The constitution has provision for a law regarding these appointments, but no such law was ever made. The civil society often raises demands in this regard, but no government has so far shown any inclination to make such a law. If there was a law in place, the task may have been a little easier. Then again, given the pitiful state of the country's election system, it may not make that much of a difference.
In neighbouring India too, the president appoints the election commission upon advice of the government. There is not much confusion over the elections or the election commission there. While the election system there may not be squeaky clean, it has not lost its credibility. But in our country the election commission and the entire election system suffers from a credibility crisis. And the crisis is steadily deepening.
The link between the elections and its main participants, that is, the voters, is becoming weaker and weaker. So the very first step of a democratic society, that is, elections, is now questioned. As a result, the dignity of the people's representatives is steadily eroding, along with their power.
We often hear discussions on the spirit of the liberation war. These are not baseless. But our generation first began to see indications of the liberation war back in 1966 when after Bangabandhu came up with the six-point demand. The very first point was the demand for a parliamentary system of government based on voting rights. The six-point demand gradually pushed the country towards the liberation war. And it would not be wrong to say that the first demand was certainly the basic spirit of the liberation war.
It was with that in focus that our constitution was drawn up. But over times there have been digressions in its implementation. The BNP government was toppled from power under pressure of Awami League's movement which contended that elections under political governments were biased. But before stepping down from power, they paid heed to the demand and enacted a law for a caretaker government under which elections were to be held.
Then again, they made that caretaker system controversial in 2006. They were insisting on a certain controversial person to be made chief advisor of the caretaker government, leading to a movement and mayhem. Then came the controversial 1/11 government and a new sort of caretaker government ruled. The election commission formed under that government for the first time came up with a voter list along with the voters' photographs. Voter ID cards were introduced. In the elections held towards the end of December 2008, the Awami League-led 'mahajote' ('grand alliance') swept to power in a landslide victory. They formed the government at the beginning of 2009. And during the tenure of this government, the caretaker government system was abolished by the parliament on the basis of a bifurcated verdict of the Supreme Court. BNP boycotted the 2014 election and most members of parliament won uncontested. The contest in the other elections too have been more or else eyewash.
We suffer from an image crisis at home and abroad. It is no secret that even our minister-level dignitaries are not treated with respect abroad. This is not due to any personal shortcomings in their behalf. It is the country's institutional framework that has diminished the dignity of its representatives
In the next election, held in 2018, all parties participated, but the ruling party was unwilling to give their opposition the slightest leeway. Paying no heed to democratic norms, they did not allow the opposition to campaign at all. They sent them to jail or drove the opposition activists out of their areas. The opposition leaders could not even appoint polling agents. Supporters of the ruling party did not even have to cast their votes. The law enforcement and the local administration did that for them. This is no secret. Everyone knows about the 'midnight election'.
Even after conducting such an election bereft of voters, they are in power and running the government. One of the main reasons for this is that the opposition activists and supporters are more or less inert. Some of them, it is assumed, are more eager to enjoy their ill-gotten gains made in the past. There is also a lack of any environment conducive for their leaders to drum up a movement. The government has been successful in this regard, but its political elements are weak. It was the officials of the republic who orchestrated the election victory and so they see themselves as the saviours. So no matter whether the elected members of parliament are lawfully in place, having been elected in this system, the political ground under their feet is shaky. And so the officials of the republic pay them no heed.
There are persons who speak in favour of such a system of government. They say this continued stability is conducive to development and progress. There has been much advancement in the country over the past 13 years, they contend. The infrastructural developments and social advancements cannot be denied and certainly deserve praise. But then again, questions arise as to how far such stability, which leaves the people to one side, is actually beneficial.
Jawaharlal Nehru ruled in independent India for 17 years at a stretch. His daughter Indira Gandhi ruled for around 15 years, with a two-year gap in the middle. She resorted to such manipulations at one point of time and the people of India punished her accordingly. She offered an unconditional apology to the people and they once again placed her on a pedestal. She remained in power till death.
At present Awami League is more or less unrivalled as a political party. However, their actual credibility among the people must be assessed through elections. They came to power in 1996 and in 2008 through elections and formed the government. But it is the elections which had no connection with the people that may cripple the party. In such circumstances, those responsible for the situation become even more reckless. During such times, extreme incidents such as extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances occur.
We suffer from an image crisis at home and abroad. It is no secret that even our minister-level dignitaries are not treated with respect abroad. This is not due to any personal shortcomings in their behalf. It is the country's institutional framework that has diminished the dignity of its representatives.
It is the government's task to look into such matters and take all this into cognizance. The state power is similarly entrapped in the unitary government system. And elements who are disconnected from the people, who are outside of politics, but in positions of power, are strengthening this system further.
I do not qualify elections with any adjective. After all, this word implies participation of the people, transparent and fair campaigning, voting, vote counting, election results, and so on. The absence of this exacerbates various crises. Representatives of other countries would not be able to make statements contrary to our interests in the face of elected leadership. It is because of such weaknesses that when the western world is active in the UN in our favour on the Rohingya issue and vote in our favour, China and Russia veto their votes. India abstains from voting.
So the bottom line is, an election commission must certainly be formed. However, the objective of this commission must be to conduct a genuine election in the country. The responsibility in this regard, to a greater part, lies with the government.
* Ali Imam Majumder is a former cabinet secretary and can be contacted at [email protected]
* This column has appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir