Reform is always a continuous process. If someone in office initiates some reform, his successor should continue it to keep its spirit alive. What happened in the case of the submission of the political parties' annual audit clearly exposed a lack of leadership skill of the incumbent Election Commission-led by Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad to carry forward reform. Since the introduction of the system in 2008, all registered political parties have been submitting such reports to the EC having audited by certified chartered accountants. But the EC has never looked into the reports to see whether they are false or correct.
The reason behind its unwillingness to examine the audit reports is ridiculous. Chief Election Commissioner last Sunday explained that there is no legal provision to scrutinise the reports by the EC. Interestingly, there is also no legal provision allowing the EC to extend the report submission timeline. Like the previous occasions, this time the EC has extended the timeline by a month to give some undue benefits to 14 political parties including the ruling Awami League, BNP and the Jatiya Party. The 14 parties had failed to submit their reports within July 31, the deadline set by the law.
On the last day of the extended time for submission of the reports, CEC Rakibuddin spoke at a press conference and announced that the reports were audited by registered chartered accountants. "Therefore," he said, "we don't need to scrutinise them anymore. The reports are acceptable." But civil society members and experts do not buy his views. They believe that there should be a mechanism to examine the reports to ensure transparency in political party funding, which has been a major source of corruption.
Former Election Commissioner M Sakhawat Hussain thinks the introduction of the system was a good achievement of the previous EC. "But," he said, "the reports should be checked by the commission to ensure more transparency in the financial activities of those parties." Iftekharuzzaman, Executive Director of Transparency International Bangladesh thinks mere submission of audit reports was not enough, as they were needed to be scrutinised by the EC to ensure transparency.
The way the CEC justified the EC's unwillingness to scrutiny the reports has questioned the continuation of the legal provision. It has been a blessing for the major political parties like the AL, BNP and Jatiya Party to earn as much as they want and spend at their will without any scrutiny. In the audit report, the AL has claimed that its income was around 12.4 crore and it spent around 6.7 crore in 2013. The BNP said its income was Tk. 76 lakh and it spent Tk. 2.27 crore in 2013. Both the parties have mentioned various sources of income. It is not possible for people to know whether the parties have concealed any information or not until the reports are scrutinised by the EC. Similarly, the authenticity of the audit reports will be questioned unless the EC scrutinises the reports.
The major political parties have been spending huge amounts of money collected from undocumented sources. It foments corruption. The Centre for Policy Dialogue in a study released in May this year portrayed a bleak picture. The study says that there is also a lack of transparency in the parties' sources of funds and their expenditures. The competition to raise a huge sum is making the parties dependent on vested interests and corrupt and criminal elements, the study observes.
The strong leadership of the then Chief Election Commissioner ATM Shamsul Huda in 2008 paved the way for the introduction of the political parties' registration system with the EC and the provision for the submission of the annual reports.
If a political party remains unwilling to ensure transparency in its own income and expenditure, it will never be transparent in spending public money when it is in power. Charity begins at home. The EC has a crucial role to play here. Does the current EC have what it takes?
The writer is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.