‘My agenda has been to uphold democracy’
Election Commissioner Mahbub Talukdar speaks with Mohiuddin Alamgir of The Daily Star about various issues related to the outgoing Bangladesh Election Commission, as well as the elections held during its five-year tenure, which expires today. This is the last of a two-part series of interviews marking the occasion.
During the December 2018 election, opposition political parties alleged that their activists had been repressed, while ballot-box stuffing on the night before the voting day and some polling stations receiving 100 percent votes also made headlines. What is your take on these issues?
In the last parliamentary election, 213 polling stations reported having 100 percent votes cast. A BBC report also revealed that ballot-box stuffing had taken place on the night before the election day. Repression of opposition leaders and activists prior to the election has become a culture. There was a flurry of "ghost cases" against leaders and activists ahead of the election.
The 11th parliamentary election gave us nothing but the shame of failure. The chief election commissioner [KM Nurul Huda] claimed that "there was a level playing field," but in reality, it did not exist. In the existing system, deputy commissioners act as returning officers; I don't think it is possible for them to remain neutral when it comes to sitting MPs in the existing political culture. So, the election was not free, nor neutral, lawful or acceptable.
Could the Election Commission have investigated the allegations on its own? Why didn't it?
It was an established truth that ballot-box stuffing took place on the night before voting day. Investigating that allegation did not require directives from a court or anyone. I assume there was no investigation because if the matter of ballot-box stuffing had been investigated, the responsibility would have fallen on the commission.
Why do you say that it was established that ballot-box stuffing took place?
The Election Commission did not protest the BBC report.
Did you ever discuss ballot-box stuffing at any of the commission meetings?
No, I didn't discuss the matter.
The (outgoing) Election Commission was widely praised for holding the election to Cumilla City Corporation at the beginning of its tenure and the Narayanganj City Corporation election towards the end. But it was criticised for other local government elections, many of which were rife with violence and irregularities. Why did the commission fail with those elections?
During the Cumilla city polls, there was no outside interference as the commission was new. At the beginning, we were inspired to work independently. In the Narayanganj election, a scope was given to prove that free and fair election is possible under a political government. So, it was an exceptional case.
I closely observed the Gazipur City Corporation election. I prepared a detailed report on it, and [on behalf of the Election Commission] I alone conducted the Barishal city polls. I wanted to stop the Barishal election due to irregularities, but could not because of the lack of cooperation from my colleagues. The Chittagong City Corporation election became a model of irregularities.
Why couldn't you keep the law enforcement and local administration under control?
Law enforcement agencies and local administrations are not under the Election Commission's authority, as per the existing electoral process. The commission is their temporary boss during the elections; their permanent bosses are the sitting MPs, who will be re-elected. In my view, the public administration and home ministries should be placed under the authority of the Election Commission before a parliamentary election.
Forty-two distinguished citizens have urged the president to constitute the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) to investigate the allegations of election-related misconduct and financial irregularities in the present Election Commission. What are your comments on this?
I am not exempted from these allegations. So, I can't comment on this.
On several occasions, you have publicly taken a different position than that of the rest of the Election Commission, regarding election irregularities, inaction of the administration, etc. Did you ever discuss these issues at the commission meetings?
Speeches are not recorded in detail in the minutes of the Election Commission meetings. Many of my important speeches did not find a place in the meeting minutes. In some cases, I asked to add my written statement to be attached to the minutes. I asked the CEC, other commissioners and the secretary several times through unofficial notes to add my speeches in the minutes, so that my dissent would not go unrecorded.
I placed several notes of dissent at the commission meetings. I even walked out of a meeting as I was not allowed to speak. Let me give you an example of the kind of situation I had to deal with.
About three months before the 11th parliamentary election, I wanted to place a written statement before the commission at a meeting, on some proposals to make the election free, fair and participatory. I informed the matter to the CEC through an unofficial note. In written format, I was informed that I could place the proposal at the 36th meeting of the commission. A copy of the proposal was sent to all the election commissioners.
Surprisingly, the CEC did not allow me to place the proposal at the meeting. It happened because three other election commissioners had requested the CEC not to let me place the proposal. They said my proposal was unconstitutional.
So, I placed a note of dissent at the meeting. In the note, I said freedom of speech and expression are my constitutional rights, and the Election Commission could not, in any way, deprive me of those rights. I also boycotted the commission meeting in protest of this unjust decision.
In reply to your media statements about election irregularities and violence, CEC KM Nurul Huda said you had a personal agenda. What is your comment on that?
I did have an agenda; my agenda was to make all elections in Bangladesh free, fair, neutral, lawful and peaceful. I will not avoid my responsibility if there is violence anywhere. With all my strength, I will prevent its recurrence. My agenda is to establish human rights through establishing voting rights. My agenda is to uphold democracy, which is the main directive of the constitution. Who wants to live without democracy?
In your book "Amlar Amalnama," you mentioned that you and the CEC were colleagues before, and at that time, he committed an "act of insubordination." Did this later cause any problems between you two in the Election Commission?
In 1998, I was working as an additional secretary at parliament, and KM Nurul Huda was joint secretary. Before my joining, there were two additional secretary posts at parliament. On a temporary basis, I was appointed as an additional secretary at the office of the Leader of the House Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, but I was attached as an additional secretary of the Parliament Secretariat. At that time, Nurul Huda sent a note to the then secretary of the Parliament Secretariat, describing me as an outsider, since I was not an additional secretary appointed in the designated post of the Parliament Secretariat, and he [Nurul Huda] was not obliged to obey my instructions.
The then Parliament Secretary Kazi Muhammad Manzoor e Mawla rebuked him and said his action was indicative of his insubordination. Nurul Huda did not say anything further on this. He was not from my wing either.
This happened 30 years ago. I don't think it was an issue when we worked together in the Election Commission.
You were against the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs) in the last general election. Do you think they should be used in the next one?
I have been against the use of EVMs since the beginning—doing so is not right if people are not used to the technology. It was promised there would be discussions with political parties on EVM use, but that promise was not kept.
To me, EVMs are still not reliable. During the Narayanganj election, I observed that they were quite slow. We should add Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trail [which allows voters to verify that their votes have been cast] to the EVMs to ensure reliability. As for using EVMS in the next election, that decision will have to be made in consultation with the political parties.
BNP has already said it will not participate in the next election without a caretaker government. In this situation, how acceptable will the election be under a political government?
I am worried about the next parliamentary election. It won't be accepted nationally or internationally if the opposition parties do not take part in it. So far, elections held under caretaker governments have been acceptable. But now elections under a caretaker government are not possible without amending the constitution.
What steps should be taken to make the next parliamentary election free, participatory and neutral?
Consensus among the political parties is required to make the next parliamentary election free, fair and participatory. Political parties should have the will and cordiality towards the normal transfer of power. The law enforcement agencies should function under the Election Commission's authority. Voters should be able to believe that they would be allowed to cast their votes without any hindrance and according to their wish. There is a need to amend the constitution and the rules to reform the electoral process. I want to say that only democracy can uphold human rights and human dignity.
You have written books like "Bangabhabane Panch Bachhar" and "Amlar Amalnama." Do you have any plan to write a book on your experience as an election commissioner?
I have written a book titled "Nirbachannama" on my experience as an election commissioner. I don't think it will be possible to publish this book, which is more than 1,200 pages, before my death.