Of late, the Election Commission has taken the debatable decision to use electronic voting machines in the next national polls overlooking the disapproving proposals of most political parties. This may further put their acceptance in question and necessitate them to rebuild consensus among political parties and encourage them to reach that consensus to conduct an all-party participatory election, writes NASHIR UDDIN
In last 50 years since Bangladesh’s independence, a total of 11 national elections have taken place. Out of those, the elections in 1973, 1979, 1986, 1988, 1996, 2014 and 2018 were conducted under party government except for the 1991 national elections that took place under interim government and the 1996, 2001 and 2008 general elections under the non-partisan caretaker government. The national polls held under the ruling party were allegedly not fair and widely questioned.
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This is primarily because of the growing distrust between the political parties involved in the election process. Besides, the ruling party is often found to be playing an active role behind the scene to take maximum advantage even through undue means aiming to take election results in their favour. The Election Commission’s (EC) role in conducting the elections was found to be secondary and at times farcical. Low turnout and irregularities in these elections – especially during the last two national elections – have had an impact on the country’s local government polls.
Thus people of the country have lost confidence in the elections, which is ominous for democracy. Among the main reasons for not being able to play an effective role in the elections by EC in the past are; believing in and enduring ruling party’s ideology and ideals, failing to prevent interference by party governments in elections and to demonstrate firmness in conducting fair and impartial elections; showing biased attitude of the field administration and actually conducting the election according to the party in power.
EC’S POWER AND OPTIMUM ROLE
If we look back to see how effective our electoral system has been in the last five decades and how institutionalised democracy has become in the country. In Article 119(1) of the Constitution, the EC has been entrusted with the responsibility of conducting the parliamentary elections. The Constitution was not hesitant on assigning the responsibility to EC either. According to the provisions of Article 120 of the Constitution, the President shall provide such employees required for the performance of the duties assigned to the EC, if requested by the commission.
According to the provisions of Article 126 of the Constitution, it is the duty of all executive authorities to assist the EC in discharging its duties. Apart from that, Election Conduct Rules, Political Party and Candidate Conduct Rules, Political Party Registration Rules, Independent Candidate Rules have been made under the Representation of People’s Order (RPO). Electoral Officers Act has also been enacted.
The purpose of these rules are to conduct free, impartial and fair parliamentary elections. But the irony is, recently in the dialogue of the EC, election experts said that whether the EC can use the powers given in the law and the constitution depends a lot on the government during the election. But according to past history, fair elections are basically not possible under party government. If it seems that a fair election is not possible, there should be a mentality of EC members to resign.
CHALLENGES THE EC IS FACING
The EC, led by Kazi Habibul Awal, took charge at the end of last February. Then the EC held consecutive dialogues with academicians, eminent citizens, journalists, election experts, election observers and registered political parties in view of the 12th National Parliament election. The EC then said that the action plan for the national polls will be determined based on the proposals and recommendations that came out of the dialogue.
In the dialogue with prominent citizens, various recommendations were made that included halting use of Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) in elections, bringing the administration under EC control from four months before national elections to two months after the results, keeping the Parliament inoperative before polls, ensuring the rights of voters to vote without hindrances, ensuring communal security, and stopping the use of religion in elections. The EC also held dialogue with the registered political parties from July 17 to 31. However, the parties that attended have made various proposals related to amending the Constitution and the relevant laws.
A large part of the country’s political parties do not have confidence in the current EC. The new EC under the leadership of Kazi Habibul Awal considers such situation a big crisis and challenge for itself. The EC mentioned this challenge in the draft action plan that it prepared ahead of the next elections. However, the EC is also looking for ways to meet the challenges. In the end, there are doubts as to how much the EC will be able to gain the trust of the opposition political parties.
So far the EC has not been able to bring the opposition parties into confidence. Nine parties including the BNP have boycotted the dialogues. After two consecutive questionable national elections in 2014 and 2018, various parties and voters have lost confidence in the electoral system as well as in the EC. After formation of the new EC, the concerned people have been saying that gaining trust is the main challenge of this commission.
