In EC formation, was AL’s political tactic at play?
The new Election Commission, led by Kazi Habibul Awal, is the first in the country's history to have been formed through the enactment of a specific law, as prescribed in the constitution 50 years ago. This makes it unique, to say the least, although it is too early to say whether it will be able to live up to the expectations that led to this moment. The five-member commission formed by the president will be judged by their actions and decisions with regard to the monumental task that lies ahead—holding credible elections.
In the coming days, there will be a lot of discussion on the EC's performance. For now, however, let's turn our attention to how the five commissioners were picked following a hectic selection process—and political parties whose recommendations eventually mattered—to understand if there was a pattern to this process.
There are some interesting facts to consider. For one, not a single name recommendation by any heavyweight political party was taken into consideration. Rather, a small Islamist party's recommendation yielded an election commissioner two times in a row. How is this significant?
After the search committee called on political parties to propose names for the posts of chief election commissioner (CEC) and four other election commissioners, the BNP, the Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB) and several other parties did not respond to its request. Not only did they not recommend any names, they also didn't participate in the president's dialogue on EC formation before.
On the other hand, the ruling Awami League, main opposition Jatiya Party, the Workers Party of Bangladesh, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD), Bangladesh Tariqat Federation, Ganatantri Party, Bangladesh Nationalist Front (BNF), National People's Party (NPP), and Bikalpadhara Bangladesh took part in the dialogue and also proposed their picks to the search committee, as did some organisations and individuals as well.
Of the 322 names proposed to the search committee, 138 came from the political parties, although the committee didn't disclose the identities of those who made the recommendations. It didn't disclose details of the 10 shortlisted nominees either, despite repeated calls for those names to be made public.
After the president constituted the 13th Election Commission on February 26, based on the shortlist submitted by the committee, Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader said that none of the names recommended by his party had been appointed. And it's not just the ruling party—none of the major participating parties, including Jatiya Party, Workers Party, JSD, and Bikalpadhara, got any mileage with their recommendations.
The twist lies in how smaller parties got their recommendations accepted. Let's start with Bangladesh Tariqat Federation, a lightweight Islamist party, which has already proven itself as the "luckiest" party in terms of selecting election commissioners.
CEC Habibul Awal was Tariqat's number one recommendation, while Brig Gen (retd) Ahsan Habib Khan, another name proposed by this party, was chosen as one of the election commissioners. Interestingly, the same thing happened in 2017, when then-CEC KM Nurul Huda and other two commissioners—Rafiqul Islam and Brig Gen (retd) Shahadat Hossain Chowdhury—were picked up from the five names proposed by Tariqat.
Besides Tariqat, other parties that got lucky with their recommendations were BNF, Ganatantri Party, Samyabadi Dal, Bangladesh Samajtantrik Dal (BSD), National Awami Party (NAP), and NPP, with some of the recommendations repeated between them. Incidentally, Ganatantri Party, Samyabadi Dal and NAP are all part of the Awami League-led 14-party grand alliance, while Tariqat is part of Awami League's electoral alliance.
Now, let's look at these political parties' representation in parliament.
In the 350-seat parliament, Awami League has 302 seats, Jatiya Party 26, BNP seven, Workers Party four, and JSD, Gono Forum and Bikalpadhara have two seats each, while Tariqat Federation and Jatiya Party (Manju) have one seat each. Independent candidates have three seats. So, except for Tariqat, none of the parties associated with EC formation—BNF, Ganatantri Party, Samyabadi Dal, BSD, NAP, and NPP—has any parliamentary representation.
Here is another twist: even though BNP boycotted the whole process, Gonoshasthaya Kendra founder Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury, known to be close to BNP, did recommend names to the search committee, with CEC Habibul Awal one of them. Immediately after the EC was formed, Zafrullah congratulated the newly appointed commissioners. BNP, however, wasn't happy with his move, not least because it could allow Awami League to claim that BNP had "indirectly" engaged in the process through Zafrullah. Recently, the BNP high command decided to boycott Zafrullah, and party leaders and activists have been verbally instructed not to invite him to any of their programmes, nor to participate in any of his.
The president's role in the appointment process is significant. According to Section 48 of the constitution, the president shall act in accordance with the advice of the prime minister in all matters, except in case of the appointment of the chief justice and the PM herself. So, as per the constitution, the president must have consulted with the PM prior to appointing the EC. If that is the case, why did the PM not advise him to appoint her party's recommended names? Did she advise him to pick names from the lists of the small political parties, and if so, why? And why did the PM advise him to drop the names proposed by parties with strong support base and organisational structure as well as representation in parliament? Did she leave the whole decision-making process to the president without interfering? We really don't know.
The names proposed by the ruling party were not selected by the president this time, while in 2017, only a single name was selected from its recommendations. Is Awami League not capable of proposing the right candidates? Does that indicate a political bankruptcy for a party as old and big as AL?
Or, is it possible that it used like-minded and pro-government parties to push its preferred names, instead of submitting those themselves, to avoid criticism?
If that is the case, it is a smart political tactic indeed.
Partha Pratim Bhattacharjee is the chief reporter of The Daily Star.