First News
Volume:7, Number:48
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COVER STORY
THIS WEEK

Path to the Polls

| Khondoker Tazuddin |

As the time draws near, the political parties are reviving up their activities raising hope for a participatory national election in 2019 or sooner

Although the 11th parliamentary election of Bangladesh is scheduled to take place in 2019, all the major political parties are already gearing up for it. As per the constitutional requirement, the election must take place within the 90-day period before the expiry of the five-year tenure of parliament. So, the countdown for the next election will begin from October 10, 2018. A lot of debates and discussions are going on regarding the upcoming election. Will it repeat the history of 2014? Or will all the parties happily participate in this upcoming election?

The highly controversial 10th parliamentary election took place on January 5, 2014. The newly elected MPs were sworn in on January 9. In accordance with article 123(2) (a) of the constitution, the next election is expected be held on a date between October 31, 2018 and January 28, 2019. Both Bangladesh Awami League (AL), the ruling party, and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main opposition party, have started preparing for the polls. Recently, BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir and Awami League general secretary Obaidul Quader publicly talked about the upcoming polls. They gave directives to the membersactivists of their respective parties to be more active in the fields in preparation for the campaigns. Even Ershad’s Jatiya Party, ruling party’s ally, has formally announced the start of its campaign almost two months ago.

Even the political analysts are not ruling out the possibility of a snap election. According to them, although the senior leaders of the ruling party are insisting that the polls will not take place before 2019, the overall situation is pointing to another direction. The way all the parties are making preparations so much ahead of the poll is an indication of an early election, they claimed. Even if an early election is not called, existing constitutional provisions allow the possibility of holding the election in late 2018. Awami League sources said that they have started making elaborate preparations for the next general elections. Along with various government organizations, a number of private organizations are conducting field surveys countrywide. The surveyors are questioning general voters to assess the popularity of the leaders, possible outcome of BNP’s participation in the polls, etc.

Meanwhile, BNP is not sitting idle either. The party has already formed its full-fledged executive committees after the end of its national council session. The party is also working to restructure its district committees, and aims to formulate committees in at least 50 districts within December 2017. The party has announced central committees for subsidiaries such as Mahila Dal and Swechchhasebak Dal. In April 2017, BNP has announced new committees for its Dhaka city units, dividing it into north and south.

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Prepare for the elections Sheikh Hasina Prime minister of Bangladesh

Awami League chief and prime minister Sheikh Hasina has urged the leaders and workers of her party to prepare for the upcoming parliamentary election. She said this in a meeting at her Dhanmondi office on 20 May while addressing the leaders of the ruling party and its associate organizations. Sheikh Hasina said, “There will be more difficult times in the days to come. You have to work with confidence and honesty to maintai n the development of the country.” “You have to go to the people, and tell them about government's development works. We have to work for the people,” she added.

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Obaidul Quader AL general secretary

BNP will definitely contest the polls. It is reorganizing itself at the grassroots level. I tour around the country, so I know what is going on. They are deliberately raising questions about their participation only to keep themselves relevant in the political conversations. They have all the intentions to participate in the polls. There is no non-partisan government system anywhere in the world, so we do not need one either. BNP keeps changing their tunes. Their words do not reflect in their actions. The EC will take care of the election. The election will take place whenever the EC decides so. BNP is not going to repeat the mistake of boycotting the polls. No matter what the situation becomes, they will come around. We have seen examples of this in the Union Parishad and municipality elections. Awami League is also taking all the necessary preparations for the election.

Awami League, BNP preparing for polls

As per the direction of AL president and prime minister Sheikh Hasina, Awami League has started preparations for the next general elections. The party chief has instructed the party advisory council to form separate cells based on different issues and areas and to prepare the election manifesto.

