Antu Mujahid, a student at a local university, became a voter for the first time last year. He plans to cast a ballot in the next parliamentary polls but says he wants a ‘no’ vote.
“I want to vote no because none of the political platforms excite me. I want to exercise my right to vote, but I want to register a protest at the current state of our politics,” he said.
Ahead of the next national election, some members of civil society and a section of field- level officials of the Election Commission (EC) want to bring back the provision of ‘no’ vote, calling it a democratic practice used in many countries.
The ‘no’ vote was used in the ninth parliamentary election in 2008, but the current government scrapped it after coming to power in 2009.
‘No’ vote is a mechanism that allows voters to choose ‘no’ on the ballot paper if they do not find a candidate worthy of being selected. ‘None of the Above’ or NOTA for short, also known as ‘against all’ or a ‘scratch’ or ‘no’ vote, is designed to allow the voters to indicate their disapproval of all the candidates in an election.
No vote provision exists in India, Spain, Ukraine and the state of Nevada in the US.
On Monday, at a dialogue on holding the next general election organised by the Election Commission (EC), civil society members strongly pressed the Election Commissioners to reintroduce the ‘no’ vote option for the upcoming polls.
Dhaka University law professor Dr Asif Nazrul proposed that the ‘no’ vote option should be restored in the upcoming election.
It is the democratic right of a voter. If the option was not scrapped, the government would not have been able to elect 154 public representatives without any contest in 2014
Out of around 35 participants, all the civil society representatives except two came out in favour of restoring the ‘no’ provision to the ballot. Those in favour included former caretaker government adviser Hossain Zillur Rahman, economist Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya, Prof Dr Nazmul Ahsan Kalimullah among others.
Asif Nazrul said: “The two major political parties sometimes nominate business persons or others as election candidates bowing down to money and muscle power. If the no voting option exists, then people can express their unwillingness to vote to such candidates. Right to no vote is a right of people and it exists in many countries,” he said.
It is unclear, however, what the position of the main political parties will be as the ruling Awami League (AL) and out of parliament opposition BNP have remained silent about the ‘no’ vote. In interviews with the Dhaka Tribune, some leaders of these parties came out against the provision as they do not think provision of ‘no’ vote would improve the election process.
In addition to the dialogue with civil society, the Election Commission also recently took the initiative to amend and reform the Representation of the People Order, 1972 to update the laws, rules and required guidelines before the next general election.
To make this happen, the commission sought opinions from senior field officials. Many field officials came out in favour of including ‘no’ vote option in the ballot paper, EC sources said.
“Last week, field officials gave their recommendation to EC. The final decision will come after dialogue with political parties as well as civil society,” an EC official, who asked not to be named, told the Dhaka Tribune.
According to the official, ‘no’ vote is important for holding a fair election. “It will help fulfill the democratic rights of voters,” he added.
Civil society members think ‘no’ vote option is very important for the democratic practice of the country but political parties always remain against it.
Former Election Commissioner Brigadier General (retired) M Shakhawat Hussain told the Dhaka Tribune that the political parties do not want the option to be included as they want to avoid a voter backlash.
“It is the democratic right of a voter. If the option was not scrapped, the government would not have been able to elect 154 public representatives without any contest in 2014,” he pointed out.
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Civil society members think ‘no’ vote option is very important for the democratic practice of the country but political parties always remain against it Syed Zakir Hossain
BNP, AL tight-lipped
When approached by the Dhaka Tribune, most leaders from BNP and Awami League either said they opposed restoration of the ‘no’ provision or refused to comment. BNP leaders showed their unwillingness to comment, saying – the party would formally react through a press conference.
In conversation with the Dhaka Tribune, BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, Standing Committee member Nazrul Islam Khan, and Senior Joint Secretary-General Ruhul Kabir Rizvi said they will not give any opinion on it right now.
Discussions are continuing in the party, they said.
“Whether we need ‘no’ vote or not is a matter of discussion in party meeting,” Nazrul Islam Khan said.
However, another BNP standing committee member Dr. Abdul Moin Khan thinks provisions of ‘no’ vote is a negative approach towards democracy.
“Those who do not like democracy, can propose such negative thinking,” he said.
On the other hand, most representatives from ruling party told the Dhaka Tribune that they are not interested in restoration of the negative voting option for the 11th parliamentary election.
Awame League Presidium member Kazi Zafarullah told the Dhaka Tribune that he does not think ‘no’ vote can play any role in the overall circumstances of our country.
“It will have no effect on 98% of the voters across the country,” he added.
“There is no need for a negative voting system. If a voter has no interest in the candidates of an election, they could simply abstain from casting their vote,” another AL leader argued.
Former law minister and senior Supreme Court lawyer Barrister Shafique Ahmed said, “The civil society members may give their opinions. But the EC also has limitations.”
“Analysis will be required on whether the EC has the power to restore the negative voting or not. Our laws were drawn up following the western laws. Even in the United Kingdom the negative voting option is no longer there,” he said.
“The constitution will have to be amended for restoration of negative voting,” he added, suggesting that there was no need for it.
How ‘no’ fared in ninth parliamentary election
In the 2009 election, where ‘no’ vote mechanism was brought in for the first time in Bangladesh, the number and percentage of such votes were low. However it indicates that voters are willing to accept the provision if it is there on the ballot.
A total of 3,81,924 no votes were cast, which is 0.55% of total vote cast then.
The number of no votes were below 1% in most of the constituencies across the country, however, it was above between 1% to 3.02% in 14 constituencies alone in Dhaka out of total of 20.
Highest 32,067 ‘no’ votes was in Rangamati which was 9.6% of total votes counted and 12.41% of total valid votes. The indigenous voters in the area might have refused candidates from the major political parties and wanted their own representatives which led to the situation.
Other demands placed by civil society in EC dialogue
In addition to the restoration of ‘no’ voting, civil society members also weighed in on several issues including amendments to the electoral laws and delimitation of the electoral constituencies, finalising of flawless voters’ list, fixation of voting centers and registration of new political parties.
Hossain Zillur Rahman, former adviser to the caretaker government, proposed deploying the army and inviting foreign observers during the election.
The former adviser also called for an election-time government as he speculated that organising an election alone would be quite difficult for the EC. He also urged political parties to hold dialogues in order to form an election-time government.
Economist Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya urged the EC to be more cautious about using religious sentiments during the next election. He also asked for specific laws to enforce transparency and accountability in the election expenditure of the candidates.
Dr Debapriya also urged the commission to thoroughly verify the affidavits of the candidates.
Prof Dr Nazmul Ahsan Kalimullah said the increased expenditure limit for candidates for campaigning in the next parliamentary elections has been creating unfair competition among aspirants.
Prof Mahbuba Nasreen of Dhaka University said the time limit to update the voter list should be extended as the move to update the voter list has been delayed due to natural disasters in many parts of the country.
As part of its election roadmap, the EC will also hold dialogues with 40 registered political parties, media representatives, election observers, women leaders and election experts.