Friday, August 16, 2013

EC’s decision on 91(E) of RPO helps party government

Holiday, August 16th., 2013

M. Serajul Islam
At a time when the AL led Government was trying its best to convince the opposition and the nation that it had made the Election Commission (EC) strong and independent to be able to hold a free and fair parliamentary elections and that there was no need of the caretaker government (CTG), the Commission did something astounding. It asked the government to annul Article 91(E) of the Representation of People’s Order (RPO) under which the EC had the authority to cancel a candidature in parliamentary polls for violation of electoral laws. The Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) faced a surprised and baffled media and baffled them even more when he stated that the Commission saw no reason to keep Article 91(E) in the RPO, as it was not “executable”!
The present Election Commission has been appointed after a search in which late President Zillur Rahman took the initiative to convince the nation that the new Commission would be both independent and neutral. His involvement notwithstanding, the opposition stayed away from the search. The President in consultation with the Awami League and its coalition partners later appointed the new EC. The BNP said repeatedly thereafter that the Commission was not independent and part of the ruling party’s grand scheme to manipulate the parliamentary elections in its favour. It left no one in doubt that it considered the Commission as an extension of the ruling party. 

Just prior to its decision on Article 91(E), the EC was under attack from the opposition for a move that it later denied that in the next general elections, the Prime Minister and 20 Ministers would enjoy official privileges. There was also another news item that had upset and angered the BNP; that the EC would give registration to a breakaway BNP. The BNP called the move a “conspiracy” and warned the EC of a strong movement against it if the new party was registered. As readers would recollect, the BNP has legitimate reasons to be suspicious about such an issue because the previous EC during the Caretaker Government had encouraged something similar; it had moved to give the reformists within the BNP the right to represent the party officially, a move that had failed. Thus, the EC made its strange move with Article 91(E) when it was under attack from the opposition as weak, incompetent and an extension of the ruling party.
EC’s kowtow
Further the members of the EC led by the CEC failed to demonstrate the type of personality that would encourage the nation to have faith in it; that it had the guts to face the demands of the ruling party. In fact, some of its moves were blatantly designed to please the ruling party and its interests. Although there were some outside the ruling party who were willing to give the EC credit for the city corporation elections, the recent actions of the EC with the one on Article 91(E) in particular have eroded all of that. These actions have raised serious public concern and apprehension whether such a Commission would be able to see the country through at a pivotal time in its history when holding a free, fair and inclusive general election is the key to save the country from slipping into what many suspect a civil war.  
It defies both logic and common sense that the EC in such a predicament would make such a move as it has done with Article 91(E); a weak EC groping for credibility and under attack from the opposition as weak and subservient would voluntarily sacrifice formidable power and return such formidable powers to the government that says it is trying to make the EC both independent and powerful! At the least, if the wise members of the Commission were really convinced that there was no need for keeping something in the RPO that it cannot execute, it should have held on to for better times. From the standpoint of timing, even if primary school children were running the EC, they would have shown better sense. The Chairman who chose to face to the media to explain the great furor that exploded over this decision was also unable to explain why the Commission thought that the provision was “in-executable.” 
Nevertheless, analysts have tried to explain this strange decision of the Election Commission to make some sense out of it. There is a consensus in these analyses that the EC damaged its own standing as an independent and powerful body. Many analysts have concluded that by the decision, the EC also damaged the contention of the Government that it has made the EC a powerful and independent body to enable it to hold free and fair parliamentary elections under party government and thereby dismiss the opposition’s demand for such elections under the CTG. Most analysts have also concluded that the EC consists of individuals who are weak who prefer to remain weak so they do not upset powerful politicians who put them where they are now. In fact, the EC by its action on Article 91(E) has established the BNP’s uncomplimentary views about it more explicitly than the BNP itself. 
Political realities
However, everybody knows the realities in Bangladesh’s politics. One reality is that the AL led Government did not choose an EC that would take such a critical decision at such a time without consulting it. Therefore a better explanation to the EC’s strange decision on Article 91(E) would be that the Commission took the decision on being asked or advised by the AL led Government. The humiliating defeats in the city corporation elections, particularly the one in Gazipur, have shell shocked its confidence. Therefore, looking into the parliamentary elections, that the AL wants to win at any cost, it encouraged the EC towards the strange decision as an insurance policy in the event the next general elections were to be inclusive with the BNP participating. In that scenario, the Article 91(E) could be used by the BNP to challenge the AL candidates on violation of electoral laws. 
The former CEC Dr. Shamsul Huda explained this point explicitly. In an interview to a leading English-language daily, he said: “Article 91 (E) is a great hindrance for any political party that has a plan for large-scale rigging or fraud, because people will ask EC to use its authority, which is gained through Article 91 (E). So they are trying to drop this proposal to make the EC a toothless tiger.” The former CEC, without accusing the ruling party directly, has looked at Article 91(E) in the context of history of elections in Bangladesh under party governments where there have been widespread riggings, the same history that encouraged the AL to demand the CTG in 1996 that is the reason behind the BNP’s current demand for the CTG. 
The above notwithstanding, one has to share the unfortunate predicament of the ruling party. It seems like everything it is doing these days is becoming a political liability. The EC’s decision was no doubt made with clearance of the government or on its advice to convey to the people the impression that the ruling party had no intention of interfering in the parliamentary elections in favour of its candidates and that it was making the playing field even. Unfortunately, the way the EC handled it, the result has been the opposite; it has destroyed people’s faith that this EC would be able to handle a free and fair national election because it feels more comfortable to get rid of its powers than to be empowered. The same predicament has befallen the ruling party with its decision to introduce the son of the Prime Minister in politics and putting up the billboards to flag for the people its successes to shore up its fast declining political fortunes. Both, like the EC’s strange decision, have seriously misfired.
Perhaps, the ruling party is facing the predicament of King Midas of the fairy tales. Its initiatives that were bringing golden results not very long ago that had led people to vote it to power with a 3/4th majority in the last elections is now not working anymore. Perhaps this is the way politics is; the BNP found this the last time it was in power and it is the AL’s turn this time to face the same reality. Only, the present ruling party is messing up everything much more than the BNP did or for that matter any ruling party in the country’s history.
The writer is a retired career Ambassador.

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