Did CEC just ‘acknowledge’ the indispensability of caretaker government?
Habibul Awal was to retire in January 2015, but the government cancelled his PRL (Post Retirement Leave) and appointed him on contract to the defence ministry as senior secretary for one year. The time was extended for another year in 2016
A new election commission (EC) has been constituted. Like previous times, this time also the chief election commissioner (CEC) is at the centre of our attention. Though the vote of the CEC and the four other commissioners are of equal value in case of taking decisions, he has a greater role as he presides over the EC’s meetings and as EC secretariat is accountable to him. Customarily in Bangladesh, the CEC determines the character of the election commission.
A BCS cadre of the 1981 batch, the newly appointed CEC began his career in government job as a munsef (assistant judge). Later, he was appointed joint secretary of the law ministry after being a district and sessions judge. Then he was promoted as a secretary to that ministry. He also worked as a secretary to the religion affairs ministry, the parliament secretariat and the defence ministry.
Incidentally, a court in 2010 pronounced Kazi Habibul Awal’s appointment as secretary to the law ministry illegal as regulations were not followed for his appointment.
Not only that, during his days as law secretary, Habibul Awal got involved in complications over sending two judges to retirement violating regulations. Bearing all responsibility, he sought apology when the parliamentary standing committee summoned him to explain the incident. These are his irregularities the media so far reported from his days as an employee. Those irregularities were would be a hindrance to be appointed as a commissioner of the election commission, let alone the CEC.
Any conscious person would know, contractual appointments are actually a gift from the government to its closest persons who served the government (not the state) well
Habibul Awal was to retire in January 2015. But the government cancelled his PRL (Post Retirement Leave) and appointed him on contract to the defence ministry as senior secretary for one year. The time was extended for another year in 2016. He went into retirement as a senior secretary to that ministry in 2017.
No government employee is indispensable. They are gradually trained in such a way so that one could take over the charges when another retires. That means, when a person is appointed on contract, that’s not because of the lack of any alternative. Any conscious person knows that contractual appointments are actually a gift from the government to its closest persons who served the government (not the state) well.
Any person who is a beneficiary of any government is unqualified to be appointed as an election commissioner. So, such a person cannot even be considered for the CEC post. Such a beneficiary of the government was supposed to be excluded at the outset of sorting. But from what has happened, we understand that amid all the uproar over formation of the election commission, the government has not constituted a commission above dispute.
EC places policies from the top level but the EC does not remain present in all the (voting) centres. How far the administration can be made neutral and responsible, is also a big challenge
In the context of Bangladesh, the discussion on who should be an election commissioner and who should not be, is largely meaningless. Interestingly, the CEC himself uttered the reasons we mention to say this a meaningless debate. When different quarters raise questions about the polls-time government, the government counters this saying that the EC is an independent institution and the election will be held none but under them. We also hear that the administration remains under the EC during the election for free and fair polls and that’s why they can do anything.
Bangladesh’s four widely praised election commissions (1991, 1996, 2001 and 2008) worked under a nonparty caretaker government. On the other hand, the problems Nurul Huda commission faced are the latest example of problems a commission faces while working under a partisan government. The most controversial EC in the history of Bangladesh blamed the law enforcement agencies for the violence and irregularities in the last union parishad elections it organised for not extending help to them.
As Habibul Awal’s appointed was ensured, newspersons went to his house. He exchanged views with them. He said, “I would say emphatically that I won’t accept if all the blame is shifted to the election commission. Political parties also have a role to play. The police, Ansar and RAB have to carry out their responsibilities. I can’t command them. I can’t transfer an SP (superintendent of police). No one will run with a gun if I command them.” (bdnews24.com)
“Everyone is seeking a fair election. An election commission does not alone organise the election. There are many stakeholders. EC delineates the policies from the top level but the EC does not remain present in all the (voting) centres. How far the administration can be made neutral and responsible, is also a big challenge.” Pressed on he said, “I don’t have any stick or gun.”
The essence of the CEC's statement is that if the administration, which is not under his control, does not help him completely, he cannot organise a free and fair election alone. Does the de facto opposition and the most important stakeholders of election, the people of the country, believe in any way that the ruling Awami League will extend complete help to the EC in organising the election? Will the government that stuffed ballot boxes with the help of the administration and police in 2018, undertook different types of irregularities in local level government – where the government was not to be changed – help the EC to organisea free and fair parliament election?
I want to thank the new CEC. Unknowingly he recounted the necessity of a polls-time nonparty caretaker government. This is no longer a theoretical matter. The people who went thorough doubt and apprehension and violence, know that no party government helps the election commission unreservedly.
Even in the first general elections of independent Bangladesh in 1973, where a handful of leaders from the opposition parties would have been elected if the voting was100 per cent free and fair, the government rigged vote. That was the beginning of vote rigging in elections organised under a partisan government. In all these years we could not break away from this. The situation has deteriorated. The CEC’s speech has just clarified this point.
* Rumeen Farhana is BNP MP and Whip and a Supreme Court lawyer.
* The op-ed. Originally published in the print edition of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Shameem Reza