In search of lost elections

Prothom Alo illustration

The Election Commission (EC) on Wednesday held a discussion with the editors of national newspapers and senior journalists as part of its series of dialogues. At the discussion, Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Kazi Habibul Awal said as they have been endowed with responsibilities as per the Constitution and The Representation of the People Order, 1972, they will try to hold a free and fair election. He also sought help of journalists in this regard.

Naturally, the 12th parliamentary election, which would take place at the end of 2023, featured prominently in the discussion that day. The immediate past Election Commission led by KM Nurul Huda has destroyed the election system. Each of their steps was controversial, questionable and partisan. In this context, the main challenge of the new commission is to recover its image. And that would be possible only when they could hold a free, fair and acceptable election. There will be a number of local government elections before the parliament election. Those elections could be acid test for them.

Even if the Election Commission wants, it alone cannot hold a free, fair and participatory election if it does not get help of political leadership, administration and law enforcement agencies. What should they do then? Irrespective of the hindrances and adverse situation they have to apply the power that the constitution and law have given them.

It’s a matter of regret that even after 50 years of independence our political leadership could not reach a consensus about elections. Consensus does not mean a political party will compromise with other political parties, abandoning their principles and ideals. Our political leaders wage movements to protect people’s right to vote when they stay out of power, but upon ascending power they think of different devices to snatch the right to vote. They have deactivated almost all the laws and regulations for holding a free and fair election.

They prepared a voter list with photographs, cancelling the error-ridden list where there were many fake voters; introduced EVM (Electronic Voting Machine) to stop snatching of ballot papers; but the voters do not need to go to the centres any longer! Once the election schedule is announced, the winner and the loser is simply declared on the day of voting. Earlier, the 'Magura election model' was in a particular electoral area but now that model has spread in the whole country. The Huda commission has made an election system where 100 per cent votes were cast, including by dead people.

In the discussion on Wednesday, journalists said the new EC should review the three past parliament elections of 2008, 2014 and 2018 and find out why the first one was widely praised while the other two were so widely criticised. They must remember, the election in 2008 was held under a non-party government while the 2023 election would be held under a partisan government, unless the opposition took to the streets and forced the government to resign. If not, the Election Commission is going to face a huge challenge.

If our political leadership believes in rule “Of the People, By the People, For the People”, then we must recover the lost rights to voting. But if they adopt policies in their own interests, the exiled election will not be found

Election Commission is an independent and constitutional institution. Those who have come here have a long experience of working in the administration. In the light of that experience they have to identify the weaknesses and faults of the election system and take steps to eliminate those. We have to wait for almost 20 months to see how the CEC and four other election commissioners be able to defend the pledge they have taken to shield the people’s rights to vote. We just want to remind them here, as a constitutional institutional it is not their duty to please any party. The election must be participatory. And, that would be ensured if the “ground is made level” for every political party. It would not be enough if the Election Commission is unbiased only, they have ensure that everyone involved with the election remain neutral.

In cases of elections, most of the allegations are about returning officers. In general, deputy commissioners, who are known as very close to the government, are appointed as returning officers in parliament elections. This custom needs to be changed for the sake of a fair election. That’s because, a more coveted post in the future is more important to the DCs than defending the people’s right to vote. Several journalists have advised the EC to employ returning officers from its own manpower in the national election like the local government and by-elections. Some others proposed elections to be held over a span of seven to ten days instead of voting in all 300 constituencies in one day. As a result, the EC’s surveillance would be stronger.

As the CEC has sought help of media, he must remember the role of state-owned media like Bangladesh Betar (Radio), BTV, BSS (Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha) and Press Information Department (PID). All those institutions, run by people’s tax money, must remain unbiased and objective.

Journalists have drawn attention of the commission about another thing – maintaining transparency and accountability in all their work and informing people of all their steps. Not to hide anything. In this context, several journalists mentioned about the EC’s not getting army deployment during a past Narayanganj City Corporation election even after it sought for deployment. ATM Shamsul Huda Commission informed the people of the matter.

The issue of polls-time government also came up in the discussion. Though the commission cannot take decision about the polls-time government, it could negate the partisan government’s power and effect by implementing the electoral laws sternly. As per the current system, the parliament election is to be held within the last three months of impending parliament. This means, holding a parliament election without dissolving the impending parliament. In that case, the EC has to take stern steps about the MPs and ministers of the government who would compete in the elections, so that none could say that they have been taking sides. Public administration and the election system must be kept out of any political influence.

If our political leadership believes in rule “Of the People, By the People, For the People”, then we must recover the lost rights to voting. But if they adopt policies according to their own interests, the exiled election will not be found. Election does not mean voting in a unilateral or farcical election. Election means free, fair and credible election.

* Sohrab Hasan is the joint editor of Prothom Alo and a poet. He can be reached at [email protected]

** The article, originally published in the print edition of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten into English by Shameem Reza