In the 50 years since its independence Bangladesh is yet to reach the destination of democracy. The nation, born of a glorious War of Liberation with a lofty promise of establishing people's power, is still on its journey towards democracy, which is proving to be elusive. A free and fair election in which eligible voters are allowed to freely choose their representatives to govern them has remained a mirage for us. While the past military and autocratic regimes are largely to be blamed for this, our so-called democratic governments can't claim to be entirely innocent.
Bangladesh has a history of experiments on democratic elections. How to make a voting peaceful, impartial, violence-free and fair has been the challenge since the nation was born. It started in 1975 with the killing and ouster of the Awami League government of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman with military commanders seizing the power. Military dictators like Gen. Ziaur Rahman and Gen. HM Ershad never cared about people's voting rights. In the wake of the fall of Ershad, the last of the military dictators, in 1990 Bangladesh opted for a neutral caretaker government to preside over the holding of general election and thus ensure that people's choices are honoured and counted. The system, though primarily agreed upon by all anti-Ershad political parties grouped in three otherwise rival alliances, was later legitimatised as a constitutional mandate. The system, hailed as the most ideal for Bangladesh, saw comparatively free, fair and acceptable elections in 1996, 2001 and 2008. Then in 2011, the then government of Awami League, by dint of its absolute majority in the parliament abolished (15th amendment of the constitution) the caretaker government system in what it said compliance with a Supreme Court ruling despite protest from the main opposition BNP. Since then general elections are held under the government of the day remaining in power. The Election Commission that supervises the polls is appointed by the president with the help of a search committee he forms. The Election Commissions, formed through such process, presided over the holding of 2014 and 2018 general elections amid controversial circumstances. After a five-year constitutionally mandated tenure the current EC headed by KM Nurul Huda is scheduled to expire on Feb. 14. So with the next parliamentary polls due in 2023 the president held "dialogue" with 25 registered political parties, including ruling Awami League, to get to know from them how the next EC should be formed. Nine other invited parties, notably BNP, turned down the presidential invitation describing the exercise as useless since, according to them, the outcome has been predetermined. However, those who took part in the talks, mostly the allies of the ruling party, had one view in common: the EC be formed under a law as prescribed by the constitution. They referred to article 118 of the constitution that says "There shall be an Election Commission for Bangladesh consisting of 1[the Chief Election Commissioner and not more than four Election Commissioners] and the appointment of the Chief Election Commissioner and other Election Commissioners (if any) shall, subject to the provisions of any law made in that behalf, be made by the President."
Then the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina sprang a surprise. On Jan. 17, hours before her party's scheduled talks with the president, the cabinet at a meeting, presided over by her, approved the draft of a law that will guide the formation of a chief election commissioner and other commissioners). During the party's talks with the president at Bangabhaban on that afternoon the same was placed as the proposal of the ruling party. Since then the process of making the law started moving quite fast. Media reports suggest that the a bill titled "Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioner Appointment Act 2022" will be placed in the current session of parliament for its early passage after going through scrutiny by the relevant parliamentary standing committee and subsequent process.
The prime minister and her party deserve kudos on acting so fast on the enactment of the law, which days earlier was being described as Not Possible to be done in such a short notice. However, the move has attracted controversies even before the bill has been placed before the House. Forget about what BNP, the perpetual Nay Sayer to whatever the AL government does. But questions are being raised from other political and non-political independent bodies too. Why is the proposed law considering giving legal coverage to the process the president followed in the formation of the search committee before his appointment of the two previous ECs which conducted the 2014 and 2018 balloting? In doing so, is the government confirming the assumptions that the past two elections, conducted by controversial ECs, can be legally challenged in the court of law?
The proposed law, according to the sketchy details reported by the media, will have a six-member search committee, headed by a judge of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court (who will be recommended by the chief justice), another judge of the High Court, comptroller and auditor general, chairman of the public service commission and two distinguished citizens chosen by the president. The composition of the search committee looks fine on papers. The question is will a process of transparency be maintained? Will the names proposed by the committee be published so the citizens know from among whom the president is making his choice in the formation of the EC? It is too early to conclude that the president will not disclose the names. Let's wait and see.
While the focus remains on the new EC and who are appointed as its CEC and commissioners it should not be seen as the cure of all ills with regard to our election. The EC should be seen as a means of reaching our bigger goal and that is the holding of a free and fair election without the interference of the government in power. The job is an EC is not only just conducting an election. As a constitutionally mandated body an EC's job is also to help foster democracy in the country. Will the proposed law and the formation of an EC based on it will take us to our destination of democracy for which the nation has been struggling for the past half a century?
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