It is widely presumed that elections for the 11th National Parliament will be held toward the end of this year. The Prime Minister who is also the head of the ruling coalition addressed huge rallies in Barishal, Khulna and Chottogram in recent weeks and appealed to the people to vote for the ruling coalition in order to sustain the momentum of economic development initiated in recent years.
The Prime Minister began her campaign at a time when Khaleda Zia, leader of the largest opposition party BNP, has been imprisoned by a lower court on charge of misappropriating funds from the Zia Orphanage Trust fund. The lawyers of Khaleda Zia has moved to higher court seeking reversal of the verdict of the lower court and demanding bail until the case is finally adjudicated. There are a few other criminal cases lodged against Khaleda Zia and it is unlikely that she would be set free anytime soon. In her absence, BNP and the coalition led by BNP are passing through a difficult period.
BNP and its coalition partners have been demanding a neutral interim government during election-time as a precondition to its participation in the general election. The opposition leaders believe that under a political government "level playing field" would not be in place and the ruling party would orchestrate electoral victory with the help of local administration and law enforcing agencies. Of late, the opposition leaders have softened their position and vowed to participate in the election under any circumstances. But it still remains unclear whether BNP would participate in the election regardless of the fate of its leader. Conflicting statements have been made by BNP senior leaders.
BNP's decision to boycott the 2014 parliamentary election did not augur well for the party. It is alleged that Khaleda Zia dismissed the advice of party's senior leaders, yielded to her son's prescription and withdrew from the electoral race. A group of BNP leaders still believe that it was a terrible mistake to reject Prime Minister Hasina's offer to join the interim administration under her leadership and boycott the election. They maintain that had BNP participated, it would have secured majority seats or emerged as the largest opposition party in Parliament, and made it difficult for the ruling party to govern without BNP's cooperation. They attribute Khaleda Zia's arrogance and ignorance for the present state of affairs of the party.
Election is a mechanism to test the will of the people and fathom popularity of political parties. People do change their views and history is replete with examples of highly popular national leaders being defeated in the election. Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was defeated in 1977 general election in Amethy constituency where she was elected several times before. But her defeat was short lived - two years later she got elected from Chickmagalur, Andra Pradesh. In 1980, she led the Congress party to a resounding victory and formed the union government. In 1966, Congress President Kamraj was defeated in Madurai, Tamil Nadu but that did not mark the end of his political career.
During the Ayub regime, political parties participated in the 1962 National and Provincial Assembly elections and candidates belonging to the opposition parties did well. In 1965 presidential election, despite likely unfavourable outcome of the election, opposition parties participated in the election from a joint platform. In the same year, opposition candidates contested in the National and Provincial Assembly elections and they did remarkably well. This is how the fight for restoration of democracy remained vibrant inside and outside the legislature. Politics is known as an art of compromise but repudiation of election makes political parties defunct.
In order to have an inclusive, participatory and credible election, BNP's participation is essential. The government might argue that there are over 40 registered political parties active in the country and if BNP boycotts the election, the rest of the parties would participate enough to legitimise the electoral process. But it cannot be denied that BNP, in its worst performance, had secured about 30 per cent votes of the electorates and it is the second largest political entity in the country. BNP's exclusion will make the electoral exercise questionable at home and abroad for the second consecutive term.
BNP's leadership alone can decide whether it would participate in the parliamentary election. But the government owes a responsibility to make it possible for the opposition parties to participate in the election. Hundreds of BNP leaders are either in jail or on temporary bail; numerous criminal cases have been lodged against them. They are not allowed to hold rallies in Dhaka and in other major cities on the pretext of security. If BNP leaders and workers are constrained to meet with the people, denied to hold public meetings and are subject to harassment, they will have no incentive to participate in the election. They will not be willing to take part in Egyptian style electoral exercise where opposition candidates are persecuted leaving the ground free for official candidates.
Notwithstanding the dubious signals from party leaders, it is evident that BNP would like to put up candidates in the upcoming parliamentary election. It has realised that boycotting the last election did not bring dividend for the party or for the country. It paved the way for Jatiya Party to assume a farcical role unprecedented in parliamentary history. JP members are holding portfolios in the government and at the same time remaining JP members are playing the role of the opposition. What a travesty of democracy! BNP wants to join the electoral race but demands a "level playing field" to campaign for its candidates free from harassment. The government, for the sake of democracy, should make legitimate concessions to hold an acceptable parliamentary election.
The Election Commission (EC) has an important role to play in this critical juncture. It cannot shrug off its responsibility by issuing "election schedule" and appointing Returning officers. The EC must ensure that the local administration is conducting their duties without fear and favour. It should forcefully argue for whatever is required from the government in order to make the election credible.
The debate over the Chief Election Commissioner's observation that army would be deployed during the general election appears unwarranted. The Minister for Bridges and Highways Obaidul Qader has disagreed and opined that the CEC cannot seek deployment of the army at his own will. This is a strange interpretation from the government. Given the limited human and other resources the EC cannot function on its own. It needs support from the government. The military functions under the Ministry of Defense. Its primary responsibility rests with protecting the country against external threats and aggression. But it does come forward in aiding the civil administration in times of natural disasters and/or when internal security comes under severe strain.
If the CEC, in his considered opinion, believes the presence of army would be pivotal for safety of the electorate and asks for deployment of the army, it would be obligatory on the part of the government to comply with CEC's request. Likewise, the police functions under the Home Ministry, but the ministry will have to deploy the police if the EC makes such a request. The EC has limited resources but it enjoys profound constitutional leverage to seek resources from different wings of the government. This leverage cannot be denied. In a nutshell, the government's unconditional cooperation with the EC is a prerequisite to conduct a credible election in a tranquil atmosphere.
The upcoming parliamentary election will be a litmus test not only for the EC but for the government as well.
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