In quest of a sound electoral system

| Updated: October 22, 2017 01:35:38

In quest of a sound electoral system
Writing about elections in Bangladesh is an experience one should avoid as far as possible, because of the repulsion besieging the mind. It is a nation which has never been wrong in giving its verdict in elections tracing back to the introduction of election under the Government of India Act, 1935. It is a valiant nation which fought the Liberation War of 1971. In that war millions of people sacrificed their lives to establish the verdict of the 1970 general election.
Such a valiant nation is now passing through a critical time as it finds its electoral system highly tainted, un-free and non-inclusive. Elections to parliament, Upazila Parishads, city corporations and municipalities in the recent past were marked by so-called uncontested victory, violence, capturing of polling stations, rigging, snatching of ballot papers and ballot boxes, and stuffing of ballot boxes in scores of places. These irregularities plagued the first phase of elections to the Union Parishads, the lowest tier of the country's local government, held on March 22, 2016.
Newspapers were full of stories pertaining to different kinds of irregularities, violence and rigging with corroborative photographs. Eleven people were killed on the poll day on March 22 in the first phase of election to 712 Union Parishads (UPs) throughout the country. The pre-poll violence caused deaths of another ten persons and injury to hundreds. Yet there were election results in which the ruling Awami League won 394 seats, BNP 35, Jatiya Party 7, JSD 3, Workers Party 2, Islami Andolon 1 and independent candidates 79 seats for UP chairmen. Observers suggest that it was an easy walk-over for the ruling party candidates for the posts of UP chairmen. There were reportedly some contests among the member candidates.
The Election Commission (EC), particularly the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), claimed that the first phase of the UP polls was peaceful in most of the polling centres and was, therefore, acceptable. The CEC, however, admitted that there were some stray incidents of violence, irregularities and ballot paper stuffing. He also admitted that stuffing of ballot papers took place at a few polling centres on the night before the polling day! 
Threats and pressure on opponent candidates were frequently reported in the newspapers. Some reports may refresh the memory of the readers. A widely circulated Bengali daily reported on March 04 that the first consideration was to save life in Bagerhat; that no election would be held in 13 Union Parishads of Mollarhat and Chitalmari upazilas under Bagerhat district. In Porshuram upazila under Feni district, all three chairman candidates won 'uncontested'. On the previous day, the paper reported that 66 chairman candidates of ruling Awami League got walkover without any vote in the first phase of the UP election scheduled on March 22. On March 05, the paper reported that elections in Porshuram upazila under Feni meant polls without contest. It reported that in Barisal, Awami League candidates were considering themselves elected before the polls. On March 07, the paper said that there were 62 chairmen of Awami League before polls on March 22. Such kinds of reports were carried by many other newspapers throughout the fortnight.
The Chief Election Commissioner, according to press reports, was unhappy with the administrative people and law-enforcers about their role at some election centres. Some actions were also taken. The EC warned an MP, asked to file case against another, asked for suspension of the Upazila chairman of Fulgazi and taking actions against some law enforcers. But all these actions seemed like throwing a piece of stone into the sea. The situation did not improve; it rather exposed a horrible and helpless situation that challenged the democratic system.
The track record of polls held in the last two years is controversial. Incidents of large-scale violence, capturing of polling stations, ballot paper stuffing and other irregularities characterised all previous elections to local government bodies (three city corporations, Upazila Parishads and municipalities) in the last two years. The one-sided parliamentary election of January 05, 2014 was also a severe blow to electoral democracy in Bangladesh. Against such a backdrop, uncertainty about free and fair atmosphere in the ensuing UP elections to about 2200 Unions in further three phases looms large. The credibility of the Election Commission has eroded. Observing the elections in the last two years, many people believe that the electoral system has been destroyed.
Analysts try to relate the erosion in the electoral process to the role of the government as well as the Election Commission. Lack of commitment of the government to fair elections appears to be the primary cause of unfairness. However, a reverse scenario was found in the elections to city corporations of Gazipur, Khulna, Barisal, Rajshahi and Sylhet in 2013. The government showed political goodwill during those elections for which ruling party men did not resort to irregularities like stuffing ballot boxes and capturing polling centres.
Unfortunately, the attitude has changed since the January 05, 2014 parliamentary election. The Election Commission, on the other hand, has continued to own the flawed elections without taking effective remedial measures. It's time that the EC realised the damage done to the country's electoral culture. Politicians, jurists and the civil society should contribute to work out an electoral system which will be fair, neutral, inclusive and violence-free.
The writer is a former Secretary to the government.  [email protected]

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