People's loss of faith in elections: To what extent is the EC to blame?
Since the Awami League's fourth consecutive victory in what appeared to be an essentially one-sided election, much of the discussion has centred on the future trajectory of politics and the potential impact on business and the economy. A crucial institution—the Election Commission (EC)—should not skip a closer scrutiny of its role in staging the election, which allowed the ruling party to manipulate the system adeptly and walk away unchallenged. During an event on January 18, Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Kazi Habibul Awal, without taking any responsibility, finally acknowledged that people's confidence in the electoral system has declined.
The CEC's realisations that the election was not sufficiently participatory and that "the crisis still remains as the polls (have) not been acceptable to some parties" make us wonder how he could still claim that "the nation could overcome a crisis through this election"? His remarks at the thanks-giving event at the commission indicate that they are struggling to reconcile with the facts that the election they conducted fell far short of the threshold of a democratic exercise. Putting together his admission of "not participatory enough" with his previous assertion that if one percent vote was cast, the polls would get legality but not legitimacy, one can easily deduce that this election's legitimacy is in question.
The EC's attempts to portray the election as participatory and fair seem to have been more focused on appearance than on genuine efforts to achieve these goals. For instance, sending an invitation letter to the deserted and locked BNP office—instead of ensuring an enabling environment—appeared to be a mere public relations stunt. The cancellation of one sitting MP's candidature for violating electoral code served as a diversion from the EC's inaction in numerous other violations.
The Transparency International Bangladesh's (TIB) 12th National Parliament Election Process Tracking report, published last week, sheds light on the EC's failures. One of the most crucial observations by TIB is, "The Election Commission, sometimes by compulsion in the name of Constitutional and legal compulsion and on occasions by design, played the role of a key catalyst for the realization of the agenda of the one-sided election. Other state institutions, especially law enforcement agencies and administration were also used to play, or played the same role in similar ways." The report outlines the EC's failures throughout the pre-election phase, the campaign phase, and the actual election period. The pre-election phase included voter registration, redrawing of constituencies, registration of new political parties, making changes in the Representation of the People Order (RPO), holding dialogue as part of its confidence-building exercise, registrations of local and foreign observers, role of political parties, schedule announcement, and submission of nominations and scrutinisation of their validity. Unfortunately, each of those acts stoked new controversies and raised questions about the EC's mandated neutrality and independence. Its handling of observers—international observers, in particular—is a pretty shocking example of its complicity with the government. It has allowed fake foreign observers despite our earlier warnings about it and reminders of instances during the 2018 election.
Though ministers have lambasted TIB by comparing it as a front of the opposition BNP, its research on 50 constituencies, spread throughout eight divisions and 41 districts, is quite extensive and covers all kinds of irregularities and violations of electoral rules and code of conduct. The findings, which align with reports from national and international media, challenge the credibility of the election.
It's not only the mainstream media. Social media platforms, too, are awash with videos exposing irregularities, including ballot stuffing, children casting votes, creation of fake queues in the presence of foreign media and observers, and polling agents being forced out. This evidence further underscores the need for a thorough examination of the EC's role. Had the EC installed CCTV cameras at the polling stations instead of spending so much energy on its electronic voting machine (EVM) project, which was eventually abandoned due to a lack of funding, it could have managed the polls a little better. As statements made by losing nominees of the ruling Awami League and its allies, including some top politicians, also supplemented TIBs findings, one might wonder whether Obaidul Quader would call them BNP spokespersons as well.
In the absence of real competition and given the opposition's boycott, both the ruling party and the EC focused their attention on ensuring at least 50 percent voter turnout. The sudden and mysterious rise of turnout figures in the last hour of election day, which otherwise seems improbable, raised strong suspicion that it was yet another act by the EC to assist the ruling party to make the election appear reasonably participatory.
With election expert groups from the European Union and the IRI-NDI of the United States seeking access to detailed data on voter turnout, questions surrounding the credibility of the election persist. Despite its promise to give a turnout figure every two hours on the polling day through its Smart Election Management app, which had cost a staggering Tk 21 crore, the EC failed miserably. Later, CEC Awal was quoted by some media saying that he heard the app had been hacked. It sounds like a very convenient coincidence that further complicates the mystery of a sudden spike in voting figures.
The Election Commission is reportedly taking an initiative to have an upazila election in March. When the chief of this constitutional body admits that people's confidence in the country's electoral process has decreased, moving ahead with another nationwide election without addressing the deep-rooted issues with the last would invite more questions. Without a national dialogue to establish an acceptable election management mechanism, these elections may only strengthen the ruling party's grip over the local government structure.
Kamal Ahmed is an independent journalist. His X handle is @ahmedka1
Views expressed in this article are the author's own.
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