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The eleventh parliamentary election was a shameful failure: Mahbub Talukdar

Election commissioner Mahbub Talukdar speaks in an exclusive interview at his Election Commission office in Agargaon. PHOTO: Ashraful Alam

The tenure of the present election commission ends on 14 February. Member of this controversial commission, Mahbub Talukdar, has been in the limelight for his different stance and divergent views. In an interview with Prothom Alo, he talks about the five years of this election commission, the national and local elections, the role of the commission and other issues.

How did you spend these five years in the election commission?

That outward prestige was quite a new experience for me, having a gunman, a protection force, the national flag at my home and office, my car carrying my own flag and all that. But I was distressed by all the tensions within. I made an effort to hear the unspoken words of the silent masses concerning the election and to work accordingly. After all, it is essential for people’s views to be reflected in the election. When I made statements in the media at various times, I was the spokesperson for the silent masses. But I could not avoid reality with all its disruptions and disorder.

After you all took over responsibility, the Cumilla city corporation elections were held and were praised too. The last election that is, the Narayanganj city corporation polls, were also good. But all the other elections in between, both national and local, have been controversial. Why has that been so?

When we conducted the Cumilla city corporation election, we were a new commission and there was no outside intervention. At the outset we were motivated to work independently. Then again, in the Narayanganj city corporation polls, due to all sorts of pressure from within and outside, there was no direct or indirect interventions from the government. Scope was given to prove that free and fair elections were possible under a political government. That is why this election was an exception.

On the other hand, I closely observed the Gazipur city corporation election to find a parallel. I drew up an extensive report on this. Then I had the responsibility to singlehandedly conduct the Barishal city corporation election. I wanted to bring a halt to that election due to the irregularities, but I failed to do so because my colleagues refused to cooperate. I do not think the commission had any say in these two elections. The bias of the law enforcement agencies was visible. And the Chattogram city corporation election was a model of discrepancies. The other city corporation elections were also all rife with irregularities. These were just held in complete disorder.

What steps did you take to halt the Barishal city corporation election. How did your colleagues refuse to cooperate?

I had the sole responsibility to conduct the 30 January 2019 election of the Barishal city corporation. Prior to the election, I held meetings with the law enforcement agencies, the candidates, the officials involved in the election and all concerned, setting the stage for a free and fair election. At 8:00 in the morning I saw on television that crowds were thronging the polling centres. My hopes were raised that the Barishal city corporation election would be free and fair. But as the day advanced, the scenario of peace and order changed. All sorts of negative news and reports started to come in. We were monitoring the election from the CEC’s office room. A commissioner informed us that the tab used for election purposes had been snatched away. Then we heard that a woman system analyst of the commission had been harassed. I spoke to the Barishal zone election officer at 11:00am and realised the election must be halted. Initially the CEC and the other commissioners agreed with me.

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The joint secretary (law) was summoned and asked under what law could we stop the election. He looked up the manual and said this could be done under Section 10. I was reassured. Then one of the commissioners said that since I was the one in charge of the Barishal city corporation election, I should make the proposal to stop this election in writing and they would all give their approval. I drew up a draft of what should be written. The CEC read it and said it was fine. But then within a short time, they began prevaricating about halting the election. My proposal was diverted. In the afternoon one of the commissioners said that if we stop the election now, our people would come under attack, security would be disrupted. Everyone agreed. Finally, due to the lack of cooperation from my colleagues, the election could not be stopped.

How would you evaluate the eleventh parliamentary election?

The eleventh parliament election was nothing but a shameful failure. There was no existence of a level playing field in this election, even though the CEC claims there was a level playing field in place. Given the prevailing political culture, I do not think that the deputy commissioners who were given duty as returning officers, could remain neutral regarding the incumbent members of parliament.

In the eleventh national parliamentary polls, there was a 100 per cent voter turnout in 213 polling centres. Does this not indicate what sort of election this was? The eleventh parliamentary election was neither free, fair or neutral, nor was it lawful or credible.

The opposition parties claim that ballot boxes were stuffed in advance, on the night before the eleventh Jatiya Sangsad election. The CEC said that no inquiry could be made into these claims as there was no court order in this regard. Can the election commission not launch an inquiry without court orders? Did you all discuss the matter?

