Aug 31, 2013

Is EC prepared for free, fair, credible, inclusive polls?

Representatives of several donor countries and the United Nations recently met with our Election Commission (EC) to “know what the EC is doing with regards to its preparations for the upcoming polls.” They particularly wanted to know about the Commission’s preparations for ‘free, fair, credible and inclusive election(s).’ We too, as citizens, are most interested to know these things. Will the Commission, as the constitutional body mandated to hold national elections, tell us?
Elections generally require two types of preparations: technical preparations and logistical preparations. Technical preparations are more difficult and time-consuming, and they have the strongest bearing on the credibility of elections.

Technical preparations for holding parliamentary elections require (1) an appropriate legal framework, (2) a suitable disclosure instrument, (3) a reliable electoral roll, and (3) proper delimitation of constituencies. Technical preparations also need to be completed (a) on time and (b) with integrity.
Logistical preparations, on the other hand, can be of two types: (1) those requiring advanced preparations and (2) those needing election-time actions. The procurement of supplies, such as ballot boxes, indelible ink, computers, software, other equipment, printing of voter roll and the like, must be made significantly ahead of the election date. Polling stations also must be identified in advance. In contrast, printing ballot papers and appointing personnel to conduct elections are decided after the election schedule is declared.
Let us examine the Commission’s level of technical preparation in order to hold elections to the tenth parliament.
Legal Framework: As per its plan, the Commission wanted to update the legal framework by March 2013, but it has failed to achieve its target. What is most disturbing in this regard is that, five months after the deadline, no one knows when the Commission will be able to complete this important task. Such uncertainty is caused by the many unnecessary controversies and criticisms generated by its proposed changes in the RPO, including its decision to abolish 91E, which empowers it to cancel candidacy for serious violations of statutory rules. According to media reports, even the Commissioners are now divided on the issue of the abolition of 91E (ProthomAlo, August 27).
One of the arguments used by the Commission for the abolition of 91E, it may be pointed out, is that it already has the same power under 91A. Unfortunately, the Commission’s claim, as former CEC Dr. Shamsul Huda rightly pointed out, is wrong; 91A only grants the Commission the authority to impose fines on candidates and political parties (The Daily Star, August 28).
It may be recalled that the Huda Commission, before its departure in January 2013, left a set of proposals and draft laws, which should have made the new Commission’s task easier. Thus, the incumbent’s inability to finalise the legal framework on time is hardly justified. Furthermore, the Commission’s proposed changes are grossly inadequate for ensuring free, fair and meaningful elections. For example, the present nomination procedure [90B(1)(b)(iv)] allows party supremos to nominate anyone and exact bribes, popularly known as ‘mononoyonbanijya’(nomination trade), which must be changed.
Disclosures: One novel feature of our RPO is that it requires the disclosure of candidates’ antecedents, including their criminal records, sources of income, their and their dependent’s assets and liabilities, and tax-related information. The instrument used for these disclosures is totally inadequate for making public the required information, which is necessary to prevent undesirable elements from running for public office. For example, it is unable to capture private interests and the detailed sources for their and their dependents’ income. In addition, to get the full benefit of the disclosure requirements, the nomination papers must be filed electronically.
Electoral Roll: The electoral roll, updated as of January 2013, shows that the total number of voters increased roughly from 81 million in 2008 to 92 million in 2013. In other words, the number of voters increased by nearly 13.58% during the last five years, registering a roughly 2.72% annual rate of increase. However, the average yearly rate of population increase during 2008-11 was about 1.39%. Thus, the rate of increase of voters does not match the rate of increase of population during the period, casting serious doubts about the accuracy of the electoral roll. Some observers suspect that such discrepancies are due to multiple enrollment of voters in several locations, which was almost absent in 2008.
Doubts in the accuracy and integrity of the updated electoral roll are reinforced further by the fact that 2013 roll shows that the number of female voters is less than the number of male voters, although the opposite was true in 2008. In 2008, there were 1.4 million more female voters than male voters; in 2013, strangely, there are 0.4 million fewer female voters than male voters.
