Can Bangladesh have a free and fair election?
Bangladesh's leaders struggled to protect people's right to vote when they were out of power; in power, they continue their attempts to deprive them of the right to vote, writes Aashish Kiphayet for South Asia Monitor
The last three national elections in Bangladesh were held in 2008, 2014 and 2018. Of these elections, only the 2008 one was widely acclaimed. Why are the elections in 2014 and 2018 criticized at home and abroad? The answer they were held under an elected government.
Another election will be held in 2023 under the currently ruling Awami League. So, the same question has been raised about its fairness. Will it be controversial too? To end the row, the government passed a law to form an Election Commission at the beginning of the year, a miracle in the 50-year history of Bangladesh.
A new Election Commission has already been formed. Its chief is Kazi Habibul Awal, a retired Secretary. Will this Commission be able to bring back democracy and fair elections in Bangladesh? The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) thinks that fair elections are not possible without a caretaker government. BNP Secretary-General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said: "We believe in elections. We need fair, neutral and acceptable elections."
Akbar Ali Khan, an adviser to the former caretaker government, also said that if the elections were held under a political government, the executive branch could not go beyond the direction of the government power. Therefore, in the current situation in Bangladesh, the Election Commission alone can't hold free, fair and neutral elections.
The newly formed Kazi Habibul Awal Commission is facing a crisis of fairness due to the bias of the last two Election Commissions. The new panel has some work to do to overcome the crisis. First, lessons from the last disputed elections and preparation for a fair election. Second, to make everyone in the Commission work beyond party affiliation. Third, strict enforcement of existing election laws.
An important role of the Awal Commission may be to analyze the last two controversial national elections and draw the necessary lessons. At the same time, it must ensure proper implementation of the existing election laws. Create a level playing field for everyone. It must identify the failures and inadequacies of the last two Commissions so that they can be avoided.
All Commission members should work beyond their political affiliations to give the people a fair election. In addition, there are allegations of misconduct against the Election Commission Secretariat and some officials. It has been alleged that a syndicate of partisanship and corruption has formed within the panel. All this must end.
Ensure fair ballot
There are enough laws in Bangladesh to conduct fair elections. These need proper application. The role of law enforcement and government officials during elections should be kept under proper supervision. In addition, for the registration of a political party, 90 sections of RPO must be followed properly.
The Election Commission is an independent and constitutional institution. All those who have come to it have long experience in administrative work. They must identify the weaknesses and shortcomings of the electoral system and remove the obstacles. As a constitutional body, its job is not to serve any political party. There should be level playing field for all. Not only should the Commission be impartial, but it should ensure that everyone works impartially.
The Election Commission cannot make elections free, fair and participatory if it wants to unless Bangladesh's political leaders, public administration and law enforcement do not cooperate. What should be done in that case? No matter how many obstacles or adversities there may be, the powers vested in the Constitution and Law Commission must be exercised. Regrettably, even after 50 years of independence, Bangladeshi political leadership has not been able to reach a consensus over elections.
Bangladesh's political leaders struggled to protect the people's right to vote when they were out of power; in power, they continue their attempts to deprive them of the right to vote. Almost all the laws and regulations that aim for fair elections have been nullified.
The Chief Election Commissioner has sought the cooperation of the mass media regarding the 2023 ballot. However, there is criticism of election-centric journalism in Bangladesh. There are questions about how independent the mass media can be during elections. But the media must publish the right information. Besides, state media such as Bangladesh Betar, Bangladesh Television, Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS) and the Information Department should play a moral role.
Lastly, the role of the Election Commission is more to make the election 100 percent fair. The 2023 elections remain highly questionable. At a recent event, Awal remarked that success can be achieved if 50-60 percent of people accept the election. He thinks that 100 percent success in elections is never possible.
If the Election Commission continues with a goal of 50-60 percent acceptance, it creates fear in the minds of the people. Because people may think that the new Commission has already surrendered to the government.
(The author is a New York-based journalist whose area of interest is Bangladesh and South Asia. Views are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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