Bangladesh’s election commission must do a better job in second year

The paper says the commission must act neutrally and steadfastly to create conditions necessary for restoring public trust as well as holding fair and participatory elections.


March 1, 2023

DHAKA – There is no easy way to build trust in an Election Commission (EC) that came out of a questionable selection process. Either it has to be reconstituted in a manner acceptable to all, which, frankly, is a big ask in the context of Bangladesh politics, or the EC has to take decisive actions to remove the question mark on its existence. Unfortunately, one year on since its formation, there’s little indication the EC appreciates the gravity of the task it has on its hands.

It appears to have made zero progress in achieving its stated goals. One may recall that in his first media briefing after being sworn in, the chief election commissioner had pledged to work with honesty and sincerity to fulfil their constitutional duties to hold free and fair elections. He had invited all parties, especially the opposition, to stay on the electoral trail and participate in elections for the sake of democracy. He had talked about restoring public confidence in the voting process, promising “swift action” in case of any election-related complaints. After one year, it is safe to say that things look as bleak as the day those promises were made on.

Evidently, thus far, the EC has failed to create anything remotely resembling a level playing field, as much because of the partisan role of the administration as because of its own unwillingness or inability to intervene decisively. It has conveniently absolved itself of the responsibility to ensure that all parties participate in the polls (as election commissioners have made it clear on several occasions). Far from playing a sincere and neutral role in election-related matters, it has mostly either acceded to the demands of the ruling camp, notably on the EVM issue, or turned a blind eye to the legal, illegal or extra-legal barriers put in the way of BNP and others trying to hold public events. And it is not just the opposition, voters remain equally sceptical about the voting process overseen by this commission, as evidenced by the persistently low turnout in recent local elections and parliamentary by-polls. Its questionable handling of electoral irregularities makes a mockery of the CEC’s promise of “swift action”.

Having thus failed to fulfil its constitutionally mandated responsibility, the EC has made it clear that it must be reformed first before it can deliver credible and participatory elections. Recent political events bring to mind the acrimonious circumstances that led to the highly controversial national polls in 2014, when 153 of the 300 MPs were elected unopposed, and in 2018, which was marked by widespread ballot box stuffing the night before election day. Are we headed in the same direction?

We must avoid a similar occurrence. For that, the EC must shed its current business-as-usual approach to effect change. It has a historic responsibility to ensure that power is finally returned to the hands of the people, the voters, and it must do everything to make that happen. It must act neutrally and steadfastly to create conditions necessary for restoring public trust as well as holding fair and participatory elections.

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