Another major challenge for the EC is the use of EVMs in elections. Because, there is a big debate in the political arena over the use of this electronic device. It has also been revealed in the dialogue of the EC. A few parties including the ruling Awami League want EVM votes in all 300 seats. However, most of the parties are against the use of EVMs in the elections. The EC sees this as a significant challenge.
However, the EC also feels that the opposition to EVMs is a political stance of many parties and that they are opposing for the sake of mere opposition. Sources concerned said the EC, besides the crisis of confidence in it, has identified several issues including the use of EVMs in the elections, control of the police and administration officials in the field administration during the polls, ensuring the security of the voters and candidates’ agents.
HOW THE EC IS COPING UP?
The EC has finalised proposals for amendments to certain areas of the RPO. The constitutional body says that it has finalised things after reviewing various proposals that came during the dialogue with the political parties. But in reality, most of the proposals or recommendations of the parties were overlooked by the EC. Addition of voter verifiable paper audit trail to electronic voting machines, provision of ‘no’ vote, control of election expenses, change in provision of participation of retired government officials, inclusion of armed forces etc. were among the proposals from the political parties. To implement these, amendments should be made to the RPO. However, these proposals were not considered by the EC while preparing the amendment proposals.
Among the proposals of political parties considered by the EC are: ensuring election agents’ security and making it mandatory for agents to provide copies of results at each centre. But beyond this came several other important proposals, which the EC did not take into consideration. Notable among these is the addition of paper trail in EVMs. Its specialty is that after the voter votes through the EVM, it will be printed on paper from the EVMs and automatically deposited in the transparent ballot box. Among the amendments proposed in the existing RPO, some important issues came up such as: the EC’s power to cancel the polls and the Presiding Officer’s power to close the polls, the provision of punishment for intimidating or preventing the candidates’ agents from going to the voting centre, and women’s representation in all-level committees of the party till 2030 are significant.
Various proposals were also made in the dialogue regarding the deployment of Armed Forces in the national elections. Some of the parties proposed giving judicial powers to the Army. And the public forum proposed adding ‘Armed Forces’ to the definition of law enforcement agencies in the RPO. If this is done, members of the Armed Forces will be able to perform duties like the police force in the ensuing polls. However, the matter was not taken into consideration by the EC. Earlier, during the military-backed caretaker government, the ballot had provided for a ‘no’ vote. Later it was dropped. At least five parties participating in this dialogue asked for the addition of a ‘no’ vote provision. The EC did not take this into account either.
According to the existing law, the EC can investigate and take action if any complaint is received during elections. Along with this, they have proposed a provision, before the publication of the gazette of the results of the polls, the EC can suspend the results if there is any admissible complaint and the polls can be cancelled if the investigation finds any evidence of irregularities. According to the existing law, the EC can cancel the candidature of an aspirant if it is satisfied after investigation.
Now the EC has proposed that after the cancellation of the candidature, s/he will not be able to stand for new election. The Ministry of Law will verify these proposals of the EC. After that, it will be taken up in the Cabinet. If approved by the Cabinet, it will go to the Parliament. Only when the Parliament accepts the amendment, it will become part of the law. A major challenge identified by the EC that came up again and again during the dialogues is the issue of trust crisis. However, how the EC will solve this or whether it will be able to gain the trust of everyone, remains in question. Because, the EC has failed to play a strong role in several local government elections and has allegedly been even controversial in Cumilla City Corporation elections.
EVM’S CONTROVERSY, COMPLEXITY
During the EC’s dialogue with political parties, 22 parties expressed their views and suggestions over EVMs. Among those, 14 parties including the main opposition party in the parliament Jatiya Party, expressed doubts over the use of this electronic device and several parties have directly opposed using EVMs. On the other hand, four parties including the ruling Awami League sought votes using EVMs. A few other parties conditionally favoured EVMs and nine parties including the BNP boycotted the EC dialogue. They were also against the use of EVMs in national polls. Even under such a situation, the EC has recently decided to partially conduct the 12th parliamentary election using EVMs.
