Every citizen of every country looks forward towards a meaningful and accountable governance structure. It is this expectation that has led to the abolition of absolute monarchy and the introduction of democracy where citizens, on one side of the equation, are expected to follow laws, rules and regulations of the land. In exchange, they expect that the Executive branch of administration will be consistent with the existing legal infrastructure as approved by the Legislature and enunciated in the Constitution. Within this matrix they are also expected to be accountable to the Judiciary for their actions and also the manner in which they act.
This is the essence of democracy. The other side of the equation refers to the principle of democracy being able to agree to disagree. This highlights the connotative factor of tolerance and mutual understanding. The denotation in such an exercise is that all concerned authorities and the political parties will try to exchange views on any issue and not discard post-haste any decision sponsored through a constitutional process. This would, of course, require self-belief and self-confidence. Such a course of action would then exclude measures like arson or 'Hartals' aimed at intimidation rather than understanding. This, in turn, would then create trust. It might appear to be a very difficult and complex exercise. However, in my opinion it is considerably simpler than having to rely on external institutions and countries for achieving the desired result.
This process has been greatly facilitated now because of digitalization. This enables the stakeholders not only to gather facts but also reveal without delay any misuse of any process. It also underlines any weakness that might be hampering good governance.
The last two terms of our Election Commission (EC), run by two different Chief Election Commissioners and their colleagues in the EC, have been one of contrast.
The last Election Commission, headed by Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad, whose term ended in February, 2017, was vilified on a consistent basis by certain political parties with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in the lead. The Chief Election Commissioner and the Election Commissioners were accused of compromising their honesty and losing the trust of the people through their leaning towards the ruling Awami League and not being fair, honest and neutral in their actions. Such accusations, however, fail to mention the tribulations that this Election Commission had to undergo during their term of office. The obstructions included armed attacks, arson and deliberate disruption of electoral activities in different tiers of representative bodies, from parliament to local government bodies, at various times. These parties did not also completely accept the actions of the previous Election Commission.
It might be recalled that the Rakibuddin Election Commission had functioned initially within the paradigm of the so-called Caretaker government and had been responsible for the holding of the Parliamentary election in 2008 that led to the creation of the 9th Parliament. They also undertook the significant task of carefully checking the electoral roll and discarding millions of spurious names on the voters' list that had been made during the previous BNP regime. This helped to bring about order within the system. The end result was the overwhelming electoral victory of the Awami League and other parties that shared its democratic commitment. This defeat was never accepted by the BNP and its allied parties.
What transpired from the end of the third quarter of 2013 to the third quarter of 2016 in our political process is known to everyone. Arson and other associated violence carried out in the name of democracy ended in the brutal killing of hundreds of innocent people and serious injury to many others. This affected the socio-economic progress of the people, trade opportunities and the prospect of external investment in the countr. This spate of violence and terror and the boycott of the parliamentary election by the BNP and its associates in 2014, in particular, were obviously carried out with the expectation that at a certain point of time the Armed Forces would intervene, declare Martial Law and take over the reins of administration in their hands. This did not happen.
Nevertheless, it would be pertinent to acknowledge that polling on certain occasions at different tiers, during 2015 and 2016, despite the efforts of the present government, did not meet the expectation of the participants. As during the BNP administrations in the past, there were some abuses by local stakeholders and absence of proper use of authority on the part of the then Election Commission. Fortunately, the electoral dynamics improved by the end of 2016 and this was reflected during the Narayanganj Mayoral polls. This also indicated that if all the participants in any polls decide to work together then fair polling can be ensured.
The current government and the opposition party in Parliament, despite accusations by the BNP, have been able to show that the country can move forward, overcome challenges and achieve the socio-economic goals that were outlined as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). We have also gained international recognition for our zero tolerance towards communalism and terrorism. We have proved to the external world that despite spurious allegations of corruption with regard to the construction of the Padma Bridge, we can decisively undertake the construction of such a mega project by ourselves through our own funding. We have shown our respect for human rights since October, 2016 by permitting the entry into Bangladesh of more than 70,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar, fleeing violence, rape and abuse of authority.
