What difference can an EC make?

Mahfuzur Rahman
Thursday, October 6th, 2016


The formation of a new Election Commission is now in the forefront of political discourse in Bangladesh. While talking to reporters at a press conference on her return home from the USA, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina stressed the importance of having a good Commission that would not enroll fake voters as the country saw in the past. That is a very good point indeed!  Having a flawless voter roll is very important, or lese, the mood of the electorate gets off at the first place.


To have a functional democracy, a democratic nation must have a credible election, and to hold a good election, there is a need for a strong Election Commission to govern the election process. Announcing an election schedule, setting up election booths and printing ballot papers are not that much critical jobs for an electoral body. It requires little intellect to carry out these routine works. But governing the election process does require a brave heart and a strong brain because you will be dealing with such political leaders who will flip flop every other day.


Even after holding so many elections to maintain its constitutional process, Bangladesh still has to struggle to form an independent Election Commission. Our all political parties are equally blamed for this sorry state of affairs when it comes to governing the election process. The Election Commission is one of the major institutions that sows the seeds of democracy, nurtures its roots, sets the stage for people to have their voices heard and facilitate the peaceful transfer of power.


If any Election Commission starts its journey on a wrong way and its commissioners talk like political leaders and defend their wrongdoings time and again, then there is every reason for democracy to falter.


In recent times, it was the Shamsul Huda-led Election Commission that had been able to show the path for others how to work for holding acceptable elections in democracy like ours. Some commissions that preceded and followed the Huda Commission left behind some disgraceful instances, hurting the core of our budding democracy.


In Bangladesh’s political history, it was the Justice Aziz-led Election Commission that brought the greatest shame for the entire nation with its unbelievable controversial activities during the BNP alliance rule. People could not think the Aziz Commission that assumed office on May 23, 2005 would stoop so low by preparing a fake voter list, triggering a demand by all quarters — political parties, professional bodies and civil society members – for his resignation. Justice Aziz had to quit finally, and he had to do it in a very disgraceful manner.


As an institution, the Election Commission lost its importance when the caretaker government system had gained popularity and made its way into the constitution as an interim administration system to ensure the peaceful and fair holding the national election. The caretaker government system had, in fact, brought in the limelight the failure of our politics to build a system to govern the election process.


Even the caretaker system itself could not help the country that much to have a sustainable mechanism for holding credible polls. Deepening mistrust among our political leaders prevailed, blocking the path for change in our political culture. Now that caretaker system is gone.


The caretaker government was a burning issue before the last general election in the country as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of Khaleda Zia was bent on having an interim and neutral administration for what she said holding a fair general election. As her demand went unheeded despite BNP’s violent movement, her party boycotted the election, a decision for which Khaleda Zia and her party still repent.


Political parties, on both sides of the aisle, need to understand that the Election Commission is a constitutional body and it is the mother vessel to build a credible election system. The greater focus it will get the stronger democracy you will have. Had all the political parties played their part in institutionalising the Election Commission there would have been little worry about having a system to govern the election process.


During the 80s, the country saw a monster-like regime that virtually destroyed all the systems, and even the political culture. And it was done in a planned way by military ruler HM Ershad destroying political career of many renowned political leaders and tainting the image of many artistes.


There is nothing new in the resignation of any Election Commission in Bangladesh. In the 90s, we saw another two chief election commissioners stepping down in the face of popular movements against them for their controversial activities. Justice Sultan Hossain Khan and Justice AKM Sadeque are among them. They resigned from the post in 1991 and 1996 respectively.


Holding a flawless election is a highly challenging job as money and muscle powers play a big part in our culture. Everybody, from politicians to teachers, is in a race to accumulate more power and money, vitiating the social fabrics. And in this process the bad culture of vote buying has taken a deeper root alongside muscle flexing. Recent incidents have exposed that our elections are amazingly easy to be rigged. One can do it in many ways. You can cast fake votes on a number of occasions throughout the day. You can cast votes in more than one occasion. More interestingly, there are agents in every polling station who will do the job in favour of you. Why should you take the trouble to go all the way to the polling station!


Other than these simplest tricks, there are some other smart ways to outsmart opponents to manipulate vote results through overnight stuffing and keeping the voters and opponents’ agents away from election centres with the help of dishonest election officials.  But people expect our elections to be verifiable and democratic– there is no alternative to it. It is the power politics that has been the main reason why a credible election system has not developed in Bangladesh. Centralisation instead of decentralisation has been the culture in our lackluster politics. Democracy is beautiful not only because it gives the voiceless the much-needed voice but also because of ensuring peace for all.


At the end of the day, it is the political parties that play their part in strengthening democracy by giving constitutional bodies the much-sought liberty for holding cheerful polls as take place in our neighbouring India. It is the political leaders who decorate democracy and also push it down. It is also the political leaders who shape a country and also destroy it. We saw it in Bangladesh, and also in some other South Asian countries.


Democracy thrives on transparency and accountability. The people of the country hope that qualified people will be appointed election commissioners who are also expected to be men of integrity and will be able to withstand any storm that will come in their way while performing their duties.


Mahfuzur Rahman is Chief News Editor of United News of Bangladesh (UNB). Email: mehfuzsam@yahoo.com

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