Another reason to doubt the updated electoral roll is that, based on an audit of the voters’ list carried out in January 2013, the Election Working Group (EWG) reported that 15% of the national ID numbers in the roll were wrong. EWG, however, in its Press Release, claimed that voters’ list was more or less accurate. How can one be sure that the voters’ list was accurately updated when the ID numbers noted in the list were wrong? The Commission owes at least an explanation to put to rest doubts in the minds of the citizens regarding the accuracy of the electoral roll.
We are aware that the Huda Commission carried out, through an international organisation, an independent audit of the electoral roll prepared in 2008. It would be most appropriate to repeat a similar exercise, for which we see no initiative. The 2013 electoral roll is not even available, neither on the web nor in printed form — although the printing of the electoral roll was to be completed in July — for any interested citizen to verify its accuracy.
Delimitation: As for its announced timeframe, the Commission was to complete the delimitation of constituencies by December 2012. However, it published its preliminary delimitation report in February this year, proposing changes in the boundaries of 87 constituencies. The proposed changes invited sharp criticisms and even serious accusations of wrongdoing on the part of the Commission.
We have examined the preliminary delimitation and found that it fully meets neither local nor international standards (Jugantor, May 21). For example, as a result of the proposed changes, the differences in the sizes of the constituencies in terms of number of voters actually increased. While the smallest constituency, Jhalkhati-1, had 0.14 million voters in 2008, the largest constituency, Dhaka-19, had 0.62 million voters. But after the preliminary delimitation, the number of voters in the smallest constituency, Jessore-1, turned out to be 0.14 million, and the largest constituency, again Dhaka-19, came to be 0.82 million.
After the preliminary delimitation results came out, even the Commission’s neutrality was questioned by the ruling party’s lawmakers. For example, the accusation was made that the Commission, at the request of the state minister of law, had readjusted the boundaries of his constituencies, which consequently required changes in other 15 constituencies of Dhaka. This precipitated the lodging of complaints by eight ruling party MPs. Dr. Mostafa Jalal Mohiuddin of Dhaka-7 publicly stated: “The Election Commission has adjusted boundaries of the constituencies of Dhaka to protect the interest of a powerful state minister of our government. In protecting the interest of one person, it is undesirable to sacrifice the interests of 15 others” (Prothom Alo, March 31).
The proposed delimitation of the constituencies of the Kurigram district also invited serious criticism. Another ruling party MP, Mr. Zakir Hossain, charged the Commissioner of indulging in favouritism. During a hearing before the Commission, he complained: “Conspiracies are being hatched in the downstairs of the Commission Secretariat to drastically alter the constituencies of Kurigram. The son and son-in-law of an Election Commissioner want to contest elections from Kurigram. This Commissioner has intervened to rearrange the boundaries to their liking.” In both cases, the Commissioners obviously denied the allegations.
Last July, nearly seven months after the deadline, the Commission published its final delimitation results. Unfortunately, we are unable to scrutinise the results as the electoral roll is not publicly available.
The Commission, it may be noted, is an independent constitutional body, and hence does not have to answer to any other entity as such. This makes it imperative that the Commission shows the highest degree of transparency and commitment to public interests. Unfortunately, the Commission seems to kee
It is clear from the foregoing that the Election Commission is seriously behind schedule in its completion of many of the tasks required to technically prepare for the upcoming elections. The quality and integrity of the tasks completed so far are also questionable at best. The Commission is even delinquent in performing some of its logistical tasks (such as identifying and repairing potential election booths, a task which was to be completed in June-July this year) although it claims its readiness for elections any time. Even if development partners provide all the logistical help the Commission now needs, it would be unable to hold elections on time unless its technical preparations are in place. In addition, with the technical preparations poorly done, the results of the elections, when held, would be subject to question.
More seriously, three of the four biggest political parties of Bangladesh — BNP, Jatiyo Party and Jamaat-e-Islami — have already expressed their ‘no confidence’ in the present Commission. Given this, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for the Commission to deliver the election results which would be considered by all concerned as free, fair and credible, and in which all major parties would participate. We are eager to know how the Commission intends to meet this formidable challenge.

Published: Saturday, August 31, 2013

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