Election Commission, The Key Pillar of Bangladesh Democracy: Its History and Journey

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Published on January 22, 2022
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Bangladesh had to go through many obstacles to strengthen the free election process and the Election Commission as a constitutional institution. Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman formulated the Constitution just nine months into the independence for building Bangladesh as a strong democratic state. He then formed an independent Election Commission in line with the Constitution. Later, his daughter Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina digitalized the electoral system of Bangladesh. The formation of an independent election commission, a permanent secretariat for the election commission and financial independence for the election commission have already been ensured.

Almost everything that needs to be done to establish an independent election commission is being implemented in phases. We can see this in the recent local elections. However, the path to ensuring free and fair elections was not easy. We had to cross the barriers to getting to where we are today.

We know that provision has been made to form a search committee to decide who will be in the Election Commission. The committee will choose the universally accepted persons in accordance with the Constitution and law of the country. Then the constitutional process to appoint the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners will be adopted by His Excellency the President. It should be mentioned that almost all the qualitative changes and legal measures are taken to date to reform the Election Commission and development of the electoral process have been accomplished during the regime of the Awami League.

Bangabandhu Forms an Independent Election Commission through the Constitution in 1972

Just nine months after independence, Bangabandhu added a provision for the establishment of an Independent Election Commission in the 1972 Constitution. At that time many countries gave the responsibility of conducting elections to the executive body. But Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman entrusted the responsibility of conducting the elections to an independent and impartial Election Commission for the purpose of governing the state by the people's representatives through free and fair elections.

This provision of the Constitution calls for the establishment of an independent and impartial election commission without any legal ambiguity. It became a unique example in the democratic world. Then, Bangabandhu's government formulated The Representation of the People Order (RPO) in 1972.

Dictators Destroy Election Commission after Killing Bangabandhu

By brutally killing Bangabandhu and his family on August 15 in 1975, the miscreants stopped the process of rebuilding the country. By illegally occupying state power, Ziaur Rahman destroyed the institutional capacity of the constitutional institutions including the Election Commission. As a result, the independent electoral system of Bangladesh was ruined with the beginning of an unconstitutional dictatorship era.

The people were deprived of their right to vote by holding a ‘yes/no’ vote on May 30, 1977. The terrorist forces deployed by the dictator Ziaur Rahman sealed almost 100% of the votes in favour of the ‘yes’. Later, another dictator Hussein Mohammad Ershad followed the same path and kept the state power in his hands. As a result, the country’s democratic culture and environment were destroyed.

Sheikh Hasina Brings Election, Democracy Back in the Country

Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Bangabandhu, took to the streets from 1981 to 1991 to restore the people’s right to vote amid the misrule of dictators. As the president of the Bangladesh Awami League, she initiated a mass movement along with the country’s general people. As a result, the dictatorial misrule started by Ziaur Rahman after August 15, 1975, came to an end with the fall of another dictator Ershad on December 6, 1990.

In 1991, the BNP managed to grab the state power along with the anti-liberation force Jamaat. So the Awami League became the main opposition in the parliament. However, as the Leader of the Opposition, Sheikh Hasina played a pioneering role in restoring the democratic system of the Bangladesh government from a presidential one. Although the process of restructuring the Election Commission, including updating the voter list, began after that, its reflection began to appear from the 2008 parliamentary elections.

BNP Holds Election Using Their Terrorist Groups

After seizing state power in 1991 with the help of Razakar-Jamaat, Khaleda Zia again started bypassing the Election Commission. As soon as Khaleda Zia took over the government, she followed in the footsteps of her husband, the dictator Ziaur Rahman and Ershad, and again tainted the election process.

In order to stay in power, she used the BNP's terrorist forces in Dhaka (Mirpur and Tejgaon) and Magura by-elections. Khaleda Zia even declared herself the winner on February 15, 1996, by arranging a one-party election using her party goons. But, mass people rejected the results of the election. However, she created a scandalous chapter in the history of elections in Bangladesh. However, Khaleda Zia was forced to resign on March 30 in the face of joint movement of all political parties including the Awami League.

BNP-Jamaat Enlists 1.23 Crores Fake Voters for Election

After a long 21 years, Awami League President and daughter of Bangabandhu Sheikh Hasina took the power of the state after winning the election on June 12, 1996. The process of restructuring the state apparatus at all levels began with the spirit of the Liberation War. She took the initiative to bring about a qualitative change in election management through the formation of a permanent and independent election commission. But it was very difficult to move forward by removing the obstacles of long-term misrule.

Due to the conspiracy of the defeated anti-liberation forces, the BNP came to power again in 2001 and halted all the reform initiatives taken by the Awami League. The BNP-Jamaat alliance government even prepared the voter list with about 1.23 crores fake voters in order to win the next election. Then on January 22, 2007, she tried to hold another farce election. It was one of the worst farces in the history of Bangladesh in terms of the election. As a result, the BNP-Jamaat alliance had to step down in 2006 in the face of mass movement across the country.

Awami League Forces BNP-Jamaat to Initiate Photo-based Voter-list & Transparent Ballot Box

After the fake voter list of 1 crore and 23 lakh people, prepared during BNP tenure, got revealed, Awami League along with 14 party alliances led by Sheikh Hasina, demanded more transparency in election management. As a result, the demands of 14 parties were taken into consideration for a free, fair and transparent election under the pressure of strong public opinion during the caretaker government. As a result, photo-based voter lists, transparent ballot boxes and use of muscle power and money in elections, disclosure of assets of aspiring candidates, blocking the participation of government employees in elections immediately after retirement, preparation of the list of potential people's representatives through grassroots leaders for nomination and appointment of Presiding and Polling Officers from among the government employees to conduct the election were ensured.

