Can the stigma of the 2018 election be erased?

There had been nothing visible in the media till Tuesday about how Awami League will be commemorating the day today. Last year they commemorated it as Democracy Day. That was only expected. No matter what may have been said at home and abroad about the 30 December 2018 elections, Awami League didn't have too much of a problem to ignore it all. The manner in which six candidates of Awami League's main opponent BNP and two of Gono Forum, an ally of the BNP-led alliance, upheld democracy by taking oath in parliament, certainly is an occasion to commemorate!

The BNP candidates' joining of the parliament was a lot like Workers Party, an ally of the mahajote ('grand alliance'). They themselves claim that the people were unable to cast their votes, implying that they were perhaps elected by some invisible intervention. But it is different for the mahajote allies because they, in one form or the other, enjoy various perks and privileges of power. The privileges of the BNP members of parliament may be negligible in comparison, but they weren't ready to relinquish even that. That didn't go down too well with the leaders and activists of the party, as is evident in various incidents. They have no special place reserved for them at party programmes. Now they threaten to resign if party chief Khaleda Zia is not allowed to go abroad for medical treatment. They perhaps know better what difference it will make to democracy if they resign.

The election is now in ICU and as a side-effect, democracy is on life support."
Mahbub Talukdar, election commissioner

The Left Alliance has declared that they will observe this as 'Black Day' and have been doing so for the past two years. They say that 'on 30 December 2018 the ruling party was illegitimately installed in power once again by using the police and the administration to cast the votes on the night before the election day.' BNP brought about the same allegations and last year observed the day as 'Democracy Killing Day'. This year they apparently have no programmes on the occasion. They are, though, observing other programmes demanding that Khaleda Zia be allowed to go abroad for medical treatment.

According to social media, a non-political organisation, People's Action Committee, arranged a special prayer gathering on Wednesday on the occasion of what they call 'the third martyrdom anniversary of elections'.

Many people must have many more things to do about the 30 December 2018 election, particularly the incumbent Huda commission, the police and the administration. It may be recalled the Huda Commission had a pitha (rice cake) festival in their office. There were allegations at the time that this festival was held to celebrate the larger-than-life victory of the ruling party and also the fact that the voters didn't have to take the trouble of going all the way to the polling centres. There were also reports that the chief election commissioner KM Nurul Huda went fishing at the time in the lake by the commission building. Rather than listening to comments of the critics, the latest comment of one of election commissioner, Mahbub Talukdar, speaks volumes. Somewhat ostracized in the election commission, Mahbub Talukdar said, "The election is now in ICU and as a side-effect, democracy is on life support."

Workers Party leader Rashed Khan Menon pointed out that it had been possible to draw up the caretaker government act in just a single day. He told the president it would similarly be possible to enact the law for an election commission in a single day. He was not wrong

There were news reports of the police also arranging special celebrations for the election success. They organised special feasts in the various police stations.

The question is, what's the point to recall all these matters of the past? The reason is, preparation is on to constitute a new commission. It is not likely that, given the prevailing political circumstances, it will be possible to overcome the horrendous harm done to the election system by the two consecutive election commissions, the Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmed commission and the KM Nurul Huda commission. While the much castigated MA Aziz commission had drawn up a dubious voter list, it was possible to avert damage as the election was not held in face of political resistance. But by completely doing away with people's voting rights, the Rakib commission and the Huda commission destroyed people's faith in the commission. And it was not just about the parliamentary polls. Even in the union parishad elections, they followed the 'might is right' policy, leaving everything at the mercy of the candidates' muscle and money.

Records indicate that the most deadly union parishad election in the history of the country was held in 2016 under the Rakib commission, in which 146 persons died. The next record number of deaths was in 1988 when 80 died in the 1988 election under the autocrat General Ershad. The present commission does not lag too far behind in election violence. So far 70 have been killed.

In a democratic order with an effective opposition in place, the ruling side has to take the political opponents into cognizance, leading to a sort of balance in the contest. But the resemblance found between the election violence during the military rule and election violence now, indicates a disintegration of democracy.

A member of the controversial Rakib commission wrote in a newspaper last week that they had no liability to control or halt violence during the election. He claimed that such violence is criminal offence and it is the task of the police to prevent, control and probe criminal offences. It is not the work of the commission to do so. There is no doubt that it is the police's work to control criminal offences. But what he failed to point out was that if the police or those in charge failed to carry out their duties, the election commission had the authority to replace them with other law enforcers and also to take punitive action against those neglecting their duty. They commission is adequately empowered to use any official or employees of any institution of the republic at any time and also to take action against them if they fail to carry out their duty. But despite this, they kept their eyes wide shut due to political bias. And they deny this, using the excuse of legal limitations.

Now all sorts of questions are being raised concerning the initiative of dialogue taken up by the president about constituting a new election commission, giving rise to skepticism regarding the ultimate outcome of the dialogue. At the very outset, the former partner of the government, Jatiya Party, had proposed that the wife of the party's secretary general be appointed as an election commissioner in the quota for former civil servants. As this news had leaked out, perhaps this won't happen.

Emerging from the dialogue, leaders of NAP, another partner of the ruling party, said that there had been no discussions at all on the so-called search committee. Leaders of a few other partner parties conveyed their demand for a law to be enacted in order to form the election commission. Being partners in power, this law never came to their minds these past 13 years. If it had, they could have at least raised a private members bill in parliament in this regard.

Workers Party leader Rashed Khan Menon pointed out that it had been possible to draw up the caretaker government act in just a single day. He told the president it would similarly be possible to enact the law for an election commission in a single day. He was not wrong. If the formalities of sending the bill to the relevant committee are not taken into account, then many laws were passed in this manner. But in the larger scenario, the 'nay' or the 'yea' of the government-backed political opposition in parliament, really makes no difference to the party in power.

The opposition political parties and the civil society should convince the president and the government to organise broader dialogues and understanding, to devise ways to ensure the next election can be held in a credible manner. If this cannot be done, it would be better if we did not live in a fool's paradise, imagining we can get anything better than the present commission.

* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist.

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten by Ayesha Kabir for the English edition