Quazi Habibul Awal, the new chief election commissioner, and his team have plenty of time in hand to prepare for the next parliamentary election not due before the end of 2023. Since the country's figure-head president picked up the five-member commission Awal, a former senior secretary, and his fellow commissioners have been talking to an aggressive media on how they will hold a free, fair and inclusive general election in a fearless manner. No, the new Election Commission is not under any pressure whatsoever from any political party in regard to its responsibility, said the CEC on Tuesday on the eve of the National Voters Day. "It is possible for ensure equal opportunity for all in the election if the commission can appropriately exercise its power provided in the constitution and the law," he said. In separate remarks he continued to assert that his commission will leave no stone unturned in trying to help the political parties (including BNP) reach a consensus on holding a free and fair election. In apparent reference to BNP's rejection of the new EC, Awal likened the future balloting with the ongoing war in Ukraine with a piece of advice: Don't leave the election field and hold on until the end like the Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky who is not giving up despite being pounded by Russian troops.
As the so-called honeymoon period is soon going to be over for the new EC the constitutional body faces a number of hurdles to overcome in reaching its goal of conducting a "beautiful election" as he has promised. His first challenge will obviously be to restore public credibility with the EC and the election process as a whole. The election watchdog's credibility reached a nadir during the five-year tenure of his disgraced predecessor KM Nurul Huda. The legacy of Huda, however, leaves for the new CEC enough lessons to learn, righting the wrongs and help voters to shake off their apathy towards vote. During Huda's time the country sadly witnessed a gradual decline in voters' turn-out from national to local level elections. So, bringing the voters back to ballot boxes with enough confidence that they will be able to cast their vote in a violence-free atmosphere without fear and intimidation should be the major hurdle for the new CEC to cross. That takes him to face the second test of persuading BNP and its allies to be brave enough to take up the challenge of fighting its arch rival ruling Awami League with ballots instead of staying away from it. How Awal, an experienced bureaucrat who weathered some challenges in his career, will mellow hardliner BNP is a million-dollar question. That BNP behaves like rudder-less ship on the stormy sea poses for the CEC even a bigger challenge. With BNP the problem is who is really at command in making strategic political decisions, especially in regard to its single-minded arrogant stand of saying NO to everything Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government does or offers. Provided Awal makes a breakthrough on the BNP stand-off he will surely make a big stride in its main goal making the next election inclusive and fought in field fair and even for all. We wish him success in its BNP mission.
Apart from BNP and several other political parties both on the left and right sides of the aisle Awal faces the challenge of commitment from the ruling party that it really believes in what it promises. If the AL suffers from the fear of losing a good number of constituencies in case of a free and fair vote or even losing the power, it will then present an insurmountable barrier in holding an election acceptable not only to the people at home but also the country's democracy-loving friends abroad. When the AL faces the next election it would plunge in the fight with an enviable record of being in power for 15 years at a stretch. So far so good. With Hasina at the helm of the government Bangladesh has witnessed a steady growth in the economy, reduction in poverty, more women getting education and taking up jobs outside home and finally fulfilled all the UN-set criteria to formally leap out of the status of LDC to join the world's mid-income developing nations. Despite these achievements there is a palpable sense of uncertainty among the ranks of the ruling party over an easy sail through the election. If the government is given a high score in its development subject, its performance in curbing corruption and ensuring constitutionally-guaranteed civil and human rights is far from being admirable. The problem with AL and its policymakers is that they hardly can tolerate even fair criticism of the way the country is being governed. Consider the Digital Secretary Act (DSA) and some of its provisions that choke the free voice. Thanks to a long uninterrupted stay in power the AL has created enemies within its own organization which was manifested during the recent local body elections with a majority of AL candidates had to fight (in many cases losing it) against their own comrades, billed as the rebel candidates. Blood was also shed with armed clashes overshadowing the relatively better turn-out in the UP polls, especially of women.
The AL has little reason to fear of losing a fair balloting. Apart from the economic development and a relatively successful handling of the Covid-19 pandemic even some initial setbacks Hasina has constitutionally outsmarted BNP and her critics. She has fulfilled a long-standing constitutional mandate of enacting a law on election under which the current EC has been formed. The search committee that has chosen 10 names from a plethora of suggestions has also been constitutionally formed. It comprised the non-partisan persons best available in the country. Whether the names of five other individuals who were not chosen by the president or whether the identity of who proposed whom is absolutely redundant now. The choice of BNP is limited. Either it takes part in the election with a gritty determination employing all its energy and resources or take the election battle away from ballot boxes to the street is what its leadership must decide right now. The pool of public support the opposition party commands even after so much of battering from the government needs to be mobilized under a strong leadership, which sadly though it lacks. The Al, on its part, must demonstrate not only in words but in deeds that it really wants an inclusive election making, if needed, strategic compromises with its rivals.
For the new CEC and his colleagues, the task will be to prove, though quite difficult, that their good words and intentions don't finally end up becoming just pious wishes.
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