After verification, 1 crore 23 lakh fake voters were removed from the voter list prepared by the BNP-Jamaat alliance. And in the free and fair elections held in December 2008, Bangladesh Awami League won two-thirds of the seats and formed the government. After that, a comprehensive action plan for institutional improvement at all levels including Election Commission, Judiciary, Legislative Assembly and Executive Department began to be adopted and implemented.

Role of All-party Interim Govt, Election Commission, Dialogues & Political Parties

Even after winning a two-thirds majority in December 2008, the Awami League took the initiative to form an all-party interim government before the January 5, 2014 elections. Elections were held with representatives of all parties under a strong Election Commission to keep the election process smooth.

To ensure the participation of all parties in the elections, the then Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself invited the then Leader of the Opposition Khaleda Zia to participate in the elections and the election-time interim government. They are even offered responsibilities of important ministries in their preferred executive branch. But the BNP-Jamaat alliance demanded the resignation of the elected government led by Sheikh Hasina in defiance of the Constitution and laws of the People's Republic of Bangladesh.

Realizing their defeat in a fair election, the BNP-Jamaat tactfully refrained from joining the all-party election-time government and started vandalism across the country to thwart the election. For this purpose, the BNP-Jamaat left no stone unturned from looting police stations to carrying out petrol bombings and unprecedented arson attacks on power plants and houses and vehicles of ordinary people. At least 23 members of law enforcement agencies were killed due to their mayhem. Even their barbaric arson attacks left more than 200 people dead and 2,000 people severely wounded. But the people of Bangladesh stood up against this evil power, forcing them to stop their brutality.

The BNP-Jamaat sponsored sabotage cost loss of money worth around BDT 250,000 crores, which is the same as the cost of 10 infrastructures like the Padma Bridge.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made her efforts to ensure the participation of all parties even before the 2016 elections. She initiated dialogue with all political parties of the country aiming to ensure a level-playing field in a congenial atmosphere for a participatory election. But the BNP and its allies, participating in the dialogue, again hatched conspiracies to disrupt the political harmony and electoral environment deliberately by spreading rumours and propaganda across the country.

Even, without going to the people for election campaigns, BNP-Jamaat engaged in international propaganda to thwart that election and tried to question the electoral system in a planned way.

Democracy, Strong Election Commission & Awami League

As there is no specific law in the country regarding the formation of the Election Commission, any law in this regard will be a special kind of law according to the Constitution. There was no specific precedent in our political culture for enacting this law. It is the Bangladesh Awami League that established a constitutional norm and political convention (Constitutional Convention) to establish a political consensus on the formation of the Election Commission.

This constitutional practice is to set up an election commission through the formation of a search committee with the opinion and participation of all. Since this constitutional practice has been practised twice so far and commissions have been formed accordingly, it is unanimously considered as an excellent example for legislation. So, in the light of this practice and experience from it, a special law can be formulated in line with Article 118 of the Constitution. But, if any group or party goes beyond the Constitution or existing laws and conspires to grab state power in any other means, the country’s peace-loving people will never accept it.

Immediately after taking office in 2009, the government led by Honorable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina adopted and implemented various plans to keep the Election Commission away from the influence of any force, organization or group and to play an independent role. As a result, the culture of ballot stuffing and fake voting has been removed from the country.

The action plans include the preparation of a biometric national identity card for every registered voter, the introduction of the transparent ballot box and e-voting, enactment of various laws and regulations to prevent the use of money and muscle power in elections, creation of electoral code of conduct, selection of candidates through grassroots voting, the introduction of black and white posters, establishment of Election Commission Secretariat and empowerment of Election Commission to recruit its own manpower, provision of necessary funds, supervision of Election Commission on general administration during the election period, adequate number of mobile courts headed by Executive Magistrates and Judicial Magistrates, control of traffic movement and so on. And these have been come to effect due to the 23-point proposal placed by the Awami League.

In 2019, the Representation of the People (Amendment) Act 2019 was enacted to modernize the electoral process by introducing the EVM system for saving money, time and ensuring fairness. The Act has provision to introduce an EVM system in the parliamentary elections and provide scope for directly submitting nomination papers online. Besides, reliable Bangla text (translation) of RPO has been launched on July 1, 2021.

The National Parliamentary Election (Electronic Voting Machine) Rules, 2018 have been formulated for voting through EVM. In 2021, a new law was also enacted in Bengal, entitled the ‘Parliamentary Constituency Boundary Delimitation Bill, 2021’.

The Awami League government not only improved the legal, administrative and economic powers of the Election Commission by enacting the Election Commission Secretariat Act, 2009 but also provided necessary financial assistance to run various development projects to enhance the capacity of the Election Commission. Extensive use of information technology in the Election Commission activities has increased transparency and accountability in all its activities.

Necessary amendments have been brought in the 'Voter List Rules, 2012' to include about one crore expatriate Bangladeshis living abroad. A policy has also been formulated to include expatriates in the voter list. An online portal has already been launched to receive applications from expatriate Bangladeshis for inclusion in the voter list. It will open an easier way for the expatriates to exercise their voting right.