Saturday, February 4, 2012

Why can’t the EC resolve the issue of a free and fair election?

The Holiday
3 February, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

The search is on to choose a new Election Commission. The search has begun following the President’s discussions with the political parties during which most of the parties showed very little interest on the issue of the EC but more on reviving the Caretaker Government system. A five member committee has been formed for the search. The Committee has written to the political parties to nominate 5 names for the EC. The BNP has rejected the offer outright.

There is nothing that one can oppose in the initiative to form a search committee for the new EC. In fact, this is quite a positive idea and therefore one must welcome it. Nevertheless, every act in politics or governance is only a small part of a big canvas and whether an act is positive for the body politic or not will depend on how it fits into the political canvas.

The political canvas of Bangladesh as it is now is not a straight forward one where an EC formed in the manner that the President and the Search Committee has set out to achieve it will fit into the political canvas the way the ruling party desires. For a starter, the political canvas is one where the ruling party and the opposition are at each others’ throat on many issues considered by the BNP to be more important than forming the EC. To the BNP, the issue that is of essence is the need to re-activate the caretaker government to hold the next elections instead of holding it under an interim government to be headed by the ruling party.
They see the EC under an interim government headed by the ruling party no matter how it is chosen to be one where it would not have the power and the independence to be the replacement of the caretaker government by a long stretch of imagination. Further, the BNP has also stated that it does not see the initiative to search for the next EC through a committee as constitutional. The BNP’s negative stance on the search for the next EC has put a spanner on the government’s initiative.

The initiative has also not received the sort of response from the other political parties that would give it the sort of credibility that the government needs to sell the idea that an EC so chosen would be an alternative to the CG. In effect therefore what is going to happen if the ruling party insists on holding the next elections under it is that the Search Committee will end up recommending those names that the ruling party would have in any case chosen. Therefore the initiative will do little to resolve the gridlock that has set on the next elections; it fact the way things are moving , it will strengthen the gridlock.

The Government’s argument that the EC would serve the national need of a free and fair national election fails in the reality test in a major way. The EC in India is an example where a body such as the one the ruling party is contemplating could rise above partisan politics and conduct a free and fair election. There are a few important factors that have helped establish the EC in India as a very powerful body capable of holding free and fair elections in the world’s largest democracy. First, the Indian EC is a quasi judicial constitutional body whose powers are derived from the Constitution. Second, India’s democratic institutions are firmly established and not subject to manipulation by the party that goes to power. Finally, the EC in India works hand in hand with the independent judiciary whose credibility is above question and reprieve.

These inherent strengths of the Indian EC notwithstanding, it had to work hard and fearlessly to establish its credibility against the pressure of the party in power. It achieved that credibility in the turbulent decade of the 1970s when Mrs. Indira Gandhi was showing tendency of assuming dictatorial powers following her popularity in India and abroad after defeating Pakistan in the 1971 war and playing the leading role in the emergence of Bangladesh. The Court and the EC acted in tandem to stop Mrs. Gandhi from trampling with the democratic institutions of India, particularly those related to holding free and fair elections.

In Bangladesh, the conditions that have helped the Indian EC emerge as the custodian of free and fair election do not exist. The way politics has emerged in the country, no one would believe that the EC in its right mind would consider declaring election of either Sheikh Hasina or Khaleda Zia void no matter what evidence there would be to take such punitive action. The slight possibility of taking punitive action against leaders of the stature of these two politicians would vanish if one of them would happen to be the Prime Minister.

Our EC, even if it is chosen in a bipartisan manner and given power and independence, would have to depend entirely on the administration over which it would have no control to conduct the election because it does not have the manpower recruited by it and answerable to it to perform its functions. It would have to depend on the civil bureaucracy for the purpose. The ruling party, by general admission, has politicized the bureaucracy and has shown every intention to place bureaucrats loyal to it in the district and local level administration who would play key roles in conducting the next elections. Therefore, no matter how the next EC is chosen, it would be dreaming for the unexpected for it to rise above the party that would be conducting the next elections.

A major reason that those who reject the CG system make is its un-elected nature. The hold the view that a democratic election cannot be held under unelected people. As a debating issue, there could be strong augments in favour of such a view. However when our politicians make this argument, it sounds hypocritical. The idea of the CG did not originate in the civil society. It came from the politicians themselves who argued against their own character to force this concept on the country at great economic costs. The AL with Jamat that championed the CG system argued that under a party government, a free and fair election was impossible because of the ease with which it would be able to manipulate elections in its favour.

By all counts, the tendency of the party in power to manipulate the elections to return to power has become stronger. The quality of politics has deteriorated and the impatience of the two mainstream parties for each other has worsened. This worsening in the quality of politics encouraged the Supreme Court, while recommending the abolition of the CG system, to also recommend that the next two elections should be held under the CG system because it did not believe that the ruling party would refrain in interfering in the elections it would conduct.

The argument that the ruling party makes that it has not interfered in the municipal elections to argue that it would not interfere in national elections held under it does not stand against serious scrutiny. First, municipal elections do not change a government. Second, the media, particularly the electronic media made it impossible for any interference in the municipal elections by its round the clock vigilance. Third, the media cannot play such a role in national elections because of the large number of seats and the huge number of voters involved. Finally, the ruling party proved what it is capable of doing when it refused the EC army support that the Government was constitutionally obliged to in case of the Narayanganj election; support that the EC asked for to ensure free and fair election.

To replace such a system that the Supreme Court feels is necessary for at least two more elections and ask people to believe that the EC would be a democratic substitute is arguing the case by turning a blind eye to the sad state of our politics and reality. Then again, the EC in which the ruling party is placing all its faith is itself an un-elected body. One fails to understand how the case of democracy would be furthered by holding elections under it where the dangers of manipulation of the ruling party as the government with total control of the administration that it has politicized upon which the EC would be dependent for conducting the elections, is blatantly apparent.

The last elections under the CG brought to surface some serious flaws in the system without compromising its usefulness to a free and fair election. Those flaws need to be addressed. In that context, the present initiative for a strong EC chosen by consensus is very important and could overcome the major flaws in the CG system. Nevertheless, such an EC would be able to play a proactive role in conducting a free and fair election only within the framework of the caretaker government and not under a party government. The reason for such a conclusion rests in the fact that the quality of politics in the country remains conflict ridden where the element of trust and the mindset in both the mainstream parties in accepting defeat, is simply and sadly absent.

Therefore the need of the hour is revive the CG first and then deal with matters related to the EC. In any case, with the BNP making its case against the interim government and in favour of the CG system, the ruling party has no alternative but to sit down with the BNP and resolve the gridlock over the issue unless it wants to push the country to the sort of crisis the consequences of which are too dangerous even to contemplate. Selecting the EC and forgetting the CG would be putting the cart before the horse.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan

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