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Will the next election be any different from the previous ones?

Published : Friday, 30 September, 2022 at 12:00 AM  Count : 866
Syed Badiuzzaman

Will the next election be any different from the previous ones?

Will the next election be any different from the previous ones?

That's the million-dollar question! When the new election commissioners were appointed from a long list of people nominated by various Bangladeshi political parties, individuals and organizations early this year, expectations skyrocketed for a different and much better election this time around in the country than those in the past under the former officials.  

But people's hopes are fading fast as the new election commissioners haven't yet demonstrated anything that is markedly different from that of their predecessors. Nor have they done yet anything significant that can raise their expectations for a better election next year or in January 2024. Up until today, it is like the same old wine in new bottle and many people are getting increasingly frustrated.

Frankly speaking there is no credit for merely holding a national election in the country. Any group of five people -- one chief and four election commissioners -- from a list of 322 nominees could easily hold an election like the one held by the previous officials. That's not a big challenge! The big challenge is to hold an election with a difference - a truly free, fair, neutral, participatory as well as internationally acceptable poll. So, are the current officials up to the task?

They are talking about holding the next national election in the country next year or in January 2024. But what they are not talking about is whether or not they will be able to hold a better election than the previous ones - an election that will be free, fair, neutral and also acceptable to the international community. If they hold an election just like the previous ones, then what should they be credited for? As said this is a task which could be performed easily by any five people from those nominated.  

The Election Commission of Bangladesh will have the financial supports, logistics as well as assistance from the law enforcement agencies across the country, yet the election commissioners aren't saying definitively that they will be able to hold a free, fair, neutral, credible as well as internationally acceptable election next year or in January 2024. So, the question that naturally pops up is what kind of election then they will hold in Bangladesh? Will it be good enough if they simply say that they will try to hold a free and fair election?

I don't think so. Because many people may then question why these five among so many nominees are chosen as election commissioners? Why not another group of five people from them? Why not yet another group? On the long list of nominees for the job of election commissioners, there were many other individuals with impressive background who were fully capable of holding elections in Bangladesh. However, no one knew for sure if they would be able to organize a free, fair, neutral and credible national election in the country either.

The challenge facing the new election commissioners is enormous. If they fail to hold a free, fair, credible, participatory as well as internationally acceptable election, they will not deserve any pat on their back for a job well done. Their names will probably be written alongside those of their predecessors in the history book of Bangladesh but they will not go down in history with any such praise or appreciation. This is an opportunity only few fortunate people get just once in their lifetime. So, the new election commissioners must seize it and show the world that they have the ability to hold a truly free, fair and neutral election in Bangladesh.  

The Election Commission of Bangladesh has a significant role in strengthening democracy and establishing good governance in the country through holding free, fair and neutral elections. As a constitutional entity, the commission is principally responsible for holding free and fair elections and performing other activities related to the election management in Bangladesh. However, holding free and fair elections under accurate electoral rolls is the prime responsibility of the Election Commission of Bangladesh. As per the constitutional requirement, the commission must also operate with complete transparency and accountability.

However, allegations of graft tarnished the reputation of this independent constitutional body during the tenure of the previous officials. On December 19, 2020, 42 eminent citizens of Bangladesh demanded an independent judicial inquiry into alleged corruption against the chief election commissioner and his deputies. The allegations included embezzlement of Tk 40.8 million during the recruitment process of election commission staff, misappropriation of Tk 20 million for imaginary programs and purchasing electronic voting machines or EVMs at a higher price than the market rate.

There is no allegation of any corruption against the current officials of election commission but many people are questioning their decision to spend a massive amount of tax payers' money at a time of global financial crisis to buy electronic voting machines for using them during the next general election in the country. According to local media reports, the Election Commission of Bangladesh has already approved a project of Tk 8,711 crore to buy 200,000 electronic voting machines for conducting next parliamentary election in 150 ridings in the country.

Opposition politicians and civil society groups are furious at this fanciful decision of the election commission when Bangladesh itself is currently under a financial stress like many other countries around the world. Elderly politician and president of Gonoforum Kamal Hossain blasted the election commission for deciding to use EVMs in the next election. "Despite the objections of most of the political parties, the Election Commission is now taking preparation to conduct the voting through EVMs in 150 constituencies which is a dreadful sign for the nation," he said.

Former student leader and currently the general secretary of Anwar Hossain Manju-led Jatiya Party Sheikh Shahidul Islam also fired a broadside at the election commission for deciding to use EVMs in the next election in Bangladesh. "If EVMs are used in 150 seats and paper ballots in others, then there will be two types of elections. It will be discriminatory. The person who uses EVMs will get one kind of treatment and the person who does not will get another kind," Islam noted.  
A group of Bangladesh's prominent citizens has also warned the commission not to use EVMs in the next election saying "we will once again face a failed election which will lead us into dire crisis as a nation." "EVM is a weak device. It does not have Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail [VVPAT]. As a result, there is no scope to recount or examine the results declared by the Election Commission. EVM results can also be manipulated through programming as in any other electronic device. Besides, the technical team deployed at the field level during the election can also change the election results," they added.

Then what makes the Election Commission of Bangladesh so obsessed with EVMs? At a time of global financial crisis which has also hit Bangladesh, is this a fair decision of the election commissioners to spend a massive sum of Tk 8,711 crore from the national exchequer to buy 200,000 EVMs? Do they have approval from the citizens of Bangladesh to go for this mega purchase of voting machines which are currently being fully used only by a handful of countries? In the whole world, only four countries use EVMs nationwide. Eleven countries use them partially and eleven other countries which experimented with EVMs decided against using them.

Except India, most of the major democratic countries in the world including the United States, England, France, Germany and Italy are not using EVMs because they lack transparency. In 2011, the Indian Supreme Court directed the Election Commission of India to include a Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail or VVPAT for reliability. Accordingly, India has started using EVMs with VVPAT. If Bangladesh can also make similar arrangement, only then it should consider using EVMs in place of paper ballots during the elections. The election commissioners should rather focus on how to hold free and fair elections, not on their modernization.
The writer is a Toronto-based
journalist who also writes for the Toronto Sun as a guest columnist

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