Friday, September 6, 2013

On Election Commission’s flip-flops over Article 91(E)

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Saturday, 07 September 2013
Author / Source: M. Serajul Islam
The Election Commission’s latest decision to take back 91(E) has shown it to be as unsure and weak as it did when it decided to the same article, in fact worse. For the nation that would have liked the EC to be strong enough to dictate both the mainstream parties in the context of the electoral laws, the EC’s flip-flops have shown it to be a far cry from what the nation expects of it. Between the flip-flops over 91(E), the Election Commission had also made a written statement in the media that it had enough powers under the RPO to make it strong and independent without Article 91 (E)!

The EC’s flip-flops should have put the ruling party in an embarrassing position if of course it were worried about it that does not seems to be the case. The ruling party has been saying repeatedly that it has made the EC powerful and independent to dismiss the demand of the opposition for national elections under a non-party caretaker government. If anything, the EC’s flip-flops have shown that in addition to being weak, those in charge of the EC are unsure of their ways at a time when the government was claiming it had made it strong and independent. These flip-flops have destroyed the AL led government’s claim of a strong and independent EC.

These flip-flops have convinced most people and the civil society that national elections under the Election Commission cannot be held independent of the influence of the ruling party. One of the major allies of the ruling party has already dismissed the EC in stronger terms than the BNP that has all along maintained that it would not participate in national elections under it. Former President HM Ershad has stated categorically that there was no question of the Jatyabadi Party going for national elections under the present EC.

Politics is mostly about perception. Unfortunately, our politicians and those who play political roles in public without being politicians like the EC for instance do not seem to realize this. The present EC has a huge problem with how the people perceive it. When its members, the Chairman in particular, come to the media, they fail to give the perception that they would be able to deliver the sort of elections to the nation that would allow a peaceful change of government in the country. They just do not create any positive impression in the minds of the people at all and the flip-flops are contributing hugely to sustain the negative impression about the EC in the minds of the people.

The people started to have damaging perception about the EC from the very beginning; from the way it was constituted. Although late President Zillur Rahman initiated the choice of the Commission where he had stated that it would be constituted through consultations with all the political parties, it was essentially the ruling party’s choice. The BNP was no party in the choice as it stayed away from the President’s consultations because it did not believe that the President was interested to choose an Election Commission that would work independent of the ruling party. The way the EC was chosen and those chosen to be in the Commission left the perception among the people and the civil society that the EC would not be able to act independent of the influence of the ruling party. The EC’s handling on the registration issue of a breakaway group from the BNP has heightened that perception as have a lot of other actions that it has taken or failed to take.

The flip-flops have strengthened that perception to the extent that outside the ruling party, no one believes that the EC has any power to act on major issues without being dictated by the ruling party.   As a result, at a time when it is important for the government that people would perceive it as strong and independent both, the EC is viewed as weak, unsure and incapable of acting on major issues independently. The EC has only itself to blame for such a perception about it among the people to which the role of the ruling party, though covert, has also contributed.

Ambassadors and High Commissioners of the developed countries met the CEC and the other members of the Commission recently. They reiterated that they would like to see the EC hold free, fair, transparent and “inclusive” national election for peaceful transfer of power. Basically, they underscored the recent initiative of the UN Secretary General. The EC assured the diplomats that it would hold free and fair elections but could not convince these diplomats or the nation that it either had the power or the inclination to hold free, fair, transparent and “inclusive” national elections that would mean one with participation of all the major political parties that is critical for the country.

In deciding to take back 91(E), the EC committed another blunder. It said its decision to return the provision was correct but it wanted to take it back in respect for people’s wishes! The EC is not an elected body susceptive to wishes of the people. It is there to conduct elections according to the electoral laws. If the EC were dependent on what people want, then the EC should have considered one major wish of the people. It should have recommended to the Government to hold the next general elections under a non-party caretaker government because independent and credible polls have shown that 90% of the people want it.

Of course, the EC would not dare recommend to the government elections under non-party government based on people’s wish because it would incur the wrath of the ruling party. The flip-flops have exposed to everybody explicitly the over-riding influence of the ruling party over. It also exposed that these flip-flops were also the result of differences within the ruling party on how to use the EC for its ends. The EC at first  ”decided” to return 91(E) because a group within the ruling party wanted it as an insurance in case the next elections were “inclusive” so that opposition candidates would not have any provision in the RPO to file cases against AL candidates on reasons of undue interference with the election laws.

The former CEC Dr. Shamsul Huda has alluded to this point in a recent interview. When the “decision” caused widespread public dismay and destroyed the AL led government’s claim that it had created a strong and independent EC to dismiss the opposition’s claim for a non-party government, a group in the ruling party, perhaps from the Prime Minister’s Office ordered the EC to “re-decide” and seek 91(E) back! The flip-flops have destroyed the EC’s credibility to such an extent that even if  the ruling party were to reach an agreement with the opposition on the next general elections, the EC would have to be reconstituted not because the opposition would rightfully demand it but because the nation would be in agreement with such a demand.

The EC’s ability to astound is becoming surreal. At the time of filing this article, Election Commissioner Abul Hafiz has said he was not sure that the elections would be held without dissolving the Parliament.  He dared to state: “The Prime Minister’s statement isn’t final.” He said this after the Prime Minister had made unequivocal statement that the Parliament would not be dissolved. Was the Commissioner taking on the Prime Minister? Or is this an indication that notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s unequivocal statement on dissolution of the parliament, the government is still undecided on the issue and Abdul Hafiz may have unwittingly spilled the beans! 

The writer is a former Ambassador

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