The upcoming 12th national parliamentary election is expected to be held either at the end of December 2023 or in the first week of January 2024. Ahead of the much-talked-about general election, the Election Commission (EC) has published their action plan or election roadmap aimed at holding participatory polls. The Commission unveiled the action plan more than a year before the parliamentary elections. In this roadmap, various issues have been mentioned starting from the goals to the challenges and action plans. The EC unveiled the roadmap at the election commission office on September 14, pointing out 14 challenges and outlining 19 action plans ahead of the ensuing parliamentary election. In separate reactions, key opposition political parties including Jatiya Party (JP), and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has questioned and opposed the roadmap. However, the ruling party Awami League (AL) appreciated the roadmap. The EC published the roadmap announcing possible
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election dates. It has been informed that the election schedule will be announced in November 2023. It is also informed that the election will be held between the last week of December of the same year or in the first week of January 2024. The action plan has been released keeping the polling time within a total of 15 days. The EC’s 19-page action plan lays down five targets. Cooperation has been sought from seven media participating in the election. 14 challenges are also mentioned and 19 ways to overcome the challenges are described.
UNVEILING ROADMAP FOR NEXT POLLS
Election Commissioners unveiled the election roadmap on September 14 at a programme in the capital as Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal could not remain present due to health reasons. In his absence, senior Election Commissioner Brig Gen (retd) Md Ahsan Habib Khan addressed the event as the chief guest. He mentioned that the road map is solely intended to hold a free, fair, credible and participatory election. Before the 2008 national parliamentary elections, the then-election commission led by chief election commissioner Shamsul Huda unveiled an electoral roadmap, first time in the country’s election history. His successors Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmed and KM Nurul Huda also unveiled electoral roadmaps before the elections in 2014 and 2018 respectively, promising free and fair elections. Successful implementation of the roadmap by the Shamsul Huda led EC paved the way for a largely free and fair participatory election. But his successors Rakibuddin and Nurul Huda-led ECs were unsuccessful to do so as their roadmaps were questioned. Referring to that gap and fragile voter confidence created by that, EC Ahsan Habib Khan said that they are facing a lot of questions as well as a confidence gap. The election commission noted that they tried to accommodate the recommendations proposed by the stakeholders in line with the Constitution in the given election roadmap. The incumbent commission declared that it will proceed according to the plan. EC Rashida Sultana said they will be able to present a participatory and fair national election if everyone cooperates. Stressing on the need of cooperation by the stakeholders, EC highlighted that if this roadmap is implemented realistically and timely, the desired goal can be reached.
19 ACTIONS TO COUNTER THE CHALLENGES
To address the challenges, the EC listed 19 measures such as; implementing recommendations proposed by the stakeholders, suggesting the government for guaranteeing a smooth electioneering for all, and halt filing cases meant for harassment by the government agencies, and protecting candidates and their property from rival attacks. The EC’s to-do list also talks about seizing illegal arms, instructing local administration and law enforcers to maintain neutrality, installing closed circuit cameras at all voting centres, limiting Electronic Voting Machine (EVMs) use only in metropolitan and district level centres and legal action against poll staff in case of partiality.
CRITICISMS UNABATED: WHAT’S INSTIGATING THE CONTROVERSY?
However, nationwide criticism has already started about this roadmap put forth by the election commission. Analysts call the published election roadmap biased and outdated. Opposition political parties and dignitaries have also raised questions about the roadmap.
The first objective of the announced election roadmap indicates only the registered political parties who wish to participate actively in the elections. So the question has arisen, does the EC have no concern about those who will express no confidence in this commission, boycott the election, or not participate in the election by questioning transparency? However, no political party has so far officially informed the EC that they will not go to the polls.
Commenting on the use of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), the EC said, “If voting is done by ballot, it is possible to occupy the centre before or after the voting and fill the ballot boxes as desired.” According to EC’s comment that there is a fear and apprehension about ballot voting in the remaining 150 seats, therefore, has raised fear among learned circles. They have raised questions about why there will be no EVM voting in all 300 seats if the EC is that much worried about the ballot being stolen.
