Bangladeshi expatriates’ voting rights – and wrongs

The right to vote is a funda-mental right of citizenship, and this right is not affected by where a citizen chooses to live,” said Jean-Pierre Kings, a former Chief Election Commissioner of Canada. Indeed, the fundamental nature of such a right imposes an obligation on a country to enable its citizens to vote in its national elections, regardless of where in the world they live as long as the citizen has retained a stake in that country.

According to the International Institute for Democratic and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), a Stockholm based organisation, there are 126 countries and independent territories in the world that offer some form of voting rights to their expatriates. The figure was 93 in 2006, indicating a sharp upward trend in recent years in recognising voting rights of overseas citizens worldwide.

Nevertheless, there is a significant number of countries, including Bangladesh, whose expatriates remain disenfranchised. It is interesting to note that hardly any of these governments, in the recent past, opposed expatriates’ voting rights as a matter of policy. In fact, it appears that inertia, failure to prioritise the issue, slow pace of bureaucratic machinery and reluctance to undertake the necessary logistics are primary reasons why these countries continue to deprive their citizens abroad of such a fundamental right.

At present, there is at least a dozen countries, including India, Pakistan and Ireland, where various steps are being taken to introduce legislation or work out logistics in order to implement their expatriates’ voting rights. Intense pressure from the diasporas (including mass hunger strikes in the case of Indian expatriates) seems to have provided the necessary impetus for these countries to embark on expatriates’ voting rights programmes.

Bangladesh is one of the few nations which has neither implemented any active steps in ensuring the voting rights of its expatriates, nor is it in the process of doing so in the near future. Yet even a superficial examination of the issue would show that Bangladeshi expatriates probably are more deserving of such rights than many other countries.

A reliable estimate shows that there are approximately nine million Bangladeshis living and working in various parts of the world, representing around 5 percent of the total population of the country. According to the World Bank data, in the last five years, the average yearly remittance sent by expatriates of the country was over USD 14.5 billion, amounting to almost 10 percent of the country’s GDP. The Migration and Remittances fact-book 2016, published by the World Bank, shows that in the last few years, Bangladesh has been consistently among the top ten remittance receiving countries in the world. If we disregard smaller countries (countries with population under 10 million), overseas Bangladeshis’ contribution to the country’s GDP would stand as the highest such contribution by expatriates of any country in the world, except for the Philippines.

Expatriate Bangladeshis’ contribution, in terms of government taxes on their investments and assets in Bangladesh, is also considerable. The fact that they send home such a huge amount of remittance, in spite of being well-settled with their families abroad, is a real testimony of their patriotism. It is well-recognised that as unofficial ambassadors of the country, Bangladeshis abroad through their work have raised the image of Bangladesh in the outside world. Thus, it is a democratic and moral oversight for us to keep this productive and resourceful group of our population disenfranchised by denying them their voting rights, and so should be righted urgently.

Like several other diasporas, Bangladeshis abroad, especially those living in the UK, have long been campaigning for their voting rights in Bangladesh. However, successive governments, with the exception of the current government during its previous term in office (between 2009 and 2013), have made no real headway in this direction. Here a brief outline of the legal issues and chronology of the government and other bodies’ involvement in this issue would be useful.

Unlike the Constitution of some countries, the Constitution of Bangladesh requires no amendments to afford voting rights to its citizens living abroad. One difficulty arose when the Electoral Rolls Ordinance of 1982 defined the Constitutional term, “deemed by law to be a resident” of a constituency so rigidly that it even excluded those expatriates who were able to visit Bangladesh to register and vote. This was successfully challenged in the case of Ali Reza Khan v Bangladesh Election Commission in 1997.

The next significant development was in February 2001 when the Prime Minister’s Office sought the opinion of the Law Commission as to whether it would be “proper to confer the right to vote on Bangladeshi citizens residing abroad,” and if so, what steps the government should take in this regard. The three members of the Law Commission answered the first question unequivocally in the affirmative, and as regards to the second question, they suggested that the government needed to amend the 1982 Ordinance in order to implement such rights (it appears that the Commission overlooked the additional need of amending the Representation of the People Order 1972).

The matter was then put on the back burner, possibly due to change of government in the latter part of that year, until 2007 when the Election Commission under the Caretaker Government picked up the baton only to quickly realise their limitations, and the whole issue petered out once again.

The next crucial development was in August 2009 when the Parliament repealed the 1982 Ordinance and specifically added a provision stating that Bangladeshis living abroad would be deemed as residents of the constituencies where they had lived before emigrating or where they still own their ancestral homes. This piece of legislation may be regarded as the first solid step towards implementing expatriates’ voting rights in Bangladesh.

There appears to be no other public records of any further progress until June 2013, when the Prime Minister in Parliament, while answering a question as to whether expatriate Bangladeshis would be able to vote from abroad, stated: “Necessary amendments to the Representation of People Order 1972 will be made for this to happen.”

This is where the trail goes cold. The Representation of People Order 1972 was indeed amended in 2013, but not for the purposes of enabling expatriates’ voting rights. Inexplicably, once again the ball was kicked into the long grass.

The situation must be retrieved.

Interestingly, during the crucial developments of this issue in 2001, 2009, and 2013, Sheikh Hasina was the Prime Minister of the country. Her personal commitment and intent in implementing expatriates’ voting rights is therefore evident. As such, there is no conceivable reason why the government should not kick-start and complete the outstanding legislative and logistic processes before the end of its current term of office, thereby enabling expatriates to cast their votes in the general election due in 2019. A no-excuse jolt from the Prime Minister might be necessary to shake up the proverbial bureaucratic inertia.

A renewed sense of obligation in this respect in the collective conscience of the government would also go a long way. History will judge favourably a government in general, and a Prime Minister in particular, that sees it fit to enfranchise a group of citizens who have ventured far and wide, essentially to enrich and empower the motherland they have left behind.

Source: The Daily Star

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