It is this belief in constitutional governance that encouraged the current Administration under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to play the constructive and impartial role during the process of selection of the new five-member Election Commission under the new Chief Election Commissioner K.M. Nurul Huda. The six- member search committee, selected by President Abdul Hamid, played their expected role in identifying the requisite personnel who possess a blend of experience. The final selection was done by the President in accordance with the relevant constitutional provisions.
The EC includes for the first time a female Election Commissioner - Kabita Khanam, with experience in the Judiciary. It was also wise that the selection process did not overlook experience gained from earlier association with the Election Commission and the electoral process. This was reflected in the selection of Dr. Md. Rafiqul Islam (who had earlier worked as Secretary of the Election Commission headed by Dr. Shamsul Huda during 2007 to 2012) and Brigadier General Sahadat Hossain Chowdhury (who had earlier been in charge of vetting and weeding out the names of spurious voters from the voters' list prior to the 2008 parliamentary election). Both these Election Commissioners can now play important roles as anchors in moving the electoral process forward.
Despite the serious efforts undertaken by the President, including detailed discussion with more than 30 political parties, and exchange of views with civil society by the Search Committee, there have been allegations that the selection process had been completed hurriedly and that suggestions given by the civil society had not been given due importance. The BNP, true to its belief that everything undertaken by anyone other than a member of the BNP high command was not acceptable, has already expressed their displeasure on several occasions with the re-constitution of the Election Commission. They have unfortunately alleged that "fair polls would not be possible under the new Election Commission". They have also tried to create controversies about the background of the new Chief Election Commissioner (CEC).
It is encouraging to note that despite such initial provocation the new CEC has responded to criticism with patience. He has sought cooperation of the media and observed that the main challenge of the Election Commission would be to hold a fair election for which he and his colleagues in the EC will plan and work. He has also reiterated that the Commission will discharge its constitutional duties neutrally without being influenced by any quarter, including the government. Interestingly, he has underlined that he would try to gain the confidence of all political parties, including the BNP and the Awami League, through pro-active engagement. He has expressed his confidence that the comprehensive experience that already exists within the Commission and cooperation of the political parties would facilitate the achievement of the desired objectives.
The Prime Minister, in the meantime, has informed the Jatiya Sangsad that the plan to introduce an electronic voting system could be taken into consideration in the next parliamentary polls to ensure people's voting rights and holding of a free, fair and impartial election, consistent with all existing rules. Such a scenario would then reduce the chances of tampering. At that time she also suggested the formulation of an appropriate law with regard to future appointment of CECs and other members of the Election Commission consistent with the directive in our Constitution.
It was unfortunate that despite such a positive initiative the BNP came out with their usual negative response. They have alleged that the proposal of the government to introduce e-voting was aimed at possible manipulation of the future polls. They seem to have forgotten that this system is currently used in all the significant developed countries. It may also be mentioned that in India, the parliamentary polls, due to the very large number of voters, is carried out in stages, mostly through e-voting (with potential Vote Audit Print Trail or VAPT) and the results are then announced on a single day. The contending parties do not end up refusing to accept the result. If a result is challenged in the court, the VAPT process is then used to determine the final result.
We need to believe in ourselves. The government can take this process even further by ensuring full independence of the Election Commission, including its financial parameters. In addition, special consideration needs to be given to the possibility of the interim government at the time of the election not having any special powers in matters of policy formulation during the period before the election. The Election Commission, from the announcement of the date of the parliamentary election schedule, should also have (through a new Rule of Business) under its command the posting and transfer of all law-enforcement and executive officials of the government. This will then avert charges of politicisation and help to create credibility and fairness.
The newly constituted Election Commission has already demonstrated its commitment towards ensuring free and fair elections without violence through the Municipal election held in Baghaichari Municipality in Rangamati District on February 18. Let us give them the space, cooperation and opportunity that they need to succeed and not taint them with unnecessary controversy.
There can be no alternative to having faith in ourselves. We created an independent country despite massive odds. We can similarly ensure good governance through an effective electoral process.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance, can be reached at [email protected]