Two-way behaviour was also seen in another statement by the EC. The current commission said that it will not take any responsibility for any failure of the previous commissions. Earlier, CEC Kazi Habibul Awal also gave such statement. In a speech, EC Alamgir said, “We are members of this commission, not the previous commission. We will not take responsibility for what mistakes or weaknesses the past election commissions had. We do not want to know or learn what any past commission did. Our responsibility is with us. If there is a mistake from us, we will learn and answer for it.
If we see that we are not able to fulfil our responsibility properly, then from that moment we will take leave.” But the roadmap surprisingly presented transparency of the EVMs used in the 11th parliamentary elections by the previous commission. There, the average vote casting rate was 44.16 percent in two constituencies of Dhaka. Besides, the picture of prior Chattogram, Rangpur polls has also been highlighted. There are also depictions of EVM success in 12 by-polls and six city corporation elections. The question is that the success of the previous commission is highlighted but why the failure has been denied? No one from the commission has given a clear statement over this.
The EC released the 20-page roadmap at a function organised in capital’s Agargaon. It has three pages of discussion about electronic voting machine, where the decision to use EVM in maximum 150 seats is mentioned. The EC claimed that out of 29 political parties that participated in the dialogue last July, 17 voted for EVMs and 12 against. However, several parties in favour of EVM in their lists claimed that their position in the dialogue was against EVM. Parties who have suggested conditions for use of EVMs; even if those conditions are not met, the EC has mentioned them in favour of EVM. In this regard, Transparency International of Bangladesh (TIB) executive director Dr Iftekharuzzaman said, “It is certainly sad when such an incident happens. It is a kind of rigging. Such behaviour cannot be expected from a constitutional institution like the EC.” He said, “It seems that the roadmap and the decision of using EVMs in these 150 seats is predetermined. The EC sought the cooperation of stakeholders in developing the previously planned roadmap and implementing it.” In this regard, secretary of Citizens for Good Governance’s (SHUJAN) Dr Badiul Alam Majumder said, “The incident of changing opinion of political parties is quite unbelievable. The election commissioners themselves said they are in a crisis of confidence and such activities will further intensify their crisis.” Regarding the election roadmap, Dr Badiul Alam Majumder said, “The roadmap announced by the Awal commission is completely biased. We stressed to conduct competitive elections but they are only talking about participatory elections. The previous elections or the questionable elections were participatory. If the elections are to be fair then attacks and cases on
The previous elections or the questionable elections were participatory. If the elections are to be fair then attacks and cases on opposition activists must be stopped. Electionterm government must be formed and a competitive environment must be created with the participation of all political parties, which is not present in the roadmap of this commission.” He further said, “According to the constitution, it is the responsibility of the EC to conduct fair elections. It would be a violation of the constitution to hold rigged elections in the name of the constitution.” He believes that the EC is approaching a failed election. He said, “We all will have to be vigilant from our respective positions to hold a free, fair, neutral and violencefree election.”
RULING PARTY’S STANCE
The ruling party Awami League sees the roadmap positively. Welcoming the roadmap, AL Joint General Secretary Mahbubul Alam Hanif said, “The EC has already taken the opinion of all parties to make the upcoming elections fair and free from any controversy. At the same time, they have published their election roadmap so that the elections are acceptable to all.” Mahbubul Alam Hanif termed the decision to appoint EC officials as returning officers instead of District Commissioners (DC) in the next polls as a good initiative. He said, “EC is an independent body. If it is possible to manage polls with its own officials, it will be possible to make the election noncontroversial and impartial.
OPPOSITION PARTIES’ STANCE
In the roadmap announced by the EC, 14 challenges have been identified towards fair elections. Among these, the lack of trust of the political parties on the EC has been shown as the first challenge. Opposition parties including BNP, Jatiya Party have already been expressing their distrust towards the current commission. Unofficially the main opposition party BNP’s standing committee member Khandkar Mosharraf Hossain said, “Our party is not interested in discussing any activities of this
commission. Because BNP has already made a clear announcement that they will not go to any election under this government and the current election commission. So whatever has the EC announced in the roadmap, we have no say in the matter.”
