time, the CEC also said the election of Gazipur city is 'very important' and the entire world is watching. (bdnews, 10 May 2023) During a meeting with the Bangladesh foreign minister in Washington, the US secretary of state Antony Blinken had made a similar statement about Bangladesh's national elections (BBC, 11 April 2023). But if the CEC thinks that everyone is looking towards Gazipur, then how could he make such a statement!
Not only the election observers, but the general people too will surely recall what happened in the Gazipur election in 2018. (Those who are not aware of this can refer to the analysis in BBC Bangla 27 June 2018, Daily Star 28 June 2018). BNP participated in that election. The model that was by the peaceful strategically staged election in Gazipur and Khulna, was replicated on a larger scale in the national election in 2018.
BNP is not participating in this election, but tensions prevail within the ruling party itself. The former mayor expressed fear of falling victim to enforced disappearance ahead of becoming a candidate. Although he did not disappear, his candidature has been a victim of 'enforced disappearance'. He finally failed to become a candidate.
Meanwhile, the commission is talking about a model election in Gazipur. The ruling party has already created the 'Ukil model' in a by-election. Now speculations are on as to what model Awami League will present in the city election. There are signs of a new chapter opening regarding relations between the ruling party and the Islamists. It is being said that this will be reflected in the election.
After Gazipur, BNP will not participate in other city corporation elections either. There is no reason to expect that the commission will be able to display their competence by holding elections in the absence of the main opposition BNP. As it was seen earlier. although the commission may have run these elections well, when it came to the national election, the commission was reduced to a mere organ of the ruling party.
It may be recalled that the KM Nurul Huda commission held the Cumilla and Rangpur city elections in 2017. Those elections were held without any violence, rigging or irregularities. When everyone knows what happened when the commission finally conducted the national election of 2018. As a consequence, as this CEC has said, "Various countries are talking about our election."
Some members of the commission called upon BNP, asking BNP to test them by participating in the national election. (Daily Star Bangla, 25 April 2023). In 2018, all political parties including BNP participated in the election in 2018. But the commission could not take necessary steps to ensure participation of voters. This commission claims that they are not liable for that election. But what changes have there been since 2018 that indicates anything different in the process?
Moreover, the Awal commission has been tested in the Gaibandha by-election. The results were clear. The commission tried to earn trust by cancelling the election. But even though they saw all obvious signs of 'vote robbery' before the election, the commission could do nothing to prevent it. (Prothom Alo, 14 October 2022). Not only that, the commission could not take any action against those involved in the irregularities in that election of October 2022.
The election commission had planned to use EVM in the national election, ignoring everyone's objections. But they had to backtrack due to financial crisis. However, by-elections and local government elections are being held with the controversial EVM. It have been proved in many ways that technology is not the answer to political crises. Amid the EVM controversy, a question has arisen over the results of Bogura election. The explanation of the election commission is not satisfactory. The result of the Cumilla City Corporation remains questionable.
After the resignation of BNP members of parliament, there was a 15 to 25 per cent voter turnout in the by-elections. This means the EC has not been successful in earning the trust of all voters. There will be no use in trying to make up for this through technology. Meanwhile, the election commission has published a guideline as to what journalists can and cannot do on the election day. This indicates that the commission does not uphold transparency. This guideline will create obstacles to fair and transparent elections.
From discussions regarding the local government elections, it is clear that it is not possible to hold an inclusive and credible election under this commission with this existing system in place. For a credible election at a national level, it must be ensured that the voters gain confidence and there is an environment conducive to vote. The commission members at various times have said they are thinking about strategies to tackle the 'robbers in the secret ballot booths'. But it does not seem that the commission worried at all about the 'robbers' outside of the polling stations and ahead of the election. Instead, the CEC is now advising the voters to accept black money and cast their vote for candidates of their choice.
*Ali Riaz is Distinguished Professor in the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University, USA, Non-Resident Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council, and President of the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies.
* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Rabiul Islam