She has already made assessments of incumbent MPs’ and possible candidates’ popularity based on the field survey. Awami League policymakers have said that a number of incumbent MPs might not get nomination to contest the next election due to their declining popularity. Many of these MPs were first-time elected. Of them, four are from Chittagong, four each from Sirajganj and Noakhali, three each from Jessore, Mymensingh, and Netrokona, two each from Nilfamari, Lalmonirhat, Gaibandha, Chapainababganj, Natore, Kushtia, Jheniadah, Satkhira, Barisal, Tangail, Dhaka, Brahmanbaria, Cox’s Bazar, and one each from Dinajpur, Rajshahi, Pabna, Meherpur, Magura, Khulna, Bhola, Kishoreganj, Manikganj, Munshiganj, Joypurhat, Moulvibazar, Habiganj, Chandpur, Feni, Rangpur, and Lakshmipur. Many of these MPs have made headlines in the national media for corruption and abuse of power. They even alienated from the local leadersactivists of their own party. So, it is highly unlikely that they will ever get nomination again. Alternative candidates will get nomination from the constituencies of these controversial MPs. The Awami League leaders, who contested in the last polls as independent candidates, are being considered for party nomination as well. A list for prospective candidates is being drawn up.

As per the Representation of the People Order, 1972 (RPO), BNP may lose its registration with the Election Commission if it does not participate in the 11th parliamentary election. With the election in mind, BNP is trying to reorganize its organizational structure from the ground up. The party is already preparing a list for prospective candidates. Information about the prospective candidates’ popularity, acceptability, contribution to the party, field activity, number of court cases against them, etc., are being documented and assessed. The party is also considering new leadership. Popular, tried, and tested young leaders and affluent business personalities are being considered potential candidates.

BNP is quite concerned about the verdicts of the graft charges against the party chief, Khaleda Zia, senior vice chairman Tarique Rahman, and other senior leaders. If found guilty, these leaders will become ineligible to participate in the elections. BNP is fearing that the government might call snap election before BNP could sort out its leadership crisis. Even if that does not happen, BNP has to reorganize its disarrayed internal structure. Party sources said, BNP is not going to repeat the mistake of boycotting the parliamentary polls this time. The party will continue to demand for holding the election under a nonpartisan government. It will also keep pressuring the government to keep the election fair and transparent, with the support of its local and foreign allies. During his 2016 Dhaka visit, US secretary of state John Kerry had a meeting with Khaleda Zia where they talked about the upcoming election. Kerry assured Khaleda that the USA was always in favor of holing a transparent and fair election. Sources said that BNP is trying to garner strong public support to this effect. BNP chief Khaleda Zia is regularly having meet-ings with party and alliance leaders as well as representatives of various sections of the society. The party is lobbying to get support from influential western countries, neighboring countries, and foreign donor organizations.

Hundreds of new faces

BNP sources said that the party is reviewing the candidate list prepared before the 9th parliamentary election (2008) to create the list of prospective nominees for the upcoming election. The deceased, sick, reformist, inactive, and unpopular leaders are being sorted out as well in order to find their replacements. As per the current estimates, new candidates will be needed in over hundreds of seats. Sources also said the BNP think-tank and the veteran leaders are working on the list of prospective candidates for the 300 parliamentary seats. Under the BNP chief’s directives, they are working very confidentially. BNP can nominate new candidates for several seats in Dhaka. If not disqualified because of her graft charges, Khaleda herself might contest for a Dhaka seat. The party standing committee member retired major general Ruhul Alam Chowdhury is interested about the Gulshan seat. While joint secretary general Syed Moazzem Hossain Alal contested for the Mohammadpur seat in the previous polls, he has shown interest in contesting for the Barisal seat in the upcoming polls. Instead of former JCD leader Azizul Bari Helal, retired major general Kamrul Islam is likely to get nomination for the Uttara seat. An influential BNP leader said, the BNP chief has already given green signal to some of the prospective candidates.

For the vacant seats due to death, sickness, or unpopularity of the previous candidates, Khaleda has instructed the prospective candidates of those areas to be more active in the field. Despite having many issues within the allies, BNP will participate in the polls as the 20-party alliance. They are likely to give 50 seats to the other members of the ally. To do so, they are preparing list for the prospective candidates of other allied parties as well. In case of any disagreement about the distribution of seats, BNP candidates are likely to get nomination. That is why BNP high command is screening out prospective candidates for all 300 seats.

EC prepares roadmap for next general polls

The election commission (EC) is gearing up for the 11th parliamentary election. It has already prepared a draft roadmap, which will be finalized soon. Led by chief election commissioner (CEC) KM Nurul Huda, the 5-member EC is going to organize the election between November 2018 and January 2019. The EC is set to hold talks with political parties from in the middle of July 2017 on the implementation of its plan. EC secretary Mohammad Abdullah said, “We have prepared a draft of the roadmap, which will be disclosed soon after making a few corrections to it.