On the other hand, Jatiya Party chairman and deputy leader of opposition in the parliament Ghulam Muhammed Quader termed the election roadmap as a blueprint for “another rigged election”. He said, “This roadmap is a plan apparently drafted by the Awami League, which has nothing about ensuring participation of all parties in the next elections.” JP’s secretary general Mujibul Haque Chunnu thinks that there is nothing new in the 19 action plans that EC has determined in the roadmap. He said, “What has been said in the to-do list is the basic work of EC. If they say, ‘we will hold a fair election.’ What is new in this? It is the responsibility of the EC to conduct a free and fair election.” The EC has promised to penalise officials who show reluctance in polling duties. In this regard, Chunnu said, “This is not new, it is the 1991 law. Let the EC say what they will do themselves. Do they have that capability? Only the issue of installing CCTV cameras in polling stations is new. The Jatiya Party proposed installing CCTV cameras.”
Ruhin Hossain Prince, Coordinator of the Left Democratic Alliance and general secretary of the Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB) strongly criticised the Roadmap, saying that the Commission failed to gain public trust from the very beginning. “Still, the commission needs to play a role in ensuring a fair and impartial election,” he pointed out.
HOW IS EC RESPONDING?
Participation of political parties
In response to the participation of political parties in the elections, one of the most controversial issues, EC’s statement is that if a political party itself boycotts the election and supports another political party from behind, then they have nothing to do. In that case, if no one comes when called or invited by the commission, they will not be brought by force. About the possibility
of participation of all political parties, EC Md Alamgir said, “It is impossible to say what the future will hold. Since the election is still a year and four months away, we have to wait. What we can do cannot be said in advance.” He said, “We have called and scheduled meeting with all 39 political parties. Now if someone says we will not go to the elections. In other words, if someone decides not to come, we will not take responsibility for them. We cannot force any party to participate. We will rather look at the rights and privileges of those who will participate. Many times many parties do not participate in the elections due to political tactics. It may be that they are supporting another political party by not coming. But we have not yet been officially told by any political party.”
Election Commissioner Begum Rasheda Sultana said, “If someone has made up his mind that he will not participate in any way, there will be no end to his excuses. There must be a desire to come. If someone invites anyone, there must be a gesture to accept that invitation. Can you feed someone by force? No, nobody can be forced to eat. One must have the will to eat. One must have a good will to do something for the country. Without determination, it is not possible. But, we have not given up yet. We are doing our work and will continue to do so.”
Electronic Voting Machines
In response to many complaints over EVMs, the EC commented that there is no time to conduct elections with EVMs in all 300 seats. EC mentioned that if they had the opportunity and another two-three years, they would have arranged vote on all 300 seats through EVM. EC says that the current time frame is not enough to train enough manpower. In this regard, EC Md Alamgir said, “We saved 150 seats by putting EVMs in half of the centres. Then, we can take a good position in the rest of the seats so that there is no chaos. This way we have no more risk in all the 300 seats. That means, we can keep 150 seats safe and we can deploy our forces more in the remaining seats. We would have increased the number of EVMs if we could. We don’t have time to train now. If we had another two-three years ahead of us, we would have done EVM elections in all 300 seats. We have formed the commission by taking oath from the constitution, and we will definitely abide by it. We will overcome whatever hurdles there are in the implementation of the election roadmap.” To wrap up, it is a regular phenomenon that political activities will continue countrywide centring ensuing national elections. It is incumbent on the election commission to conduct the elections properly and make them acceptable to everyone. To that end, they will obviously have different opinions over various initiatives taken by them. Therefore, analysts feel that the EC should ensure that transparency is maintained in the elections. On the other hand, the general populace in the country are also excited about the forthcoming elections, as they want their voting rights to be guaranteed. So that they can vote for their preferred candidate without any hesitation and interruption. In that case, experts feel there is no alternative for the election commission to make polling stations safe, vibrant and lively.