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Cablegate: Electoral Reform Bid Draws Flak From Political Parties

VZCZCXRO2978
RR RUEHCI
DE RUEHKA #0922/01 2460941
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 020941Z SEP 08
FM AMEMBASSY DHAKA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 7299
INFO RUEHIL/AMEMBASSY ISLAMABAD 2314
RUEHNE/AMEMBASSY NEW DELHI 0796
RUEHKT/AMEMBASSY KATHMANDU 9824
RUEHLM/AMEMBASSY COLOMBO 8584
RUEHCI/AMCONSUL KOLKATA 1426

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 DHAKA 000922

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PHUM BG
SUBJECT: ELECTORAL REFORM BID DRAWS FLAK FROM POLITICAL PARTIES

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SUMMARY
-------

1. (SBU) New provisions in the electoral law promulgated by the
Caretaker Government (CTG) are designed to clean-up Bangladesh's
deeply corrupt politics. The major political parties, which
historically have resisted internal reforms, have argued that some
of the provisions are undemocratic and that they do not in any case
have enough time to comply with the requirements for registration
for Parliamentary elections scheduled for December. The Bangladesh
Nationalist Party (BNP) already has refused to register with the
Election Commission (EC) under the new provisions. Still, the
Government is keen to have all parties compete in the election and
could work out compromises during discussions with the parties
scheduled in the coming weeks. End Summary

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FAR-REACHING ELECTORAL CHANGES
------------------------------

2. (U) On August 19, the CTG published the Representation of the
People (Amendment) Ordinance, 2008, which makes significant changes
to the electoral law in effect since 1972. Under the amended
ordinance, candidates must reveal information about their education,
wealth, and any criminal records when they file to run for
Parliament. Political parties must submit statements to the EC
outlining election expenditures and sources of funds. Anyone seeking
to run for Parliament for the first time as an independent must
collect signatures from 1 percent of the people in their
constituency.

3. (U) The ordinance mandates all political parties must register
with the EC to contest Parliamentary elections; the deadline for the
upcoming Parliament vote is October 15. Only parties that won at
least one seat in Parliament in previous elections or that have
functional central committees and offices in at least 10 districts
and 50 sub-districts qualify. They cannot have student, labor, women
or any other front organizations (which traditionally have provided
strong electoral support to the parties). They also must amend party
constitutions to ensure committees at all levels are elected and to
set the goal of reserving one-third of those seats for women by
2020. They must ensure that local party structures have significant
influence in the candidate selection process.


------------------------
PARTIES RAISE OBJECTIONS
------------------------

4. (SBU) Rejecting the ordinance, BNP Secretary General Khandker
Delwar Hossain told the Embassy that his party simply could not
comply with some of the provisions. He said restrictions on
political activity under the State of Emergency and the short
timeframe would make it impossible for the BNP Central Council to
amend the party constitution per the new law by the October 15
deadline. Barrister Abdur Razzaq, a leader of the BNP's alliance
partner Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), said his party already fulfilled
almost all the requirements set forth by the EC for registration but
had not yet made a decision on whether to register.

5. (SBU) Awami League Acting General Secretary Syed Ashraful Islam
criticized some of the new electoral provisions but did not outright
reject the new ordinance. Islam told the Embassy that his party
would try to reach a compromise through its dialogue with the EC,
due to resume in early September. He said he approved of much of the
new law but added that it contained what he described as
undemocratic provisions, such as the prohibition on front
organizations. He also questioned the provision for allowing voters
to cast a "no vote" in Parliamentary elections, saying it was not
clear how that would improve democracy. Islam said his party might
be able to hold a council meeting by the end of September if the
government lifted or significantly relaxed the state of emergency.


6. (SBU) A High Court bench on August 28 ordered the government to
explain the constitutionality of the sections on reserving political
positions for women, on demanding conformity of party objectives to
the constitution, and on non-discrimination regarding religion,
race, caste, language or sex in the party constitutions. The BNP
Secretary General promised more legal challenges to come, saying the
CTG had no constitutional authority to make major policy decisions.

--------------------------------------------- --
CTG ACKNOWLEDGES PROBLEMS, PROMISES FLEXIBILITY
--------------------------------------------- --


DHAKA 00000922 002 OF 002


7. (SBU) Law Adviser A.F. Hassan Ariff acknowledged both the poor
timing of the new ordinance and the legitimacy of political party
complaints that it would be difficult to adopt the stipulated
reforms for the December elections. Ariff said the amendments would
have been welcomed by the people if made soon after the state of
emergency declaration in January 2007, when there was a nationwide
clamor for political reform to battle widespread graft and violence.
Ariff said the government would favorably consider any EC proposal
to relax some provisions of the Emergency Power Rules if it helped
the political parties hold council meetings in a timely fashion to
adopt the required reforms. Meanwhile, the EC has invited major
political parties for separate meetings to discuss party
registration issues. Notably, the EC invited the mainstream BNP
leaders, who were excluded from initial rounds of dialogue in favor
of reformists.

--------------------------------------------- -
COMMENT: NEW LAWS UNLIKELY TO DERAIL ELECTIONS
--------------------------------------------- -

8. (SBU) While there are legitimate practical concerns over
compliance and time constraints, the lengthy foot-dragging among
political parties with respect to any meaningful reforms suggests
they hope to resist such change. The new reforms have the potential
to promote transparency in party financing, internal party
democracy, and women's participation, all of which could challenge
the entrenched power of party leaders. The BNP in particular is a
top-down organization, the legacy of its founder, Ziaur Rahman.
Still, the CTG has made clear it wants all political parties to
participate in the Parliamentary elections to ensure they are
perceived as free, fair and credible. That suggests the EC and the
Caretaker Government are likely to be responsive to at least some of
the parties' complaints.

MORIARTY

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