The roadmap will include an updated list of voters, guidelines for consultation with stakeholders, registration of political parties, and revision of the existing electoral laws. There will be a work plan in the roadmap for the next two years as well.” According to EC sources, the proposed roadmap includes dialogues with the political parties and media alike. The constitutional body will initiate its first phase of talks with the political parties in August to have their opinions over the use of electronic voting machine (EVM) or digital voting machine (DVM) in the polls, reform of electoral laws and delimitation of parliamentary constituencies. The commission will also hold discussions with all the registered political parties in August-November 2018 to know their opinions about how to make the national election free and fair.

The major agenda incorporated in the roadmap includes: registration of new political parties, updating of the voter list, registration of election observers, reorganization of parliamentary seats limit, printing of the final voters’ list, collecting votes in digital voting machines (DVM), possible regulations for correction and discussion of various laws, etc. Alongside, the EC has collected information about people, who will turn 18 within January 2018. This initiative will be very helpful in updating the final voters’ list. The EC is paying special attention to BNP’s opinion, sources said. The previous commission led by Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad was criticized at home and abroad after BNP boycotted the 2014 election. The new EC is trying to make this election inclusive of all. Asked if the EC is ready for the national election if held in advance, CEC Kazi Md Nurul Huda said that they are all set for general polls to be held any time. “Even if the polls are held in advance, we will get at least 90 days. We will be able to take all kinds of preparations by that time,” he said.

In the draft roadmap, the EC Secretariat proposed laying out the general election from between December 26 to 31, 2018 to avoid any possible legal complexity. The commission will formulate a draft to amend the relevant laws and regulations within August this year and fix the schedule for talks with political parties, civil society and journalists. In November, the draft laws will be sent to the law ministry and it will be finalized by December. December 28 has been selected as the primary date of balloting. So, the election schedule is likely to be announced by November 15, 2018. The roadmap also includes the plan to conduct all the necessary activities at least three months ahead of the schedule, i.e., within August 2018.

Election commission will scrutinize the status of the registered political parties and give registration to new parties from October 2017 to March 2018. Once the registration procedure is completed, EC will hold dialogues with all the registered political parties ahead of the polls. The commission would update the electoral roll between September 2017 and June 2018 and identify the polling stations between June 2018 and August 2018. National ID card registration wing will update the voter list and prepare a draft by January 1, 2018. After correcting the mistakes and resolving the problems, the final voter list will be issued on January 31. The digital voting machines will be ready by February 2018. EC is prepared to arrange mock voting, if needed, to test the machines. From April 2018, all the electoral equipment will be collected. Ballot boxes and seals will be collected right before the announcement of the schedule. The CEC said that the commission would complete the delimitations of the 300 parliamentary constituencies between August 2017 and April 2018.

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Dr. Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain BNP standing committee member

BNP is a pro-election party. It is prepared to participate in the polls any time. The current government is not an elected government. It is holding power by force. Because of this illegal government, our country is struggling with many problems. We want a fair election so that a government elected by the people of this country can come to power. We want an election under an unbiased, non-partisan government, with the participation of all the political parties. We are also working on to rebuild our organizational structure from the grassroots level so that the government cannot pull another farcical election like the January 5 polls. If they attempt to do so, we will resist it with the support of mass people, and force them to arrange a fair election.

Plans and strategies

The major political parties have started to formulate plans and strategies to prepare for the polls. Inclusion of new members in the alliance, and joining force with Islamist organizations are two of the most talked-about strategies all the major parties are partaking. The ruling Awami League government’s attempt to befriend the controversial Islamist group Hefajate- Islam is creating new polarization in the political sphere. BNP is being strategic to get Hafajat’s support as well.

As parts of preparations, both BNP and Awami League are taking a few similar initiatives. Resolving internal conflicts, reorganizing the party and its brunches from the ground up countrywide, preparing the election manifesto, conducting organizational tours, collecting information of possible MP candidates, assessing the popularity of prospective candidates at central and field levels, giving training to party leaders and activists to prepare them for working as polling agents, etc. are some of the issues both parties are currently focusing on.

