Arguments, emotions and diplomacy

Ali Imam Majumdar | Update:

A dialogue between certain members of the civil society and the election commission was organized on 31 July. Not all invited persons turned up, but attendance wasn’t bad. The participants had ample time for discussion. Officials of the commission and its secretariat also patiently conducted and managed the dialogue. It will smoothen out their path towards a successful national election if they proceed with such sincerity.

Many issues were discussed in the dialogue and many suggestions were made. Undoubtedly these suggestions were sincere. There were arguments and emotions. There was even a little diplomacy.

In view of the next national elections, the commission will also hold dialogue with the media, political parties and other participants. It would be natural for them to integrate their own thoughts with the opinions of all concerned. They will take decisions on what is to be done. It should not be difficult to implement whatever is in their jurisdiction. And the government support will be necessary for issues related to the law. After all, only the Jatiya Sangsad or national parliament has the authority to amend the law.

Needless to say, several quarters are connected to the election. It is only reasonable for the election to be conducted under a legal framework and system more or less acceptable to all. Certain amendments and additions will be required. The election commission, the government and the political parties hold an important position among the quarters involved in the election mechanism.

Everyone speaks of a participatory, free, neutral and credible election. There are, of course, differences regarding the necessity of such adjectives before the word ‘election’. It is widely believed that election means that the people and the political parties will be involved. People will vote for whomever they want in a peaceful environment free of influence.

Those involved in running the election, will remain neutral. In countries where the election system has become a norm, no such adjectives are used before the word. The House of Commons election took place recently in the UK and the results shook the government system up a bit. No one felt the need to add any words before or after the word ‘election’. It is in countries like ours where the election system is fragile and riddled with questions, that we use various adjectives with the word. Even more words may be brought in until the prevailing system is changed.

Credibility of the election commission featured prominently among the issues raised at the dialogue. Many discussants offered suggestions to the commission in this connection. Regarding the government obstructing meetings and gatherings of a few registered political parties, the commission recently said that it could do nothing before the election schedule was announced. This statement generated a degree of doubt concerning the commission’s intentions and ability to create a level playing field for the election.

In the Representation of the People Order (RPO), among the assistance that the political parties are to be given by the election commission, there is no mention of carrying out their political programmes. In broad terms, the chief election commissioner (CEC) is correct. But any political party has to regularly carry out various political programmes to fulfill the requirements of registration. If this is obstructed, the concerned parties will not be able to meet the requirements for registration. So the commission does have a role to play here. If the registered political parties are obstructed from carrying out their political activities, the commission can protest to the government. The government cannot ignore their protests in all instances. Such active initiatives will increase the confidence of the political parties and the people in the commission.

Among the many issues discussed during the dialogue, importance was given to dissolving the parliament before announcing the election schedule and deploying the army during the polls. It is essential to dissolve the 300-seat parliament before the schedule is announced in order to keep the election free of influence. No one opposed this strongly.

The army is deployed without fail during the national elections in our country. It has even been deployed during some local government elections. The national elections are held all over the country on one day. There are 10 crore (100 million voters) and over 50 thousand polling centres. It would be totally inadequate to simply deploy only the police or members of the ansars to ensure law and order during the election. RAB and BGD are not deployed at the centres. They function as a mobile force. The armed forces are similarly deployed as a mobile and striking force. No matter how much the capacity of the police and other civil law enforcement agencies has been increased, there is no reason to believe that an environment exists where the armed forces are not required to ensure law and order during the election.

This is all the more relevant, if the increasing political bias of the police and civil administration is taken into consideration. It is important to include army deployment in the RPO or as supporting forces for the civil administration.

Very few persons spoke against permitting foreign observers and their stand was rather surprising. They wanted to say that we are matured enough as a nation. But is our democratic system matured enough? The credibility of our national elections has been questioned in various times in the past and this began all over again from 2014. The excuse that the elections were held in keeping with the constitution is hardly plausible.

Our country has seen economic and social development. But, good governance is in a poor condition all over. With just a few exceptions, our medical and other degrees are not even recognised in the developed world. While the world grows gradually close, distancing ourselves is not just a matter of will. Many of our elections have even been praised by international quarters. But unfortunately we have failed to institutionalise democracy. In fact, many of our respected institutions have been rendered questionable.

It is to be noted that during the tenure of this commission, almost all candidates of the union parishad elections in Feni and Bagerhat were elected uncontested. Many see this as a continuation of the January 2014 election. Of course, a city corporation election and several pourashava elections under this election commission have won acceptability. Under such circumstances, it would not be unreasonable to say the presence of intentional observers during the national election is essential.

The matter of widespread politicisation in the administration was also raised at the dialogue. It was said that extensive transfers were required before the election. The election commission could bring this about after the election schedule was announced. It was recommended that the schedule be announced three months in advance.

It was suggested that the election commission establish control not only over the field level administration, but also over certain ministries and directorates. The government’s will would be needed for such amendments. If the commission adopts a stern stance, the government would be bound to do something.

There were differences over the ‘no’ vote. This matter requires further review. Certain legal reforms were also mentioned at the dialogue. Regarding an initiative for a new RPO, the commission responded that India still followed its RPO of 1951, albeit with several amendments. So the RPO drawn up in 1972 can remain in effect, with necessary amendments.

The main context of the discussions was the next national election. Different quarters will say different things about the election. The commission and the government will have to decide on what to accept and what not to accept. But, it must be kept in mind that it is imperative for the election to be a success.

* Ali Imam Majumder is former cabinet secretary and can be contacted at <>. This column, originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.

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