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Can Bangladesh have a free, fair election?

For political parties, the election is in their DNA, and without participating in the polls, they lose their relevance and in time their existence.

MAHFUZ ANAM | New Delhi |

Recently, Bangladesh’s chief election commissioner (CEC) urged all political parties to participate in the national election so that “democracy can flourish.” He was basically addressing the BNP without naming it, which has declared its intention not to participate in any national election under the present set-up. The party wants a special election-time government to oversee the polls. 

It is our view that the BNP’s boycott of the last election was a seminal blunder, leading to their present state of near oblivion. What lesson, if any, they may learn from this experience is something we will have to wait to see. 

While we do not agree with any political party boycotting a national election, there is no denying the fact that serious anomalies did occur in the last two, and credible circumstantial evidence later surfaced about ballot- stuffing, intimidation, use of money and muscle, voting the night before, and the involvement of government machinery in the election process. 

For political parties, the election is in their DNA, and without participating in the polls, they lose their relevance and in time their existence. A political party waits eagerly for elections as they know that it is only through participating in elections that they have some chances of coming to power or at least making their mark in the hearts and minds of the people. So, when a political party decides not to participate in an election – as the BNP is contemplating doing again – we need to examine why, and whether there is a need for some fundamental reforms. 

All democratic countries have elections. But in Bangladesh’s case, we have made it into a near-impossible task. Why are our elections so full of controversy? Why do we have such acrimony about its results? Our neighbour, which holds the biggest election in the world over several months, hardly ever has any controversy about the results. No political party, even those that face near extinction as the Congress recently did in state elections, points any accusing finger towards their election commission. 

Again, in most democratic countries, elections are held under party governments. So why is it so difficult in our case? Is there any truth to the widespread belief that ruling parties manipulate our elections? Did our experiment with a poll-time caretaker government work? It was the Awami League, then in opposition, that most effectively agitated for and was able to establish a caretaker government system in 1996 on the grounds that free and fair elections were not possible under a party government. We had three elections under the caretaker government system – in 1996, 2001, and 2008 (the 1991 election was held under an “interim government”); the last one was army-backed and brought the present party to power with a resounding victory. (If the 2008 election had been held under the original caretaker government, headed by then-President Iajuddin Ahmed, it is most likely that the Awami League would never have won, as the voters’ list needed to be cleansed of 12 million false voters out of 81.1 million of total voters). 

The hallmarks of all these elections were high voter turnout, relative 

absence of muscle power, fewer complaints of ballot-stuffing and false voting, and an overall atmosphere of peace and lack of violence. Notwithstanding the losing parties’ initial negative posturing, all participating parties accepted the results and played their respective roles. All these elections were comparatively free and fair, met global standards and enjoyed international credibility. Why were the polls held under the caretaker government system delivered well? The main reason behind that is that the government of the day – namely the caretaker government – was committed to holding free and fair elections, while the political governments were less so. Here, the Awami League’s original argument, made during 1994-96 while agitating for the caretaker government system – that elections under political governments cannot be free and fair – proved to be prophetic. 

It is after the Awami League government abolished the provision of caretaker government from the constitution in 2011 following a “short verdict” of the Supreme Court – it did not wait for the long written verdict, which included a suggestion that the caretaker government system may be continued for two more terms – that the authenticity of elections started to be seriously questioned by the public, compared to the earlier occasions when it was questioned only by the losing party. In the 2014 parliamentary election, 153 MPs were declared elected “unopposed.” Given our record of multiple contestants in every constituency in all the elections held so far, the fact that 153 constituencies had only one contestant was not believable. While so 

many MPs being elected unopposed was “legal,” statistically it was almost impossible. That fact did not appear to be a factor for the Election Commission (EC). Its compliant role in this destroyed its reputation. 

The 2018 election is known more for the “voting” that took place the night before, than for the voting that occurred on the designated day. And once again, the EC’s silence further killed its reputation, or whatever was left of it. 

Thus, Kazi Habibul Awal, the new CEC, and his team face an uphill task of rebuilding the reputation of the institution that has near-zero credibility. But there is also the legacy left behind by the EC headed by ATM Shamsul Huda (2007-2012) that shines like a bright star in the otherwise dark history of the last two commissions. (I chanced upon Navin Chawla, the chief election commissioner of India who conducted the 15th Lok Sabha elections in 2009, at the Jaipur Literature Festival last March. He told me that CEC Shamsul Huda was a star among the CECs in the Saarc countries at that time, and all the others, including Chawla, admired him for his competence and professionalism. My heart filled with pride, and I compared him to Nurul Huda, our last CEC who thought it fit to visit Russia to observe elections there. He obviously learnt a lot, as was evident later.) One of Sham- sul Huda’s team members, Brig-Gen Sakhawat Hossain, wrote three valuable books on the EC and elections. The new CEC and its other commissioners could learn a lot from them. 

The last we heard, CEC Awal was holding talks with various groups to solicit views on how best to perform his task of holding a free and fair election. While we appreciate his efforts, experience says that all these talks and the plethora of advice and suggestions he is getting will not help him much. What he is hearing, he already knows – or at least he should, as we all do, having lived through the last two elections. 

What he should be doing instead is talking to the political power of the day – the government, to be exact – as to how much freedom he will be given to do his work. Will he be given adequate resources, manpower and freedom to choose the people he wants to induct into the EC staff? Will he truly be able to enjoy the power that the relevant laws give him and his commission? Most importantly, will the administrative bodies—district administration, police, etc—that help with the election be effectively under the EC authority, or will it be just in name? 

Obviously, the government will say “yes” to everything he asks. However, the test will be in actual operation on the election day. But, by then, it will be too late for the EC to do anything. 

Another equally important question is: Do the CEC and his team have the willingness and the guts – to put it bluntly – to act as per the law that gives so much power? 

There is, however, a more straight- forward option. He can just ask the powers that be, “Do you want a free and fair election?” If the answer is a sincere “yes,” then the EC has no problem. But if the answer is a “PR yes,” then whatever the EC does will not give us the desired result. Hence, soliciting public opinion, while it looks good on paper, is of very little value.