The pulse | Politics | South Asia
The current impasse over voter turnout cannot be defused unless the Electoral Commission engenders confidence among opposition parties.
Bangladeshi election officials count ballots shortly after voting ended at a polling station in the ancient town of Panam Nagar, about 20 kilometers southeast of Dhaka, Bangladesh, December 30, 2018.
Credit: AP Photo/Anupam Nath
General elections in Bangladesh may take place in at least two years, but the country has started to take steps towards the conduct of the vote. On February 27, a five-member electoral commission, headed by former justice minister Kazi Habibul Awal, was sworn in for a five-year term. The process of appointing a new electoral commission was launched on February 5, when President Md Abdul Hamid set up a search committee to recommend names for the positions of chief electoral commissioner and four members of the committee.
Before setting up a search committee, Hamid held a series of interviews with political parties. However, almost all major opposition parties, including the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), did not participate in the dialogue with the president or put forward names for Election Commission positions. They said they didn’t trust the search committee. Shortly after the formation of the electoral commission, BNP secretary Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir declared that “the party has no interest in the newly announced electoral commission”.
The current controversy over the Electoral Commission is not new. We can go back to the 1990s. In 1996, the Awami League (AL) called for the holding of general elections under a neutral caretaker government. The then ruling BNP rejected the request and the AL boycotted the elections held in February of that year. The BNP government enacted a law providing for the formation of a neutral interim government that would conduct the elections.
In 2006, the AL accused the head of the caretaker government of having close ties to the ruling BNP. His boycott of the general election that year sparked unrest, paving the way for the military to stage a coup. In the December 2008 elections, the AL and its allies came to power with an absolute majority.
Capitalizing on a Supreme Court verdict that the interim government provision is unconstitutional, the AL government in 2011 used its massive majority in parliament to abandon the system of holding elections under a neutral interim government. This prompted the BNP to boycott the 2014 general election. As a result, 153 of the 300 parliamentary constituencies remained uncontested. The AL candidates were thus elected without competition.
In 2018, another election was held under the AL government. This time, the BNP participated in the election. However, there were widespread reports of vote rigging. In its report on the election, Transparency International Bangladesh said a series of election irregularities, including ballot-stamping on the eve of polling and ballot-stuffing by capturing voting booths on polling day, observed in 47 of the 50 constituencies studied. The report also drew attention to the complicity of law enforcement in these irregularities.
Two consecutive elections with a series of irregularities have caused a stalemate in the political landscape of Bangladesh. The formation of the electoral commission has attracted media attention as it will organize the general elections scheduled for December 2023.
The Electoral Commission will only be able to make a difference if it is fully empowered to conduct fair elections.
The problem is that Bangladesh has developed a one-party political culture in recent years. Experts even describe it as a hybrid regime and a competitive authoritarian state. In these circumstances, the chances of the Electoral Commission being a genuinely neutral and non-partisan body seem slim. The AL government will have to do more to build public and political party confidence in institutions like the Electoral Commission.