One of the biggest concerns this election is regarding observers, or more specifically, the number of observers participating. 25, 920 local observers have been cleared to monitor the polls, the lowest number of observers (barring the 2014 elections which saw even fewer numbers and was largely dismissed as a one-sided affair) going back to 1991.
Media reports have pointed out that the number of voters and polling centres have increased significantly, requiring election observers in large numbers. There are more than 42,000 polling centres this time around.
Another concern is international observers—or the lack thereof. 175 foreign observers are set to participate—again the lowest number in decades, excepting 2014. The European Union was the first to say it would not be sending its observers, citing security concerns and the lack of budget and time required to send a credible observer mission. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, the EU Ambassador to Bangladesh also said “good” local observers were in place to monitor the elections. Only two election experts on behalf of the EU are staying in the country through the polls.
The latest cancellation was of the Bangkok-based Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), whose 32-member team was sub-contracted to observe by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a US organisation.
A large number of international observers are preferred by opposition parties as their presence puts pressure on the elections to be free, fair and inclusive. A pre-election assessment report by the NDI in October stated that the elections were taking place “amid a high degree of political polarisation, heightened tensions and shrinking political space."
A spokesperson for the US State Department, in a statement on December 21, said that it was disappointed “by the Government of Bangladesh's inability to grant credentials and issue visas within the timeframe necessary to conduct a credible international monitoring mission” by ANFREL's observers. ANFREL was accordingly “forced to terminate”.
In response, the foreign ministry issued a press release on December 23 stating “the decision of ANFREL to cancel its observation mission is entirely their own despite the fact that, nearly half of its applicants have already been approved and the rest is under process.” The ministry said that it was still in the process of accrediting international election observers (with exactly a week to go before the polls).
In a statement on its website on December 23, ANFREL “expresses dismay with the manner in which the Bangladesh authorities have handled the accreditation application process for domestic and international election observers”.
The network had completed all accreditation application procedures for its 32 members by end-November. However, as of December 21, only 13 ANFREL observers had been approved by the EC prompting it to cancel its mission the next day, the statement noted. Issuing of visas, as has also been seen in the case of foreign journalists seeking to cover the elections, were delayed. ANFREL cited delays by both the EC and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in approving accreditation and visas respectively.
With limited foreign observers, local organisations are shouldering the burden of ensuring fair conduct at the polls. In its statement, ANFREL also stated that non-governmental organisations such as itself as well as domestic groups “faced significant delays in their in their accreditation or were barred altogether from monitoring the upcoming elections.”
The foreign ministry's press release also noted that local human rights organisation Odhikar was a founding member of ANFREL. “'Odhikar' is widely known for its disproportionate bias and prejudice against Bangladesh, in particular the government of Awami League, which is evident in its various reports including the recent ones published in October and December 2018,” it stated.
Forced to cancel election monitoring
On November 6, the EC canceled Odhikar's registration as an observer. The organisation which has been observing elections both at home and abroad since 1996, said it received no prior notice or a hearing after. According to the election observation rules 2017, the EC is first supposed to send a notice regarding the allegations against it and the observer can apply for a hearing, in which it can appoint a lawyer and submit evidence in its defence.
“We went to the court and filed a petition with the High Court,” says CR Abrar, president of Odhikar. Though the court ruled in the organisation's favour last month, a subsequent government appeal and legal shuffling meant Odhikar received the all-clear quite late in the game. However, Abrar states that the court's decision upheld their stance that the government could not arbitrarily cancel the organisation's registration with the EC.
But with the polls only days away, the political and legal battle has put an end to Odhikar's election monitoring this time around. “We are entitled to observe the elections now but because this has all happened so late—resource mobilisation is almost impossible.”
Earlier this month, the Prime Minister's political adviser HT Imam also filed complaints against four local observers registered with the EC. These include the Khan Foundation, Democracy Watch, and Light House—which he claimed as “completely partisan” or biased towards the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The other, Bangladesh Manobadhikar Somonnoy Parishad, a network of 300 non-governmental organisations, claims Imam, was also run by Odhikar's Adilur Rahman Khan.
“Odhikar is not even a member of our network,” says AHM Foysoul, member secretary of Bangladesh Manobadhikar Somonnoy Parishad. The network has been observing since the 1991 elections. One of the 118 local observers registered with the EC, it is set to observe the polls in eight upazilas and deploy a total of 400 observers.
The network is also a member of the Election Working Group (EWG), a group of 22 observing bodies who will be submitting a joint report to the EC. But the group has run into a funding crunch, as it awaits clearance (for funds from the Asia Foundation) by the NGO Affairs Bureau, a government body under the Prime Minister's Office.
“Even if we are given clearance, we don't know yet whether we will be able to go ahead with observing because this is so late,” says Foysoul. Training, transportation and honourariums for the 15,000 observers set to be deployed by the EWG, are all dependent on the funds coming through. “Local groups don't have the kind of money needed to fund large observer teams, though we make up the bulk of the election observers at the grassroots level, and we do not get any funding from the government or EC,” adds Foysoul.
At a meeting of the EWG on the afternoon of December 24, the observing bodies were informed that the NGO Affairs Bureau had only approved funding for seven out of the 22 members of the coalition so far (Bangladesh Manobadhikar Somonnoy Parishad was not one of them). Less than 6,000 observers can now participate, according to EWG chairperson Abdul Awal.
With the next day a holiday, there were only two working days left before election day. “We are assuming that we might not get any more funding in time. Accordingly, we have decided that the rest of the members, since we are all accredited by the EC, will observe using our own limited funds,” says Awal.
However, without the funds, it will be impossible for the 15 other EWG members to deploy as many observers as had been accredited by the EC. In other words, the number of observers the largest coalition of local bodies can deploy is less than half of what was declared.
'Restrictions' and the guidelines
The EC's domestic and foreign observer guidelines 2017 include banning observers from stationary election observation, or in layman's terms, remaining in the same polling booth throughout election day. This, notes the NDI report, is not in accordance with global norms for observer rights. The practice ensures transparency from the opening of the polls to the counting process.
The EC also announced that local observers were not allowed to speak to the media on the day of the election or use their mobile phones at the polling centres, in a briefing for observers. The EC also threatened to cancel registration of local observers if they did anything that questioned the credibility of the election process. Which, in essence, is their job.
However, the election observation guidelines 2017 only states that live telecasts or going live on social media was “highly discouraged” and that observers “refrain” from making comments to the public or the media which would disrupt the election process.
Abrar describes this time around “a much much worse scenario” for observers compared to previous elections. While the work of foreign observers is done once they have written up their report and returned to their country, the same is not true for local observers who have to deal with the repercussions of the election results.
“Local observers have to remain in the country—who is going to provide them with protection?” asks Abrar.