EVM IN 150 SEATS IN NEXT NATIONAL POLLS
Despite objections from most of the political parties, the EC has decided to conduct votes through the EVMs in a maximum of 150 seats in the next parliamentary elections. The EC’s decision ignoring most of the opposition parties’ complaints has sparked renewed criticism. Political analysts and civil society representatives feel that the EC’s decision in favour of using EVM is against the demands of the political parties. Analysts say this decision taken by the EC ignoring the views of the major opposition parties like BNP and Jatiya Party has not done anything good to the cause of an acceptable election. Additionally, they also think that this decision will not help grow the EC’s acceptance. They further said this is apparently the first blow to the proposals put forth by the political parties.
Earlier, the EC itself said that they do not have the capacity to take votes using EVM in all the constituencies and they can take vote through EVM in maximum 100 seats. In last May, Election Commissioner Md Alamgir said they are not ready at the moment to take vote through EVM in all 300 seats in the next general elections. Alamgir then said the EC has around 1.5 lakh EVMs. According to him, “It is possible to use EVMs in 100 constituencies if the confidence of the political parties can be gained ahead of the elections.” In this situation, political analysts also think that the new-fangled decision of the EC can create a new controversy before the upcoming national parliament elections as the controversial EVM voting is already under scrutiny by many.
In this regard, former Election Commissioner Brigadier General (retd) M Sakhawat Hossain said, “25 to 30 percent people cannot vote using EVMs. It is difficult for the people in remote areas. In the previous two elections, I asked the current commission to analyse it. But their dialogues are like a classroom. The commission is not thinking about at least 50 percent of the voters, it should think about those people.” Mentioning that the EC’s decision to use EVMs in 150 seats is biased, civil society body SHUJAN (Citizens for Good Governance) Secretary Dr Badiul Alam Majumdar said, “The decision of the EC by ignoring everyone’s opinion proves that they are not impartial. The decision is taken to help win the election by rigging. Voters could not vote through EVM in the Cumilla election. The EC cannot take any decision by taking away people’s right to vote. The suspicions around this commission came true with their wrong-decision regarding the use of EVM.”
Despite extensive preparations by the EC, the results of the recently-held Cumilla City Corporation elections were declared amid widespread ruckus and unexpected drama. It is quite clear that the EC did not succeed in trying to make itself acceptable by proving its competence in the election. It is not that the EVMs worked flawlessly in all the polling stations in the Cumilla elections. There are reports that the complaints of the defeated candidates have gone to court regarding the results of four centres. But as there is no opportunity to recount and verify the votes, the question remains as to how the complaint of the aggrieved candidate will be settled. And the main reason for this is the EVM system. For these reasons, opposition parties do not want EVM in forthcoming polls. On the other hand, it is difficult to believe that the ruling party can show the moral courage to reject it. Political experts said the EC should look into possible areas of consensus among political parties as a whole and encourage all parties to reach a consensus to conduct an all-party participatory election.
To end, the EC has taken the controversial decision of using EVMs in the upcoming national elections overlooking the views of opposing political parties. There are already many questions about the upcoming general polls. The EC’s position on this would further weaken their acceptance. Then comes the issue of the opposition-demanded caretaker government during the election. In this regard, the government’s position is adamant, and the de-facto opposition party BNP will not go into polls with the ruling party in power. Experts say politicians have to solve this problem on their own. The government is reacting intolerantly to various comments made by the foreign diplomats about the country’s next elections.
There is a pressure to conduct the upcoming elections maintaining international standards. The main task of the government and the EC is to create an environment of trust and it must be visible. As the Commission has been given so much dignity, power and privilege to carry out the difficult task of conducting free and fair elections, they have to deliver finally what they are expected of delivering at this crucial juncture of democracy in this country – creating confidence, acting without fear or fervor and standing tall against all odds to ensure a fair, impartial and acceptable national election.