Law stipulating public hearing required for constitutional appointments

Mizanur Rahman Khan | Update:
Syed Manzurul IslamSyed Manzurul Islam has taught at the English department in Dhaka University for over four decades. He is currently on leave prior to his retirement. He received the Bangla Academy award in 1996. He won the Prothom Alo book of the year award in the Bangla year 1411 for his book Prem O Prarthanar Galpa. He is a trustee board member of TIB and CPD. He was also a member of the search committee which the president had recently formed to constitute the new election commission. He talks about the criteria the committee followed to pick prospective election commissioners in an interview with Prothom Alo’s Mizanur Rahman Khan.

Prothom Alo: What criteria were used in selecting the 10 names? Are you satisfied with the new commission? Why did seven of the selected 10 have to be public servants?

Syed Manzurul Islam: The criteria included professional efficiency, honesty, competence, understanding and experience about the election system and so on. As a member of the civil society myself, and since there were three civil society representatives on the list of 10, I had hoped that at least one would find place in the election commission. I had hoped that an academic or educationist would be invited to join the election commission. Administrative efficiency alone is not enough to conduct any election satisfactorily. There must be an acute awareness of the nitty-gritty of the election process, its shortfalls, and the influence of money, power, etc. It is important to have the capacity to hold talks with the political parties, to have their trust. This was an opportunity to ensure all that. I would have been happy if that came about. Public servants are included in the commission out of the perception that their administrative skills are essential.

Prothom Alo: If administrative skill is the benchmark, how are judges experienced in running the administration? There is a general perception in the country that the judges too understand administration, but educationists and others don’t -- What do you think?

Syed Manzurul Islam: Perhaps the perception that the public servants can run the election commission well is because they have experience at field level. We must break away from such a perception. If the election commission is to perform efficiently as a team, then its members must be selected from various professions. This could be reflected if a law was drawn up for the election commission.

Prothom Alo: Four names were selected from the Awami League and BNP lists. So from which small parties were the names of the remaining six taken?

Syed Manzurul Islam: LDP, JSD, BNF, Islami Oikya Jote, Bangladesh Tarikat Federation, etc. I proposed one of the names. The smaller parties actually were the majority. Perhaps it was just a coincidence that some of the names were common. The name of the newly appointed chief election commissioner (CEC) came from seven or eight parties and Ali Imam Majumdar’s name from two parties.

Prothom Alo: Why were the political parties’ lists given priority? The previous search committee revealed 10 names before handing them over to the president. Why was this not done this time? You were given 10 working days. What was the haste for you to hand in the names two working days early?

Syed Manzurul Islam: The political parties were given priority since they represent the people. Were the names of 10 persons published last time before submission to the president? I think the cabinet secretary revealed these to the media after they were given to the president. This time the names were revealed within three hours or so. The 10 working days would end on 7 February. The names were to be submitted to the president on that date, but we submitted them on 6 February since he would be busy on the 7th. Our work was complete at the 6 February meeting.

Prothom Alo: Why did the search committee feel the need to consult eminent citizens? What was the reason for not accepting professor Serajul Islam Chowdhury’s recommendation for commenting on the selected individuals?

Syed Manzurul Islam: The eminent citizens gave their suggestions about how the election commission should be, what qualifications the members should have and so on. The election commission must keep their suggestions in mind and carry out their duties. They will be under this moral obligation. Professor Serajul Islam Chowdhury’s recommendation was excellent. But we were told that many of the political parties did not want that the names they suggested be published. Sir’s suggestion could have been accommodated differently, by not mentioning which party had selected the names. This would give scope for public debate. It would also have generated political agitation. Having said that, the fact remains it wasn’t in the scope of the search committee to do so.

Prothom Alo: How come no members of the minority were included even though around 17 individuals were invited? There is no in the commission either.

Syed Manzurul Islam: We had initially thought a few eminent persons from Dhaka and outside Dhaka would be called. There were two such persons, from Chittagong and Rajshahi, but it would not be possible for them to come to Dhaka within that short period of time to attend the meeting. Two should have been invited from Dhaka instead, but this was not done due to our negligence. I apologise for this. Some names did crop up for inclusion in the election commission, but were not selected.

Prothom Alo: What prompted you all to recommend to the president that a law be drawn up for the election commission?

Syed Manzurul Islam: There are certain clear benefits of having a law in place. Firstly, it will have all rules and regulations, scope and method of work clearly enunciated, making it easy to follow and implement. Secondly, it is realistic because a law is above any individual or group. Thirdly, there is a certain obligation to follow the law. There are provisions and penalties for violation of the law. With a law in place, the entire election will have transparency and accountability. Everyone is calling for a law because there is a need for it. You see, BNP and many other parties had suggested names for the search committee, but none of those were selected. This annoyed them. With a law in place, this wouldn’t have happened. Had the members been selected from members of the ruling party and the opposition, then the committee would have been acceptable to all. There would have been a consensus in forming the commission too.

Prothom Alo: As an educationist, do you think that the process you all used to select individuals should be used for the appointment to all constitutional posts?

Syed Manzurul Islam: Certainly. There must be specific laws for every constitutional appointment. That will make the appointment process transparent as well as ensure the matter of accountability.

Prothom Alo: What was the justification behind the committee’s consensus to maintain secrecy? The committee must follow the prevailing laws. The right to information act of 2009 does not support such a stand. So you have violated the law. What would you say to that?

Syed Manzurul Islam: We didn’t consider maintaining secrecy in the manner you have suggested. We wanted to keep the discussions within ourselves until the task was complete and that the media would be briefed daily. We felt since the selection of names was a continuing process, there might be scope of misunderstanding if discussed. And since the parties kept their list of names secret, we did too. I don’t think that violated the right to information act. However, if there was an election commission law in place and provisions regarding the search committee, then the matter of secrecy could be clearly specified.

Prothom Alo:  You all avoided coming directly before the public by appointing a spokesperson. Secretarial assistance doesn’t entail a government spokesperson for an independent committee.

Syed Manzurul Islam: The search committee would fix what the cabinet secretary would say at the end of the meetings. He didn’t add anything of his own or stray from our directives. He did not act as a government spokesperson, but as a spokesperson for the search committee. If I had the role, I would have given the same information to the media.

Prothom Alo: If you all held a hearing, the matter would have been more transparent. There would be scope to voice allegations against the new CEC and for him to defend himself against accusations of his being a part of the ‘Janatar Mancha’. What would you recommend to avoid such situations? Britain and India advertise for applications to constitutional posts. What should we do?

Syed Manzurul Islam: I simply have one recommendation – let there be an election commission law. That law may include provision for public hearing and other devices. We can go the Britain or India way, but is our political culture of that high a standard? Do the party have democracy within themselves? Do they have commitment or respect towards the constitution? The Indian president is of Congress, the prime minister of BJP. Yet they are politically performing together. Is this conceivable in our country? Only when this is conceivable will the matter of transparency in constitutional appointments be tangible.

Prothom Alo: What comments do you have about the new election commission?

Syed Manzurul Islam: I would request the new election commission to place priority on winning the confidence of all political parties. They can draw up a 100-day plan and begin working on it speedily. The plan should include dialogue with the political parties, making the matter of transparency and accountability clear and providing guidelines for its implementation. They should have regular meetings with persons experienced in election affairs. They should keep the public updated about their activities through the media and have specific commitments to ensure each and every election is fair and transparent. The civil society and the people expect this from them. This must be the driving force behind all their activities.

Prothom Alo: Thank you.

Syed Manzurul Islam: Thank you.

*The interview is rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir

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