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Dhaka hits impasse with poll monitors

  • Published at 12:54 am December 24th, 2018
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Following the withdrawal of Bangkok-based ANFREL from monitoring the upcoming elections, Bangladesh and the United States traded words

With the December 30 election day approaching fast, the government and overseas election monitoring groups have differed sharply as to why there will be so few election monitors this time around.

Dhaka on Sunday said it was disheartened to see a US State Department statement expressing disappointment over “Bangladesh government’s inability” to grant credentials and issue visas within the time-frame necessary to conduct a credible international monitoring mission to the majority of international election monitors from the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL).

ANFREL, which is funded by the United States through the National Democratic Institute, for its part, issued a statement on Sunday saying that: “Due to significant delays in the accreditation approval by the BEC (Bangladesh Election Commission) and visa approvals by the MoFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs), ANFREL is forced to terminate its observation mission in Bangladesh.”   

Following the withdrawal of Bangkok-based ANFREL from monitoring the upcoming elections, Bangladesh and the United States traded words.

On Friday, Deputy Spokesperson of the US State Department Robert Palladino issued a statement expressing disappointment over the: “Government of Bangladesh’s inability” to grant credentials and issue visas within the timeframe to ANFREL.

It said ANFREL was forced to cancel its observation mission for the December 30 national election because of the delay. It further noted that:“The lack of an international observation mission makes it even more important for the Government of Bangladesh to complete the accreditation of all the local NGOs that constitute the Election Working Group, which includes some funded by USAID, so they can conduct the vital work of monitoring the election.”

Clarifying its position on this, the Foreign Ministry issued a news release on Sunday saying: “Bangladesh is disheartened to see a Press Statement issued by the United States Department of State on 21 December 2018 on the upcoming National Parliamentary Elections to be held in a festive atmosphere on 30 December 2018 which is being participated by all registered political parties in the country.”

It said: “Accreditation of international election observers from a number of organizations including ANFREL is currently under process. In addition, the Election Commission has registered 118 local organizations and also approved 25,920 local observers to monitor the polls,” it said. 

“In this context, the decision of ANFREL to cancel its observation mission is entirely their own despite the fact that, nearly half of its applicants have already been approved and the rest is under process,” it added providing an explanation.

“The election is being conducted by the Bangladesh Election Commission, which is a constitutional body and independent in the exercise of its functions,” it said. 

“While Bangladesh welcomes international election observers to observe the election, it certainly has the responsibility to ensure that the applicants meet all required criterion as per applicable laws and guidelines of the Election Commission. As of now, 175 foreign election observers from different countries and organizations have been accredited to undertake election monitoring missions in Bangladesh,” said the release.

The foreign office further stated that a Bangladeshi NGO – Odhikar – which it said is widely known for its disproportionate bias and prejudice against Bangladesh, in particular the government of Awami League, is a founding member of ANFREL.

It explained that Odhikar’s bias and prejudice is evident in its various reports including the recent ones published in October and December 2018. “Besides, one of the top-ranking Bangladesh members of ‘Odhikar’ was earlier appointed by the BNP-Jamaat Government as the Deputy Attorney General, which provides ground for disqualification of his organization and related entities as independent and neutral observer of the national elections.”

“It may be mentioned here that, under Section 91 (C) (1) of the Representation of the People Order 1972, the Commission is supposed to ‘permit a person as election observer who is in no way associated with or affiliated to any political party or contesting candidate and who is not known for his sympathy, direct or indirect, for any particular political ideology, creed or cause or for any manifesto, program, aims or objects of any political party or contesting candidate”, said the release.

“As one of the largest democracies in the world and mutually respectful to others, Bangladesh would expect and welcome constructive statements towards its democratic process from its friends and partners,” it said, adding, “It is reiterated that Bangladesh would continue to grant credentials to eligible international and local election observers to observe the 11th National Parliamentary Elections to be held on 30 December 2018.”

Meanwhile, ANFREL also issued a statement on Sunday expressing dismay and explaining the reasons behind the termination of their observer mission in Bangladesh.

“While the Bangladesh Election Commission (BEC) has taken initiatives to welcome intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations such as the ANFREL and several domestic monitoring groups either faced significant delays in their accreditation or were barred altogether from monitoring the upcoming elections,” said the statement.

“Together with the BEC, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MoHA) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) also took part in the assessment of accreditation applications,” it said.

Due to significant delays in the accreditation approval by the BEC and visa approvals by the MoFA, ANFREL is forced to terminate its observation mission in Bangladesh on December 22, it said adding that ANFREL formally requested accreditation for the elections as early as November 4, 2018 and submitted all necessary accreditation requirements to the BEC by November 26, 2018. “As of December 21, 2018, a mere nine days before the elections, ANFREL was granted accreditation for only 13 of its observers out of the 32 applications it submitted,” it said.

“We regret that this situation hindered us from directly working with the Bangladesh election stakeholders, which ANFREL has been looking forward to,” it added.

The statement also said: “ANFREL is among the endorsers of the Declaration of Principles and Code of Conduct for International Election Observers (DOP).  DOP endorsers are expected to uphold and advocate the principles of total impartiality, independence, and freedom of movement and full access to information, in all stages of the elections.”

“With ANFREL’s withdrawal, no DOP-endorsing organizations will monitor the upcoming elections in Bangladesh,” it said.

ANFREL has also expressed its concern over the high number of domestic election observers that have not received accreditation.

“Unfortunately, other member organizations of the Global Network of Domestic Election Monitors (GNDEM) also have been denied accreditation by the BEC due to allegations of partisanship or their association with human rights groups and independent election monitoring networks,” said the statement.