The British government has released a copy of a report highly critical of Bangladesh's capacity to hold free and fair elections, reversing its previous decision that disclosure would "cause significant offence" to the Bangladesh authorities.
The British government's change of mind followed an appeal by this journalist to the Information Commissioner's Office, an independent UK body that makes final decisions on freedom of information requests.
In a letter sent on November 30, the Department for International Development (DFID) stated that it had reviewed its decision at the request of the comissioner and now considered that "the public interest … favours release of the report".
The letter emphasised that the document, written in March 2014, was "an independent expert report commissioned by the DFID," and any opinions are "the expert's own views and do not represent UK government policy".
The British government had obtained the expert report, written by Hannah Roberts, an independent governance consultant, to review the impact of its $2.3m grant to a United Nations Development Programme-managed project, which had supported the work of the Election Commission of Bangladesh (ECB).
Since 2011, other international donors had provided the project, which sought "to put in place the conditions necessary for credible, transparent and inclusive elections", with an additional $12.2m, with the European Union having donated $8.8m, and USAID, $1.4m.
The report's criticisms of the ECB resulted in the donors first cutting back their financial assistance to the commission and then, a year later, in July 2015, suspending it completely.
The disclosure of the consultant's findings comes only weeks before Bangladeshis from the 236 municipalities go to the polls on December 30 to elect mayors and local councillors.
Opposition politicians have raised concerns about the neutrality of the election commission in these elections with Khaleda Zia, the leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, stating in early December that free and fair polls "cannot be expected of a feeble election commission". Government ministers, however, have rejected the criticism as "nonsense".
The 16-page DFID report starts by questioning the legitimacy of the country's controversial January 2014 national elections, boycotted by the opposition parties, which returned the Awami League government to power unopposed.
Although the national elections were held in accordance with the country's constitution, the expert report states that they "were not based on broad participation" and as a result "international law commitments related to a genuine process … are very subject to question".
At the time, the British Foreign Office minister Baroness Warsi stated that it was "disappointing that voters in more than half the constituencies did not have the opportunity to express their will at the ballot box, and that turnout in most other constituencies was low".
At the time, many Western countries, including the US, were urging the government to hold new elections allowing for the participation of the opposition parties.
The DFID report then considers the failure of the election commission two months later to hold free and fair local "Upazilla" elections, where all the political parties participated.
Roberts states in her report that these elections "exposed high levels of shortcoming", with the Bangladesh election commission unable "to provide for neutrality and sufficient integrity in the process".
She pointed out that although local election observers had found fraud in more than a quarter of the polling stations in the final round of the local elections, the ECB had failed to take appropriate action.
"The election commissioner's continued maintenance that the upazilla elections have been essentially free and fair and peaceful clearly shows that the problems are not being addressed, thus signalling increased opportunity for future malpractice," the report says.
The electoral commission role
The newly released report also strongly criticises the commission's appointment of local state bureaucrats as "returning officers" (ROs).
"The ECB's decision not to use its own staff for the crucial RO role but instead to use senior members of the local administration further perpetuates the influence of the ruling parties," the report states.
As the ECB did not demonstrate "sufficient attempts to assert its authority" over these returning officers, the report held that the election was in effect "being run by the local administration at the local level, rather than by the independent election commission".
As an example, the report pointed to how the ECB failed to take proper action following the broadcast of video footage on various television channels which showed an Awami League candidate in one of the Upazilla threatening to break the fingers of BNP supporters who voted.
All the ECB did "was to passively pass [the information] on to the returning officer with no apparent follow up, comment or action".
The DFID consultant also concluded that the legal and administrative framework under which the election commission operated "fundamentally compromises the institution's independence".
The report states that this is because the commissioners and its senior staff are dependent on executive appointment and approval, the organisation itself is dependent on executive approval for funding and its proposed rules "require approval" from the ministry of law.
The report adds that there was also a "lack of trusted judicial oversight" of the ECB actions. "The judiciary is strongly distrusted by the opposition who regard it as pro-government. Therefore there is a lack of an effective check on the election commission …"
"These systematic weaknesses if not addressed will continue to fundamentally undermine the independence and effectiveness of the ECB," the report concludes.
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Sirajul Islam, the secretary to the ECB, said that the commission was too busy with the municipality elections to respond to the report, but he rejected any allegation that the election commission was partial or ineffective.
"The election commission is very much independent. There is no control whatsoever from the government. There is no other election commission more independent than the Bangladesh Commission," Islam said
He also denied that the ECB turned a blind to eye to electoral violations, or that the use of members of the local administration as returning officers was problematic.
"They are criticising for the sake of criticism," Islam said. "Local administration officials are employed by and work under the control of the election commission during the election, and they are fully controlled by the commission."
He said that he had told DFID and other development partners in the past that if they wanted to improve the election commission then they should talk to the politicians.
"The election commission operates within the current political system in Bangladesh. To improve the election commission, then the way politics is done in the country needs to change," the secretary to the ECB said.
This journalist had first sought a copy of the report in May 2015 in an application under the British government's freedom of information laws.
INSIDE STORY UK report critical of Bangladesh polls
In July, DFID rejected the application stating that the factors in favour of disclosing the report - including the "strong public interest in transparency and accountability" - were outbalanced by the harm to the "UK's ability to respond to international development needs" and "to deliver government policy and to protect and promote UK interests".
It subsequently stated that disclosure of the full report "would be likely to cause significant offence to the government of Bangladesh" and could "harm the trust" between the two countries, "reducing the likelihood of open and effective dialogue in future".
Source: Al Jazeera