The debate over whether or not to call out the army during national polls has intensified as the next general election gets closer.
During talks with the Election Commission (EC), a large number of journalists and civil society members spoke in favour of deploying the armed forces (army, navy and air force) to secure life and property during the polls.
They cited widespread violence and anarchy during the last election in 2014 to make their point and advised amending the Representation of Peoples Order (RPO) to pave the way to army deployment.
Former advisor to caretaker government M Hafizuddin Khan, Prof Ajoy Roy, local government expert Tofayel Ahmed, former cabinet secretary Ali Imam Majumdar and Prof Asif Nazrul of Dhaka University are among those who suggested calling out the army during polls.
“If the army can be engaged in hospital management and construction projects, why should they not be deployed for electoral duties?” Nazrul raised the question during a dialogue with the EC on July 31.
Tofayel said that the EC should deploy army if it feels its necessary.
EC's field-level officials are also in favour of deploying defence personnel alongside police to give the voters a feeling of security and prevent anomalies during election.
Why army deployment is important
Speaking to the Dhaka Tribune, Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya, a public policy analyst and research fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue, said: “There are two reasons why the deployment of armed forces is important – one is to maintain law and order to protect the electorate, especially minority voters, from possible acts of violence. The other is to check civil disobedience to electoral rules and regulations.”
“We have had miserable experiences in the previous elections which were marred by widespread violence. Influential quarters were seen flexing their muscle before and after the elections. Therefore, we demand army be deployed as supplementary force, not as an alternative one.”
He is of the view that the presence of armed forces at polling stations would help boost voters’ confidence and enthusiasm in the election.
Armed forces: A law enforcement agency?
Armed forces were included as a law enforcement agency alongside police, armed police, Ansar, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) and Coast Guard, in the RPO in 2001 following an ordinance.
However, in 2009, they were excluded from the definition of law enforcement agency.
According to the current law, the armed forces will stay at camps and can be called out as striking force in emergency cases to assist the civil administration, if the EC wants.
The question of magisterial powers
Dr Debapriya echoed Prof Nazrul when arguing for army deployment but he was against granting magisterial power to them.
“Magisterial power should be in the hands of civil administration. Army should be deployed to maintain law and order not to sentence anyone,” he said.
Former caretaker government advisor Dr Hossain Zillur Rahman said: “Violence or fear of violence always troubles voters, electoral officials, contestants and their supporters during an election. The armed forces need to be deployed to ensure their safety and security.”
Dr Badiul Alam Majumdar, secretary to Sushasoner Jonno Nagorik, said: “Many voters feel scared and refrain from going to polling stations due to fear of being attacked. They, however, feel safe and can cast their ballots freely in the presence of the armed forces.”
Explaining the necessity of army deployment, he said: “Miscreants are afraid of armed forces and dare not execute their criminal plans or rig elections as long as army personnel are present at the polling stations.”
Badiul Alam, however, added that the army should not be authorised to use the magisterial power; rather, they should perform their duties as they did in the previous elections.
EC yet to make up its mind
Chief Election Commissioner KM Nurul Huda said most of the participants of dialogues urged engaging the military in electoral duties.
The authority of police, RAB, BGB and other law enforcement agencies will have to be curtailed if the army are to be deployed with magisterial power, he added.
The EC, however, is yet to decide whether to deploy the forces.
Awami League, BNP at loggerheads
Leaders of the ruling Awami League and opposition BNP have been at loggerheads over the issue.
Awami League's Joint General Secretary Mahbubul Alam Hanif told the Dhaka Tribune: “Army men are to perform other important tasks. They need not be deployed during polls, as there are law enforcement agencies like police, RAB, BGB, Cost Guard, with sufficient capacity to maintain law and order.”
There is the civil administration with magisterial power. So, the question of lending authority to the army during the polls is unrealistic, he added.
Awami League Presidium Member and Health Minister Mohammed Nasim, said army should be deployed only in the manner current electoral laws have defined.
Disagreeing with the ruling party leaders, BNP Senior Joint Secretary General Ruhul Kabir Rizvi said: “We have no faith in any authority except the armed forces. Holding a credible, fair election without deploying them is next to impossible.”
The armed forces have to be deployed to ensure “neutrality and impartiality,” he added.
What the experts say
Former election commissioner Brig Gen (retd) M Sakhawat Hussain said deployment of the armed forces had been a practice in parliamentary elections since 1973.
Those who oppose the idea could not come up with a logical explanation, he added.
Mentioning that the requirement for deploying the armed forces is connected with electoral security, Sakhawat said: “Our electoral management is becoming increasingly dependent on the security agencies, mostly on the Ministry of Home Affairs, which by and large would remain under political influence, as was seen in the past.”
Armed forces are viewed by a large section of voters and the public as a neutral institution and they feel confident and safe in their presence, Sakhawat said.
Since electoral security is one of the important determinants of an acceptable electoral process, the EC must be the one to decide on the issue, he stressed.