The Nurul Huda did not retrieve the election system. Quite to the contrary, they accelerated its downfall. According to Prothom Alo reports, 39 political parties, representatives of the civil society and media, observer agencies, women leaders and election experts joined in dialogue with the Nurul Huda commission. Various views were put forward during those talking, both for and against deploying the army during the election, the use of EVM, introducing provision for the 'no' vote and certain other issues. But the EC simply dispensed of its duty by saying that such important issues were "dependent on political decision."
As the new election commission takes up its duties, we may review how the former chief election commissioners Mohammad Abu Hena and ATM Shamsul Huda took up the challenge of conducting the election. The Mohammad Abu Hena commission was formed in April 1996. The term of the Shamsul Huda commission was 2008-2013.
When in opposition in 2001-2006, Awami League had come up with quite a few proposals for reforms in the election system. The civil society had also made proposals to this end. The BNP government paid no heed to those proposals and prepared to hold a one-sided election on 12 January 2007
Writing about his experience, Mohammad Abu Hena said, like the fifth national election, Bangladesh's seventh national parliamentary election of 12 June 1996 was also held within a matter of two months at a critical juncture of the country. The new election commission had to face a stiff challenge with courage and determination in those difficult days. The election commission had to pay full attention and place priority on earning everyone's trust and creating an environment conducive to the elections. Attention had to be given to ensure that there was visible improvement in the law and order situation, illegal arms were seized, marked miscreants and criminals were arrested, polling officers were selected with care and trained, all political parties were given equal opportunity to campaign, voter awareness programmes were carried out and that there was transparency at all levels of election management.
In addition to that, the election commission brought about an election code of conduct under the Representation of the People Order (RPO) 1972. It was declared that violation of this code would be considered a punishable offence. (Source: 'Ekadosh Jatiya Sangsad Nirbachon 2018, Protidonditakari Prathider Tothyaboli.' Agami Prokashoni)
When in opposition in 2001-2006, Awami League had come up with quite a few proposals for reforms in the election system. The civil society had also made proposals to this end. The BNP government paid no heed to those proposals and prepared to hold a one-sided election on 12 January 2007. With the onset of the 1/11 caretaker government, those election were eventually not held.
Later, during the caretaker government of Fakhruddin Ahmed, the ATM Shamsul Huda commission made certain significant amendments to the RPO 1972. As a result, it was possible to hold a free and fair election on 29 December 2008.
Even if the elections are held under a political government, why will a parliamentary election be held with a parliament still in place and why will the members of parliament contest while remaining in office?
Those laws and regulations are still in place and yet the people did not get free or credible elections in 2014 and 2018. People's will was not reflected in these two elections. The first one was held amidst a boycott of the opposition. And even though all parties took part in the second one, it was not a fair election. In fact, election observers said that even during military rule the elections had not been so deplorable.
ATM Shamsul Huda wrote about the challenge of conducting the election, saying it is certainly a correct step to ensure full independence of the commission and to appoint independent-minded persons on the basis of transparency and competence, in order to conduct a free and fair election. But unless extensive measures are undertaken to address the shortcomings and weaknesses and the matter is simply limited to statements, then this boils down to mere political rhetoric... According to the interpretation of the Appellate Division concerning Article 119, the commission has the inherent authority that is normally held by an elected parliament, in the case of conducting a fair and neutral election, even adding to the legal provisions. (Altaf Hossain versus Abul Kasem 45 DLR).(Source: 'Doshom Jatiya Sangsad Nirbachan 2014: Protidonditakari Prathider Tothyaboli.' Agami Prokashoni)
We are not making any predictions at the moment about the news commission's successes or failures. They must keep in mind that they will face multiple more challenges in conducting the elections now than faced by the Abu Hena and Shamsul Huda commissions. A caretaker government had been at the helm at the time. Now it is a political government.
It is all very well that the commission will hold dialogue with people of all classes and professions. The question is, will the proposals and recommendation to be made during these dialogues be taken into cognizance, or will they function as they please like the Nurul Huda commission?
We propose that the dialogues of the Awal commission to commence from tomorrow be aired live by the state media. Then the people will be able to at least know who said what, what they want. According to Prothom Alo reports, the commission hasn't taken any final decision as yet regarding talks with the political parties. The CEC himself had spoken about dialogue with the political parties. If he now moves away from that, the people will believe he has done so at the behest of the government.
The two former CECs made several recommendations about what is to be done, based on their experiences. If the Awal commission is sincere about holding a fair election, then they must remove the dark shadows of the 2014 and 2018 elections. The CEC identified the election time government as a political matter. While that is true, the question is, even if the elections are held under a political government, why will a parliamentary election be held with a parliament still in place and why will the members of parliament contest while remaining in office? Then the provision should be removed for local government office holders to resign before the election. Would Awami League accept any such provision if BNP had been in power? What do the judicious members of the ruling party have to say? We want a clear statement about this from the election commission too.
* Sohrab Hassan is joint editor of Prothom Alo and a poet. He may be contacted at [email protected]
* This column appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir