In democracy’s slog overs

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Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, also the Awami League president, delivers her introductory speech at a meeting of the party’s Parliamentary Board at her Dhanmondi office in Dhaka on Thursday, November 15, 2018. Photo: PID

The fear is of a damp squib.

Sharmeen Murshid makes a strong point. Expounding on the need for clear and consistent institutional processes that can win the public’s trust and instil some much-needed faith and confidence in democracies, she points out that the 11th parliamentary election scheduled for December 30th, will be the third consecutive election to retain such unique characteristics as to render each completely different from the others. Hardly consistent.

“The 9th parliamentary elections held in 2008 was of course the last to be held under a caretaker administration. The 2014 election we all know about - it was the first election under a partisan government in the post-1991 era, but failed to bring in the opposition.  Above all what will mark it as unique is the fact that we now expect the upcoming election to be the first held under a partisan government that at least manages to be participatory, given the opposition alliance’s announcement of its intention to stay in the race,” says the chief executive of Brotee, a civil society organisation that since 2001 has been involved in election monitoring as part of its overall program.

Were it only that being ‘participatory’ - taken to mean that every significant political faction appears on the ballot, either on its own or as part of an alliance - was the sole requisite for a good election. On that note, what makes for a ‘good’ election anyway, and who is to say? After all, our own history tells us no election has ever been good from the the loser’s point of view, while those who have incessantly sounded the siren about elections being stolen right up to polling day can ‘forgive and forget’ with remarkable grace, once they see the results going their way.

A long-propagated view is that at its best, a good election reflects the will of the people. That is both lazy and idealistic. What is at stake in any election for public office is far too narrow and specific to constitute ‘the will of the people’. Any electorate is tasked with choosing only who gets to govern them for a finite period, and the realities of that process necessarily entail far too many compromises and instances of wilful blindness to be a true reflection of anyone’s will, let alone an entire people’s. Yet to the extent that a sense of anticipation, if not quite enthusiasm, does now prevail throughout the country, and most people if asked express their hope for  anything from a good, through free-and-fair to festive election, one factor stands out for being valued above all others, and that is the chance to cast their vote.

“Nijer vote jeno nije dite pari” (to cast my own vote myself) is an often-heard refrain as reporters chase down members of the public to try and gather levels of enthusiasm. This rather simple desire actually speaks to a concern that is unquestionably legitimate in light of experience. The phenomenon of ‘ballot-stuffing’ whereby overzealous, often rogue elements working for a party or candidate manage to seize control of a polling station, and seal all the ballots they can find in favour of their side, before stuffing them inside the ballot-boxes, is very much real, even if it is declining in the era of camera phones and social networks to go with mass media. Side-by-side of course, they will mark the register to reflect that almost all the votes registered in that  particular centre have been cast. It is one of the oldest and most crude forms of electoral fraud, and in the public’s perception at least, the most common. Voters turning up at such centres to cast their vote (with the ballot-stuffing done) often have to hear the somewhat demoralising news that their vote has already been cast.

The breakdown of the electoral process that has been witnessed at all levels since 2014 has served to bring ‘ballot-stuffing’ back to the forefront of the electorate’s concerns. Although it’s difficult to know if getting their vote cast by someone else in some ‘festival of ballot-stuffing’, as some elections have been described in the past, could be preferable to not having their vote at all, as was the case for more than half the entire electorate in 2014 - wholesale disenfranchisement.

Against this backdrop, there is the prospect of a far more participatory and possibly even more competitive election in less than 4 weeks’ time. Research exists  within the canon of political science that shows  the chances of a high turnout - the key statistic in many ways in determining whether an election was ‘good’ or ‘bad’  - increase or decrease not only in step with factors such as public safety or the prevalence of peace, but also how competitive a race is, or is perceived to be. And that brings us to a term, a metaphor to be precise,  that is  being used and overused ad nauseum by all stakeholders ahead of the 11th parliamentary elections, yet its manifestation in reality still eludes us: the damned level playing field(LPF).

A level playing field is meant to ensure the fairest and most competitive contest possible between candidates or parties in an election.  And the constitutional body tasked with the greatest responsibility in facilitating such a contest is the Election Commission. As Sharmeen Murshid and other election experts continue to insist, in this the present Election Commission has fallen far short,  and never managed to inspire anyone’s confidence. The government had engaged in some diabolical devilry to have the present commissioners appointed by the president in February 2017. Now that ther election schedule has been announced, this is the ‘crunch time’ for them to step up and put the considerable powers bestowed on them by the Constitution to good use.The entire nation is looking to them to facilitate their aspiration to elect their own rulers. Falling short of this expectation, despite having all the powers to attain it, is really not much different from asking to be placed alongside history’s villains, of your own accord.

Yet that is exactly what, based on their actions and attitude so far, one must conclude about the present Election Commission led by K.M. Nurul Huda. And the time for them to prove otherwise is quickly running out.

