The Gazipur and Khulna city corporation elections are supposed to be held next month, on 15 May. Work has begun to this end. Party symbols will be used for the election. The two major political parties and candidates from many other parties are contesting in these polls. One of the main political parties had demanded that the armed forces be deployed during the elections. The election commission has refused. The commission’s stance is acceptable in this instance. Given the population and size of the two city corporation, the civil enforcement agencies are adequate to ensure security. The two city corporations, covering 365 km, have a population of 6 million. The media will be extensively covering these polls too. If all goes smoothly, the voters will be able to cast their votes as they please.
The commission must make sure that all goes ahead smoothly. They will probably be determined to prove the credibility of the election system and the commission. The army is hardly ever called in for such local government elections. However, the debate has begun over the issue of army deployment during the national polls. Traditionally speaking, the armed forces are deployed to assist the civil administration during our national elections. However, there have been arguments and counter-arguments regarding the size and nature of the deployment.
The chief election commissioner, or CEC, has said that the armed forces will be deployed during the national election. However, a responsible quarter within the government has said that the election commission can recommend the deployment of troops, but the decision will be taken by the government. A note of discord seems to be heard. No provision has been kept in the constitution to for the government to differ from the election commission. However, in the Turgeon constituency by-election during the alliance government of 2003-2004 and then in the 2001 Narayanganj city corporation election, the election commission was ignored in this regard.
The alliance led by the major opposition political party wants the national election to be held under a neutral government. On the other hand, the government is inflexible in its determination to hold the election as laid down in the constitution. There is narrow chance of the election commission taking any stand in this regard. But it is their responsibility to ensure a level playing field for the contestants.
The parliament will remain intact as in 2014. The CEC some time ago had said that there may be need to bring about some changes in the code of conduct. But that’s about it. There has been silence since then. It has been heard that the code of conduct is being changed on recommendation of a certain political party, before the two city corporation elections. This will allow members of parliament to campaign in their constituencies. Changing the rules of a game once it has begun is deemed unethical. This biased stance of the election commission in favour of the ruling party candidates will certainly raise questions. The commission has sad that it will take a lesson from the local government elections for the national election. If the election commission changes the code of conduct before the election at the behest of the ruling party, that sets a bad precedent.
The national election will be held all over the country on the same day. There are one million voters and around 50 thousand polling centres. Communications to most of these centres will not be the same as in the case of the city corporation polling centres. A large number of the voting centres will be in far-flung remote areas. The civilian law enforcement agencies do not have the capacity to provide adequate security to so many polling centres. And the contesting parties can become extremely unruly in the tussle to either hang on to power or to seize it. The pressure will be on the law enforcement agencies.
The police and ansars will be guarding the centres. And this security system is fragile compared to the city corporation elections. RAB, BGB and the armed forces remain as mobile, striking or reserved forces. The election is under a political government. The civil administration and law enforcement can be controlled by the official and unofficial clout of the members of parliament. Even the election commission officials there will be helpless. In such circumstances, the deployment of the army in effective numbers to back up the civil administration can yield positive results. The election commission must thus come up in advance with a security plan.
The national election is round the corner. It is not enough for it to be participatory. The voters must be able to cast their votes unhindered. Much is being said about equal campaigning opportunities for all political parties. If the election is to be successfully conducted under a political government, the elections commission’s complete control over the law and order arrangements must be prepared from now. It is not enough for the election commission to take all this up merely 45 days before the election, after the schedule is announced. There is not likely to be any legal obstacle in announcing the schedule earlier. And if there, is, that can be removed. If this can be done, then the commission can make certain necessary changes in the administration and police. This will highlight the commission’s ability to conduct the election.
Under the circumstances, the main responsibility to enforce law and order falls upon the police. However, with ample deployment of mobile teams and striking forces of the armed forces, there will be a positive impact on the voting process. For the, the election commission must communicate with the armed force though the government from now. Prior to that, they need to hold meetings with the civil administration, police, RAB and BGB and inform them of their intention. They must take a leading stance as the main responsibility of conducting the election is on their shoulders.
The reason why such emphasis is being laid in the need of army deployment is that there is no scope for their mid-level offices and the troops to hobnob with the political leader. It is the opposite with the civil administration and the law enforcement.
The navy can play an effective role in the coastal regions and need to be deployed in large numbers this time. Based on the size of the population, 5 to 10 mobile teams of the armed forces can be deployed in each upazila. Advanced planning is and budget is required for this.
It would be logical then for the election commission to immediately begin dialogue on security plans for the national election. Everyone wants the election, but not any anyone’s whims. And the election commission can’t prevaricate as any stalling will hamper their success. They have to options ahead of them. One is success. For this they need firmness and the right decisions. Te other is definitely failure. They don’t have to do much for that. That will happen automatically. If so, the nation will be pitched into deep danger.
*Ali Imam Majumder is a former cabinet secretary and can be reached at email@example.com. This piece has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir