So this is what it comes down to. It was always on the cards of course, and always has been thus, barring two occasions. Noukaagainst dhaaner shish. Two entities that speak to the hearts of Bangladeshis from Tetulia to Teknaf, essential to life in our delta. Two electoral symbols that represent the aspirations of tens of millions building their lives here amid tremendous challenges. There is an added sense of anticipation to the contest this time, given the prolonged gap following the last occasion that the two squared off on the ballot in a national election. The entire nation would rather forget the 2014 election, reduced as it was to a no-contest with the BNP’s boycott. Ideally, the electorate would probably have preferred the contest to resume under neutral supervision, of the kind that oversaw proceedings on four previous occasions (1991, 1996, 2001 and 2008) that were split 2-2 between the Awami League and the BNP.
Yet starved as it has been of competitive politics for years now, Bangladeshis are happy enough to have the two big parties, at the head of their own coalitions back seeking to represent them. No unopposed candidates, and no constituencies where the people’s right to franchise is denied this time. Yet events during the campaign have served to demonstrate how far the country’s politics has to go, to come out of the dysfunction that afflicts it. It’s a positive sign that elections are set to be held to 300 constituencies, and voters will get to have their say in all of them. Yet can we remain confident that everyone will in fact be represented in the parliament that is elected? The return of the AL v BNP contest, essential as it is, also means the return of tribalism in our politics. We don’t need to recount the experience of opposition boycotts that almost became a custom in the four parliaments where the AL and BNP filled the opposition and treasury benches. And given the acrimony on display during the campaign period so far, frankly it is difficult to be optimistic that things will in fact be any different in the 11th Jatiya Sangshad, that an electorate numbering over 100 million is set to elect on December 30th.
As the first competitive elections to be held under a partisan government since the advent of democracy in 1991, understandably there are questions raised over the fairness of the election. On top of this you have the BNP-led opposition’s constant allegations throughout the campaign of being denied the “level-playing field”. Even an election commissioner said that the commission he belonged to had failed to provide the so-called “level-playing field”, which by the end was reduced to a cliche more than anything else. Then again, it was always to be expected that the opposition would play up the adversarial position they are in for all they could as a campaigning tactic. What we can say is that although there have been some undeniable advantages enjoyed by the party in power during campaigning, and even before that as the main opposition was under pressure, the most important factor in any election is the people’s participation.
Nevertheless, in such a situation, it was hoped that credible, experienced election observers would provide some oversight as to the quality of the election, and help us determine the fairness of the vote. It is in this context that the withdrawal of the observation mission by the Asian Network for Free Elections citing "Bangladesh government's inability to issue visas” within the required timeframe was not encouraging. ANFREL, a regional network of civil society organisations funded by the US through the National Democratic Institute, was supposed to send 32 observers to Bangladesh.
A US State Department spokesman said the lack of an international observation mission makes it even more important for the government to complete the accreditation of all the local NGOs that constitute the Election Working Group, which includes some funded by USAID, so they can conduct the vital work of monitoring the election.
Spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General Stéphane Dujarric at a press briefing in UN Headquarters on Friday said, “Civil society and electoral observers also need to be fully supported to play their role in this process."
Besides, there is the probability that mobile internet may be downgraded on election day as well as a day before and after it. The EC has asked Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission to make preparations to downgrade 4G and 3G networks to 2G in those three days, according to BTRC sources. EC Secretary Helal Uddin Ahmed has already confirmed to journalists that they would seriously consider entirely or partly blocking mobile internet services or slash internet speed on the election day, December 30.
Following a meeting between the BTRC and EC, the EC also asked the telecom regulator to prepare to block social media sites, especially Facebook, and some other communication applications. When needed, the EC will issue an instruction and the BTRC will have to comply with it immediately. The BTRC already took the preparations and formed a team that is staying at office round the clock to take actions if any unlawful activity using online platforms is found, said its officials.
