Fixing the election umpire

The selection of Bangladesh’s new election commissioners is a further sign that the country is moving towards a rigged election.

Fixing the election umpire
Election banners on the street of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo: Keren Su/China Span/Alamy

A new set of election commissioners headed by the former senior bureaucrat, Kazi Habibul Awal, has been established under a recently enacted law that defined the eligibility and qualifications for its five members. The law required a search committee led by a Supreme Court justice to recommend a shortlist of potential candidates, whose names were drawn from suggestions made by political parties and citizens. The country’s president then made the final appointments.

With a Supreme Court justice, who had close links to the ruling party, heading the search committee, and with the president only able to do what the prime minister advises, it should come as no surprise that the composition of the new commission could just as easily have been appointed under the old practice of picking those who have a proven track record of loyalty to their political masters and of adhering to their orders.

Of the five members of the new commission, four are bureaucrats. In the first place, Bangladesh’s bureaucracy does not encourage independent thinking among its members — rather fealty to their political masters. So having an election commission dominated by bureaucrats — rather than by independent civil society members — is in itself a huge problem, and indicative of a government that is not seeking an independent institution, but one that it can dominate.

Moreover, a number of the retired bureaucrats turned election commissioners can be said to have received political favours from the current government. After retiring from the army, Brigadier General Ahsan Habib Khan, one of the appointees, was given a top job in the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission where he stayed for four years. Only a few retired army officers get these kinds of jobs. And Md Alamgir and Anisur Rahman, two of the other retired bureaucrats appointed to the election commission, were earlier promoted to the select group of “senior secretaries”, a clear indication that they were seen as particularly loyal to the government.

One familiar theme that had emerged during the search committee’s consultation process was for it not to recommend any name of perceived beneficiaries or victims of any of recent political governments. These appointments are clearly at odds with such expectations.

Also, the appointment of Md Alamgir seems highly misjudged. He was himself until recently the senior secretary to an election commission whose members at the time were accused of obeisance to the Awami League government.

But it is the appointment of Kazi Habibul Awal as the new chief election commissioner (CEC), which is illustrative of everything that is wrong with this new commission — and why the country is no step further towards being able to hold a free and fair election.

For three years, between 2014 and 2017, as the defence ministry’s chief bureaucrat, Awal directly served Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in her role as the country’s defence minister. Furthermore, he received quite a favour from Hasina’s government. Although Awal formally retired in 2015, the prime minister unusually authorised that he be given two additional contracts allowing him to continue in this job for two further years. This is not a bureaucrat who will stand firm against the current government.

Awal’s earlier career had already suffered from some controversy. Though starting his career in the judicial service as a Munsif (now known as assistant judge) he preferred bureaucracy to the courtroom and rose to the rank of an additional secretary at the ministry of law, a role which gave rise to friction with his former fellows of the judicial service. When in 2007, he assumed the office of the acting secretary of the law ministry, a district judge challenged his appointment in a writ and the High Court division of the Supreme Court found his appointment illegal. The appellate division upheld that ruling.

Awal was also blamed for the removal of two district judges without following the necessary procedures and had to apologise to a parliamentary committee for the misdeed. Indeed, one former leader of the Bangladesh Judicial Services Association has told Netra News that Kazi Awal was seen by bureaucrats as their guardian due to his role in clipping the wings of judicial independence in the lower judiciary. 

Despite such irregularities, in 2010 he was made a secretary in the ministry of religious affairs “under special consideration” on the recommendation of the president who as head of state has the prerogative of nominating up to 10% of top jobs in the civil service.

It has now emerged that the new CEC’s name was proposed by at least two minor partners of the ruling coalition, Tarikat Federation and BSD (Bangladesher Samyabadi Dal). The name of the now recently retired CEC had also been put forward by Tarikat Federation. Newspapers have reported that, on both occasions, the Awami League has used its junior partners as proxies to propose its preferred choices. This could explain why the Awami League and its allies have resisted publishing the details of who proposed which names.   

The only non-bureaucrat appointee of the election commission is the former district court judge Rashida Sultana Emily. Little is known about her, but she does come from a category of the Bangladesh’s judiciary not known for independence.

Reactions among the political class in Bangladesh have been predictable with only the Awami League and its allies hailing the new election commissioner. The main rival of the ruling party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its allies have refused to accept the new commission as a truly independent and credible body that can be trusted for a fair election.

Mahmudur Rahman Manna of Nagorik Oikkya perhaps best summarised the opposition’s position by saying that even if Sheikh Hasina became the CEC with someone else as the prime minister, then even she would not be able to hold any election against the wishes of the government of the day. Apart from the BNP and its allies, some other parties including the left wing Communist Party of Bangladesh and the right wing Islami Andolon had boycotted the process of consultation on the formation of EC, saying that before forming the EC, a political solution was essential for an impartial poll-time government.

The opposition’s refusal to engage in the consultation process and rejection of the new EC suggest the opposition might move towards a very different set of political proposals. A newly floated political party led by Reza Kibria, a former IMF economist and Nurul Haque, the former Vice President of the Dhaka University of Students Union (DUCSU) have called for UN supervision for the next election.

In 2018, Reza Kibria was one of the leading figures in the BNP-led alliance, and his proposal for UN administered polling could be an attempt to test the waters for the idea — which could be taken up more widely. With the government refusing to return to an election time care-taker government system, it may take the UN’s involvement to bring the opposition into the elections, and for there to be anything akin to a free and fair vote.●