The election commission announced the roadmap for the national election with much fanfare. If they did so to enhance their transparency and credibility in the eyes of the voters, the contesting parties or individuals, the government, the administration and everyone interested in the election, that is fine and good. But at the same time they should remember that they must apply this policy of openness in each and everything they do. They can’t just preen in public when the going is good, and skulk in the shadows when the going gets rough. Formalities do nothing for democracy if the right measures are not taken at the right time. People’s confidence cannot be earned with a flurry of formalities.
When the chief election commissioner (CEC) announced the election roadmap, he also said that it was not in the jurisdiction of the election commission (EC) to ensure a level playing field for all before the election schedule was announced. That is why, he said, the election commission at the moment would not make any request to the government to create a conducive environment for electioneering. His statement gives rise to the question, how can the EC deny its responsibility to ensure a conducive environment and a level playing field before the election schedule? It seems as if he is confining the election commission within the bounds of mere vote management. But the reality is that the EC can no longer be restricted to mere vote management. It is the commission’s responsibility to oversee the overall management of all factors associated to the election. All over the world the scope of the election commissions’ responsibilities is expanding steadily.
In Bangladesh too, the EC has a role and legal authority as a regulatory bodyof the political parties. The EC has the power to fine any registered political party if the party fails to submit its audited accounts of income and expenditure to the commission on time. The commission has the responsibility to check whether the parties are practicing internal democracy within their organisations, whether they are holding their council meetings in keeping with the party constitutions, and whether their executive committee elections are being duly held. The EC even has the power to cancel the registration of any party if it fails to carry out any of the conditions laid down by the commission.
There have been speculations that the EC might cancel the registration of the opposition party BNP if it boycotts the next general election, as the registration rules require that if any party fails to participate in the national elections twice consecutively, its registration should be cancelled. As a regulator of political parties, if the EC has the authority to cancel the registration of any party, then it should also bear the responsibility to ensure the minimum democratic and political rights of the parties. If any political party is prevented from holding meetings publicly or privately, if the police shut their offices for months on end, or use flimsy excuses to search their offices and hamper their work, then how can they carry on with their normal organisational functions? And if they lag behind in preparing for the national elections because they can’t carry out their ordinary organisational functions, who is responsible? Can the EC shirk its responsibilities?
The formation of the present EC under KM Nurul Huda was also not without controversy. It was formed through perfunctory talks and discussions, much in a ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ style. The weakness in the process of appointing commissioners highlights the difficulty in winning peoples' trust. There have been efforts to draw the new EC’s attention to the relevant Commonwealth rules so that it exercises the good practices of democratic countries. One of the newly appointed commissioners said he would get a copy of the Commonwealth secretariat’s publication, ‘Election Management: A Compendium of Commonwealth Good Practices’. But, there's no sign of any change. A few elections of local government and parliamentary bye elections held since the new EC taking office do not show any efforts towards changing electoral management system.
The latest remarks of the CEC regarding the national elections give rise to further concern. The Commonwealth principles maintain that alongside conducting the elections, the constitution and the law should have provision for the commission to play a larger role in building up a culture of democracy in the time span between two elections. It says that the commission should have the authority to take decisions pertaining to demarcation of constituencies, voter registration, formation, registration and monitoring of political parties, party funds and election campaign finance, election code of conduct, and arbitration.
So, why will our EC not take any initiative to build and consolidate a democratic culture in the time between two elections? Why will they not come forward to protect the minimum rights of the registered political parties to assemble? And why will the commission turn a blind eye when ruling parties use government facilities to campaign for the polls well over two years ahead of a national election? Why will the election expenditure law not be applied then?
Studying the prevailing election systems, laws and practices in 53 member countries, the Commonwealth highlights that the biggest challenge to free and fair elections is incumbency. The Commonwealth electoral network working group has recommended that the election commissions be given the legal authority to announce election schedules and demarcation of constituencies so that the incumbents are prevented from doing so according to their advantage. It suggests stricter laws to fix terms of an individual to be eligible for the head of government. They go as far as to recommend provisions so that this law cannot be changed even through majority vote in parliament, court order or even referendum. These principles seem to be the ideal code to be followed before, after and during the election.
The European Union has even more expansive analyses and research in the fourth edition of the ‘Compendium of International Standards for Elections’, which was published in 2016. It gives a comparative view of election laws and systems of European, American, Latin American, Arab, African and Asian countries. Election-related discussions in this publication are all based on international human rights conventions. It says that elections are an instrument of the implementation of human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and all discussions pertaining to human rights, highlight the importance of genuine elections. Article 21 of the UDHR reads 'the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections ---'. The International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), also calls for 'genuine' elections and Bangladesh is a signatory of the covenant. Explaining the term 'Genuine' the Commonwealth Electoral Network says , in broader sense it means associated issues of political freedom and rights including ensuring freedom of opinion and expression, association and free movement. In the narrower sense, the group says, opportunities to choose between clearly definable parties or individuals.
The people of Bangladesh have no dearth of interest and enthusiasm concerning elections. The voter turnout at the fairly credible elections held so far, indicate how eager the people are to cast their votes. So the integrity of the election and the sanctity of votes are extremely politically sensitive. That is why there have been movements for fair voting rights in this country, and that is why a conspiracy to stay in power though a few million false voters had been thwarted. But even two and a half decades since the return to democracy, we have not been able to establish a credible election system. By credible election, we undoubtedly mean a genuine election.
The question is, how can we expect a genuine election unless the controversy over the election commission’s role is abated? Though the Aziz commission and the Rakib commission bear the most of the responsibilities in discrediting the election management institution, the new Election Commission must be bold and instigate a sense of hope. Unless it does so, there will always be the apprehension that the future of the elections and democracy will be pitched into a crisis all over again.
* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist and consulting editor at Prothom Alo. This column, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.