A cautious BNP

Although BNP’s organizational structure is in tatters, the party has set its sight on the next parliamentary election. As a part of their strategy, the party has already announced its “Vission-2030” plan. As decision of boycotting the 10th parliamentary general election held on January 5 in 2014 has cost BNP dearly, and the party high command is now positive about participating in the 11th national election. As part of their plan, BNP is trying to rejuvenate the party’s organizational structure from the ground up.

Incorporating the reformists in the party, placing party's Vision-2030 plan and supportive-government formula, forming Dhaka south and north city unit committees by May, and starting a strong campaign from mid-June are some of the main agendas for the party right now. Of the 78 organizational committees, 50 have been reconstituted. BNP chief Khaleda Zia has directed party top leaders to start taking all-out preparations, including collecting information of possible MP candidates and giving training to party leaders and activists to prepare them for working as polling agents.

However, the party is facing two big challenges ahead of the next election. Firstly, the party’s alliance with Jamaat has become a burden it just cannot shake off. Jamaat has already lost its registration. Without registration, it will not be allowed to contest in the polls. So, BNP will have to figure out a strategy for dealing with Jamaat. The government’s growing alliance with the Islamist parties has become another great concern for BNP. Generally, BNP-Jamaat alliance has a large vote bank among the hardcore conservative Muslim voters. However, the government’s recent alliance with Hefajat-e-Islam is a clear sign that the vote bank might get divided, BNP insiders fear.

In order to strengthen the party, a group of five pro-BNP intellectuals met Khaleda Zia on March 12 this year, and placed a number of recommendations. They recommended that the BNP chairperson should tour across the country to motivate supporters of the party and bring forward her office hours from 8:00pm to daytime in order to strengthen the organizational structure of the party. Moreover, they put great emphasis on organizing events in every district and divisional city as quickly as possible. Other recommendations include the reinstatement of suspended parties, preparation of responses to Sheikh Hasina’s speeches by the secretary general or a standing committee member, recalling reformists to the party and creating alliances with other parties such as that of AQM Badruddoza Chowdhury, ASM Abdur Rab, Abdul Kader Siddique, etc.

Jatiya Party’s separate alliance

Recently, Jatiya Party chairman HM Ershad has finally cobbled together a new alliance of 58 political parties with him at the helm of affairs. The alliance is going to be the biggest coalition of parties in Bangladesh in terms of the number of parties of which only two are registered with the Election Commission. Ershad announced the new political alliance—Sommilito Jatiya Jote (United National Alliance)—during a press conference at the Jatiya Press Club on May 8, 2017. The 58-party UNA comprises the JP, the Bangladesh Islami Front and two alliances, Jatiya Islami Mohajote consisting 34 small parties and Bangladesh Jatiya Jote comprising 22 small parties. JP secretary general ABM Ruhul Amin Howlader will act as the spokesperson of the alliance.

Jamaat’s limited options

The war crime trials have pretty much wiped out the top leadership of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. The party has lost its registration and electoral symbol. Many of the leaders and workers have gone underground. In this context, Jamaat is eerily quiet about its strategies for the next election. In the local government election and Comilla city corporation election, some Jamaat leaders participated as independent candidates. If they want to contest in the general election, they either have to take the symbol of other political parties, or contest as independent candidates. Jamaat has vote banks in several districts including Rajshahi, Pabna, Gaibandha, Noakhali, Chandpur, Lakshmipur, Chittagong, Sylhet, Satkhira, Khulna, Sirajganj, and Cox’s Bazar. In these areas, Jamaat leaders will either contest as independent candidates, or under the logo of its ally BNP, sources said.

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Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir Secretary general of BNP

There is no need to compare us with Awami League. We are a pro-election political party. Against the 300 parliamentary seats, we already have 900 prospective candidates. Our country is riddled with so many problems because of the absence of a democratic government. We have reached out to the government for dialogues many times, with no result. We want election, and we have all the necessary preparations. We have endured a lot of oppression during this government’s tenure. Our leaders and workers are harassed with a horde of false charges. Our main target is to come back to power with people’s vote and establish a government for the people. BNP is working relentlessly to achieve that goal.

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