Alarm bells ring

The first really overt causes for concern started surfacing after the date for submission of nomination papers had passed on November 28. December 1-2 were the days set aside for returning officers to scrutinise forms, and accept or reject them on that basis. The announcement of the polls schedule, almost immediately following the so-called ‘dialogue’ (what good came of it can be discussed some other day) had seen enthusiasm and interest surrounding the election peak somewhat. November was ending on a slower note though, as the players got involved in some nitty-gritty stuff (like coalitions tying up their final candidates and sorting out issues of seat-sharing, all of which is to be finalised by December 9) that served to cool the atmosphere a bit.

Then came the ROs scrutiny, and what transpired served to remind everyone that expecting a level playing field for an election with a partisan government in office is nothing but a fool’s errand. The BNP had as many as 141 nominations rejected while the ruling Awami League only had three, sources in the Election Commission told our sister newsagency UNB. The BNP nominated 696 leaders in 295 seats as part of its strategy to field multiple candidates in almost all constituencies. It opted for this strategy fearing some candidates would be rejected by the EC on various grounds, including conviction in cases and defaulting on loans - exactly what happened. The ruling AL fielded 281 candidates in 264 constituencies with multiple candidates in 17 seats.

According to an EC statement, the returning officers during scrutiny on Sunday rejected 786 (25.64 percent) of the 3,065 nominations on the grounds of being convicted, defaulting on loans, and non-payment of utility bills. Yet the level playing field pleas obviously didn’t translate to the same level of scrutiny either. Some opposition candidates were rejected for unpaid credit card bills amounting to Tk 5000; not resigning from other elected office even though they had (one was told his resignation was not accepted), and Mirza Fakhrul’s signature not matching apparently. The appeal process, starting at the EC and running all the way upto the Appellate Division, is open to them. And word is almost all of them plan to use it.

Observe no evil

Prior to this, the EC’s role had become growingly suspicious based on a number of observations and rules it set out. Principal among these are the rules and code of conduct it has designed this time for election observers. They seem designed to hinder, rather than facilitate the process.

“If the observers discover any irregularities during voting, they must inform the Election Commission,” Election Commission Secretary Helal Uddin Ahmed said during a meeting with the local observers on November 20. “However, they cannot provide information or talk to journalists at that time.”

While on duty, no observers will be allowed to provide information or instructions to anyone— including the presiding officers and polling agents.

“If necessary, the observers can arrange a press conference, but only after submitting their reports to the commission,” the Election Commission secretary said.

According to election policy, observers must be neutral and not act in a manner that might favour a candidate.  They must hang their observer ID cards on their necks at all times.

“The job of observers is to watch, observe, and try to understand the situation,” Helal Uddin told observers. “However, they cannot comment about anything before submitting their reports to the Election Commission.”

If any of these rules are broken, observers’ registration will be canceled, the Election Commission secretary said.  The secretary warned election observers in no uncertain terms that they must fulfil their duties and abide by the appropriate electoral codes of conduct.

Despite this, the United States will send 12 teams of observers and fund thousands of domestic observers to monitor an election in Bangladesh it hopes will be free and fair, a senior official at the U.S. embassy in Dhaka said. Amid opposition concerns about rigging in the Dec. 30 general election, there had been speculation about U.S. plans for it, especially after the European Union said it would not send observers, nor comment on the vote or result.

The United States is sending a dozen teams, each of about two observers, who will fan out to most parts of the country, William Moeller, political officer at the U.S. embassy in Dhaka, told Reuters.

“The Bangladesh government has emphasized that it plans to hold a free and fair election,” Moeller said this week. “We welcome that and are providing funding for election observers who hope to see such an outcome.”

Moeller referred to reports of harassment and intimidation before recent city corporation elections, which he said may have suppressed voter turnout. “We raised these concerns at the time, so we are hoping we won’t see the same issues in the national elections.”

The U.S. National Democratic Institute said after an assessment in October the polls would be held “amid a high degree of political polarization, heightened tensions and shrinking political space”.

The Bangkok-based Asian Network for Free Elections will send a team of about 30 short- and long-term observers, Moeller said. Plus about 15,000 Bangladeshi observers will be funded jointly by the U.S. Agency for International Development, Britain’s Department for International Development and the Swiss government, he said. The domestic observers would spread out but might not be able to reach every polling station.

But the government continues to be skeptical over the presence of foreign observers. General secretary of Bangladesh Samyabadi Dal Dilip Barua on December 4 said the 14 party-alliance has requested the Election Commission to be cautious over the “secret agenda” of the foreign election observers and suggested them to be careful.

“We asked the Election Commission that foreign observers will come from different countries during the election and sometimes it is seen that some of them have hidden agenda. So, we’ve requested the commission to be aware of the issue as no one can raise any question over the 11th national election,” he said.

Dilip Barua was talking to reporters after a meeting with EC secretary Helaluddin Ahmed at Nirbachan Bhaban in the city. While reading out a written statement of the alliance, Barua said there are allegations that some local and foreign observers work with a motive in the name of election monitoring and some others gather secret information concealing their identities.

Claiming that BNP and Oikyafront are playing blame a game over the election, Dilip Barua said, “BNP and Oikyafront are trying to make the election questionable both at the national and international levels.”

  • In democracy’s slog overs

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