Bangladesh Starts Talks on Election Laws With Political Parties
By Jay Shankar
Sept. 13 (Bloomberg) -- Bangladesh's military backed interim government started talks with political parties on changing voting laws in order to hold elections before a December 2008 deadline.
Discussions with about 18 political parties will cover ``their viewpoint on issues such as conduct of parties, individuals and party registration,'' Election Commissioner Sakhawat Hossain said in a telephone interview from the capital, Dhaka. ``The talks will go on over the next three months.''
The government on Sept. 9 lifted a six-month ban on indoor political meetings to allow the talks to begin, said Mainul Hosein, adviser to the government.
Bangladesh, a country of 150 million people, has been under a state of emergency since the government canceled elections scheduled for January after months of clashes between supporters of political parties. The administration has arrested about 150 politicians in a crackdown on corruption since then, including former prime ministers Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wajed.
The government wants to hold elections at the earliest possible date and a list of voters with their photographs is being prepared, Hossain said. The exercise will reduce ``excess voters'' by about 10 million, he said.
``The final list may have more than 70 million voters,'' Hossain added.
Political meetings were banned in March under emergency rule. On Sept. 11, the government eased other regulations and allowed courts to grant bail to the family members of those detained along with suspects on corruption charges. The government had prevented people detained on charges of corruption from getting bail. More laws will be relaxed in the weeks to come, Hosein said.
Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Wajed's Awami League alliance have been invited to take part in the talks. The BNP won the last general election in 2001.
To participate, political parties need to have won at least one parliamentary seat from the time of the country's first elections in 1972 or at least 2 percent of total votes in elections since then, commissioner Hossain said.
The 18 parties involved have fulfilled such conditions, Hosein said. The aim of the government is to make elections transparent and fair, he said. Parties with representatives in half of the electoral districts will also be invited to hold discussions on the new laws.
``In this small country there are 120 political parties,'' Hossain said. ``If we invite all then it will make a mockery of the process. We mean business.''
Parties must practice democracy within their ranks and their funding must be transparent, he said.
Under planned new laws, candidates who have defaulted on loans or tax payments may be barred from standing for public office and political parties will be asked to cut links with student groups, Agence France-Presse reported yesterday.
In the past, political parties created a climate where it was impossible for civilian government to continue, Hosein said.
``They had frequent shut-downs, protests and demonstrations,'' he said. ``This government had to come backed by the army. We want to see whether politics means politics or plundering or dictating vandalism or making public life insecure. Their activities have to be observed.''
A partial lifting of a ban on political activities isn't enough to address restrictions on basic freedom and rampant human right abuses in the country, New York-based Human Rights Watch said yesterday in a statement on its Web site.
The idea that politics is banned in a democracy is ``bizarre'' and if the Bangladeshi authorities are serious about restoring democracy they must fully end the ban on political activities, the group said.
``Politics is not a sport that can be played only in an indoor arena,'' it said.
The steps taken by the government to fight corruption will not work, said Mostafa Chowdhury, professor at the Department of Political Science at Dhaka University. ``People are in constant fear to participate in political activities.''
To contact the reporter on this story: Jay Shankar in Bangalore at firstname.lastname@example.org .