The BBC journalist published pictures of the ballot boxes being stuffed on the night before the eleventh Jatiya Sangsad election. This was an established fact and there was no scope for any other interpretation. It is not true that the matter could not be investigated without court order. If the commission felt that the election was not properly held, it could cancel the election even after the results were declared. We had no discussions on the daytime votes being cast at night in the national election. At a press briefing on the day after the election, the CEC said, “I am not dissatisfied with this election, I am satisfied. It is not just me, the commission as a whole is satisfied. No one informed me of any dissatisfaction.” We were basking in the blissful dream of a successful election and so there was no scope for any discussion among ourselves.

All sorts of reports appeared in the media about the results of the eleventh parliamentary election. What are your views?

The newspaper reports about the election results were not at all misleading. An analysis of the results show that there were 100 per cent votes cast in 213 polling centres of 103 seats. And 96 to 99 per cent votes were cast in 1,205 centres. In 6,484 centres, 90 to 95 per cent of the votes were cast. Then again, 80 to 89 per cent votes were cast in 15,719 centres. These statistics were provided by the election commission.

Why was it not possible to establish control over the administration and the law enforcement prior to the parliamentary polls?

The EC had no control over the administration or the law enforcement before the election. That is only natural in the existing election system. The officials involved in the election are fully aware that they may be the ‘bosses’ for the moment, the actual ‘bosses’ are the members of parliament who will be reelected as members of parliament. I have already spoken about the neutrality of the returning officers. In my view, the public administration and the home ministry should be placed under the election commission before the national election.

The constitution and the law has bestowed the election commission with abundant authority to conduct the election. Why did you all fail to utilise that authority?

Despite the abundant power bestowed by the constitution and the law, it is not possible to wield this power without a strong and determined mindset. The election management was lax as reforms in the election system had not been carried out. The constitution and the regulations can be amended on the basis of consensus of the political parties in the interests of a free and fair election.

When you mention the amendment of the constitution, are you referring to a caretaker government?

I am concerned about the next national election. If the opposition parties do not participate, the election will not be credible at home or abroad. Speaking from my experience with the last two elections, I do not think it is possible to hold a credible election under a partisan government, given the existing political realities. All the elections held under caretaker governments so far have been credible. It will not be possible now to hold elections under a caretaker government unless the constitution is amended.

You have spoken to the media at various times about the irregularities and violence in the different elections. The CEC has said you make such statements to implement your own agenda. What do you have to say?

The CEC is right. I worked to implement an agenda. However, that agenda was not my own, but of the people, the masses. The agenda was to ensure all elections are free, fair, neutral, lawful and peaceful and that we will not evade responsibility if there is violence anywhere. We will try our best to thwart any repetition of such violence. My agenda is to establish human rights by means of voting rights. My agenda is to uphold democracy, the fundamental principle of constitution. Who wants to live without democracy?

In your book, ‘Amlar Amalnama’, you wrote that when the present CEC KM Nurul Huda and you had worked together at the parliament secretariat, KM Nurul Huda behaved in an insubordinate manner. Can you elaborate?

It was like this. In 1998 I was the additional secretary at the Jatiya Sangsad. KM Nurul Huda would work directly with me at the time, as joint secretary. There were two posts of additional secretary at the Jatiya Sangsad before I joined and there were two officers in these positions. An additional position for an additional secretary was temporarily created in Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s office, that is, the office of the Leader of the House, and I was posted there. I had no idea about all this. However, all this was done in keeping with the law. At that time KM Nurul Huda suddenly sent a note to the secretary of the Jatiya Sangsad, saying that I was an outsider (since I was not an additional secretary in the designated posts of the parliament secretariat). He was not obliged to obey my directives. The parliament secretary at the time, Kazi Muhammad Manzur-e-Mowla admonished him, saying that this was a sign of his insubordination. He (Nurul Huda) could not raise any question personally about any decision of the government. KM Nurul Huda did not make any comment after this directive from the parliament secretary. He was not even transferred from my wing to any other wing. Incidentally, my book was first published in 2009.

At various times you have spoken differently from the commission. You have spoken of the irregularities. At the EC meetings, did you raise the issue of halting such irregularities?

The proceedings of the EC meetings are not recorded in detail in the minutes of these meetings. Many important statements that I made have not been recorded in the proceedings, especially in the case of differing views. In certain cases I asked that my written statements be included in the records. To make sure that my different views did not go missing, at various times I informed the CEC, the commissioners and the secretary of these by means of UO (unofficial) notes. I had often submitted notes of dissent when I had a difference of opinion. I even officially boycotted some of the meetings because I was not given the scope to speak. Let me illustrate what the situation was like.

