To be clear, it is always and everywhere important to get the composition of any election authority right, on questions of both competence and impartiality. It’s such a basic point to make, really. To the extent that all elections engender a contest, not to have proper oversight for this is really a sickening perversion of everything that goes into the whole process. It’s not just the act of voting, the exercise of rights. It is endless airtime, analysis, column inches, webpages, phone calls and expectations. We in the media are particularly sensitive to what a waste it all turns out to be.
More importantly, consider the history of elections within the broader context of politics in Bangladesh, and you can see how a strong, independent EC – “And one that is seen to be as such,” – is almost uniquely essential here. Even more so today, when we are still in the aftermath of having removed the caretaker government provision for conducting elections from the constitution. As I write this, already Mirza Fakhrul Alamgir has floated the BNP’s revitalised view that the 2019 election, to be acceptable, may require the formation of a poll-time ‘supporting government’. What he means is ‘caretaker by any other name’.
Mere removal of the constitutional provision for elections to be held under a caretaker government was never going to put it to bed as a political issue. Quite the opposite, in fact: reinstatement of the caretaker government provision has been the principal political demand informing the overwhelming majority of political programmes organised by opposition parties since June 2011, when it was revoked following a whirlwind discussion in parliament and a voice-vote right before the summer recess. Anyway the opposition’s political programmes went on to feature unpalatable violence causing unspeakable suffering for the wider population, till some realization set in. This needed to be for everyone, not just the opposition. And you would think everyone knew that. ‘Rulers’ can never be out of step with those they deign to rule.
Now, it is only fair and logical for people to expect the AL to be the ones to put to bed political issues that result from their actions. Acting to absolve yourself of all responsibility is really not becoming of ‘rulers’, as the AL no doubt aspires to be seen.
To the extent that this could be sussed out on paper (which is a very significant portion of it, with no interview process), there is little to suggest why the new CEC, K.M. Nurul Huda would be more suited to the position he is ascending to than his predecessor, Rakibuddin Ahmad. Ahmad had led the bureaucracy in three ministries as secretary, before retiring. Which is why there was a view, that not just the CEC, but in fact every position of election commissioner (ideally there should be three, from experience of the best elections) should be filled by persons who rose to the apex of their profession, which for a bureaucrat, would be as secretary.
New CEC Nurul Huda retired in 2006 “before getting charge (as secretary) of any ministry”, read the statement announcing his appointment. In fact, not even as additional secretary. The bureaucracy here is admittedly difficult terrain, but there is startlingly little information in his resume as to why he was considered the best man for the job.
A missed opportunity
It is possible the president and his ‘Search Committee’ (surely a generous moniker, when all they seem to have done was collect names and maybe count them) know something we don’t. But we can only go by the evidence we have before us, and all of it, in light of last week’s announcement by the president and subsequent revelations, points to a convoluted and opaque process.
Political analysts have voiced concerns about matters of competence and partisan history, but even more basic would surely have to be that the ruling alliance’s preferences cannot form a lopsided majority in the commission. Even a 3-2 majority could be acceptable. What could possibly be the thinking behind 4-1? It is in the absence of a law to guide the process (in contravention, by now we all must know, of Article 118 of the Constitution) that even basic fundamentals can be flouted.
So, as Dhaka Courier hits newsstands on what should be the new EC’s first full day at work, let us be under no illusions regarding the way we got here, if only to ease our sense of disappointment. There were great expectations among the public as well as among the country’s development partners that this might be a baby step towards participatory elections in 2019. Almost inevitably, the search committee failed to live up to the hype.
The jury may still be out on the new Election Commission, but disillusionment over the selection process is already setting in.