Less objectionably, the voters will not be allowed to carry mobile phone sets while entering polling centres to exercise their franchise. The Election Commission said mobile phone sets will not be allowed as voters show the picture of casting votes to their candidates many times. Besides, it may spread a negative message in social media, Election Commissioner Kabita Khanam said while addressing a training session of presiding officers in Munshiganj.
When the dust settles
Now it remains to be seen how we move forward, given the inevitable controversy that is set to arise after the election. If the BNP loses, they are unlikely to go away, neither will they give up their demand for elections under a caretaker government. Going back to the caretaker regime would be akin to being caught in a bind, where we are forever going around in circles. The correct step in such a situation for either side, would be to take steps to make the Election Commission fully independent.
Yet by convention, electoral rules and regulations are not subjected to the vagaries of majoritarian politics; they are arrived at through consensus among political parties. But merely repealing the caretaker government was never going to be enough. Steps should have been taken to guard the integrity of the electoral process, starting with the enactment of a law regulating the appointment of election commissioners. As is well known, the constitution of Bangladesh neither prescribes a list of qualifications as pre-requisites for someone to be appointed as an election commissioner, including the chief, nor does it fix the number of election commissioners to be appointed.
What it does say, in Article 118  is that “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.” In line with the part emphasised in italics, the last Election Commission that commanded the nation’s respect and admiration, the one led by the venerable Shamsul Huda (2007-12), submitted a draft law titled "Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioner (Appointment Procedure) Act" in 2011, before the caretaker provision was repealed. Yet this was quickly shelved, and subsequently we have seen two more election commissions appointed that failed to meet the people’s heightened expectations, particularly in view of the new paradigm whereby elections would be held under partisan governments. Together they have overseen a gradual erosion of the public’s faith in the country’s electoral mechanism, through a string of local and national elections that almost never failed to disappoint.
In the absence of a law to regulate the appointments of the CEC and election commissioners, their appointments have been at the pleasure of the government. The successive party governments have generally appointed sympathisers to their cause to these posts, particularly to influence the general elections to members of parliament. When the caretaker government provision was in place, this may not have mattered so much. But now that the country has seen how much power is vested on the EC during elections, it becomes imperative to ensure its independence, and the least amount of politicisation.
The draft law of the EC has 7 sections. Sections 1, 2 and 7 contain routine matters like short title, definitions, etc. of the proposed Act. Section 3 concerns the composition of the EC. The draft law proposes that the EC shall consist of one CEC and two Election Commissioners. Of the two Election Commissioners, one shall be female, it is suggested. If we look back over history, we find that the best elections were actually held under a 3-member EC. The current 5-member EC has often appeared in disarray.
Section 4 prescribes qualifications for these appointments. Administrative experience, honesty, righteousness, uncompromising neutrality and knowledge in legal matters have been suggested as necessary qualifications for CEC and election commissioners. Certainly when we look at the present EC, one of the things that stands out is their lack of top-level experience, since none of the commissioners, in their respective careers, rose to the position of secretary to the government or its equivalent. That has made it understandably difficult for them to command the entire machinery of the state with authority.
Section 5 concerns how the EC would be appointed. It suggests a five-member search committee headed by the CEC. The other members of the committee include a high court division judge nominated by the chief justice, chairman of the anti-corruption commission, chairman of public service commission and the comptroller and auditor-general. The functions and responsibilities of the search committee include searching out persons suitable for appointment as CEC and election commissioners and prepare a three-member panel for each of the vacant posts, and send such panels to the prime minister's office for examination and consideration of the parliament's business advisory committee (BAC) headed by the speaker.
The draft law also suggests that the president will appoint anyone from the panel finalised by the BAC as election commissioner or CEC, as the case may be. A copy of the draft law was circulated among registered political parties, civil society members, senior journalists and others seeking their opinion on it. Most of the feedback was positive, suggesting that if the draft law is enacted by the parliament with suitable amendments, it would reduce politicisation of the EC to the minimum.
For any ruling party to present such a law in parliament might be too much to ask. But instead of boycotting parliament, can we hope for a political culture where whoever ends up in the opposition takes up the challenge to present such a bill on the floor of parliament? That itself would represent progress of a sort.