Three months before the eleventh parliamentary election, I wanted to present a written statement at the commission meeting. My statement was on propositions to ensure that the eleventh parliamentary polls were free, fair, neutral, inclusive and credible. I informed the CEC about this by means of a UO note. I was told in writing to present this at the 36th meeting of the commission and copies of my statement was sent to all the commissioners. But shockingly, in order to prevent me from presenting the statement, the other three commissioners in the exact same language sent UO notes to the CEC requesting that I would not be allowed to present this statement, and the CEC accordingly did not allow me to raise this at the meeting. According to them, my statement was contrary to the constitution. I was extremely aggrieved. A copy of the commissioners’ letters was also given to me. So I drew up a note of dissent and turned up at the meeting. In that note of dissent I said that the constitution had given me the fundamental right of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. The election commission in no way could curb this right. In protest of the commission’s unjust decision, I put in my note of dissent and walked out of the meeting.

Did you take any special initiatives to prevent the irregularities in the election?

I always make an active effort to prevent irregularities in the election. But one commissioner in a commission of five can do nothing. In most cases I was defeated by the decision of the majority. In many instances, I failed to protect democracy because of the democratic system. The majority won against me with their ‘yes’ or ‘no’ votes.

There were rumours before the eleventh parliamentary election that you may resign. Did you have any such intentions? Why didn’t you resign?

Sensing the chaotic situation of the election before the eleventh national polls, I did consider resigning. I gave it serous thought and came to the conclusion that my resigning alone would make no different to the situation. I would have resigned if I thought it would benefit the country and the nation in any way. Then I felt it wiser to remain in the battlefield and fight it out alone. Had I resigned, it would not have been possible to express difference of opinion and the people would not get to know all this. Many would have been relieved. But the people would not have been relieved and it was with the people in mind that I decided not to resign.

On 14 December 2020, a total of 42 eminent persons of the country wrote to the president, bringing about 9 allegations of grievous irregularities against the election commission, calling for the formation of a Supreme Judicial Council to investigate these allegations. What is your opinion about these allegations?

I am not exempt from the allegations brought about by the eminent persons of the country. Therefore, I cannot make any statement or comment in this regard.

Given the present day realities, what are the major obstacles to a free and fair election?

The main obstacle to a free and fair election at present is the lack of consensus among the political parties. Also, the propensity to come to power or remain in power by manipulating the election, must be done away with. It is essential that the political parties have the commitment and sincerity for a normal transition and handover of power. It is important to restore the people’s confidence in the election by sternly clamping down on the irregularities, disorder and violence in the elections.

Certain ministers of the government have also criticised you because of your statements. Have you ever come under pressure because of your stance?

The ministers have openly criticised my statements and demanded my resignation. However, I was later officially told that their statements were not the decision of the government or the party. I did not come under any pressure from outside because of my statements. The pressure came from within the commission.

What should the criteria be for appointing election commissioners? Will the enacting of a law to constitute an election commission be adequate to form a strong election commission?

As the new election commission is being announced now, it would not be prudent to speak about such criteria at the moment. It is inane to think a law will ensure a strong election commission. A law is compulsory to form the election commission, but it will not be effective unless it is acceptable to the political parties.

There is debate in the political arena about voting by means of the EVM. Do you think voting in the next election can be done or should be done with the EVM? If not, why not?

I opposed the use of EVM at the outset. I said that it would not be correct to use this if the people were not used to it. A promise was made to discuss the matter with political parties before using the EVM. That promise was not kept. For some unknown reason, the EVM was purchased even before we reached any decision on EVM. I find these machines incomplete. The Indian Supreme Court has a historic ruling concerning EVM, saying that there must be a voter verified paper audit trail with the EVM. Then the voters will be able to verify if their vote has been cast correctly. This should be attached to our EVMs for the sake of credibility. It is the political parties who must discuss and decide if the EVM should be used in the coming election or not.

You have written a book ‘Bangabhabane Panch Bochhor’ on your five years in Bangabhaban. You have written about your life as a civil servant in ‘Amlar Amalnama’. Will we get any such book about your five years with the election commission?

The book I have written on my five years in the election commission is called ‘Nirbachannama’. The book basically deals with an analysis of various incidents regarding the elections and documentations of our term. I do not think it will be possible to publish this 1200-page book in my lifetime.

What do you have to say on this eve of departure?

As I have said before, a manifestation of the people’s mindset is essential in the election. It is the people who must unite and ensure a free, fair, normal and lawful election.