Published: Saturday, March 23, 2013

Forthcoming elections

THE next elections in Bangladesh are expected to be held anytime between October, 2013 and January, 2014. However, voters are apprehensive of the unhealthy trends followed by the politicians who do not respect the principles of democracy, nor obey the constitution and the rule of law, as they heatedly debate on whether elections will be administered by the Election Commission (EC) or a caretaker government (CTG).

It is a disappointment for voters that the political parties are busy trying to “pull rabbits out of hats” and at the same time “destroying political rivals,” thus making politics more undemocratic.

Late Mr. Shah A.M. Kibria, had written in an article: “Bangladesh is unique in the sense that the outgoing elected government, under law passed in 1996, actually steps down and an interim government is installed as a caretaker government. This is the result of a deep distrust of the outgoing elected government that manipulates the levers of power to rig the elections to ensure its own victory. The Magura by-election in 1994 convinced the opposition parties that they cannot win if the ruling party remained in office. It would be duty of the caretaker government to ensure that the Election Commission is able to function without fear or favour and without interference from any quarter. In particular, it would be the duty of both the caretaker government and the election commission to see the administration remains neutral.”

The Election Commission (EC) with assistance of the previous military backed caretaker government (CTG) during the period 2007-2008 managed to achieve two important things; (i) prepared a creditable electoral roll with photographs and fingerprints of 81 million individuals, discarding about 12.7 million fake/ghost voters; and (ii) made it mandatory for political parties to be registered and successfully processed the registration of 38 out of 117 aspiring political parties.

The working system of the EC reveals that the EC is neither independent nor free from political influence. EC does not (i) have the power to monitor whether registered political parties are following the EC laws for intra-party democracy, (ii) the personnel engaged by the EC are not under its administrative control, and (iii) EC has to agree with the wishes of the local political parties while re-distributing the constituencies. Thus impartial and proper logistic support to the EC can only be given by the CTG.

The caretaker government can be revived, but it needs the political will and positive attitude of political leaders. So why should political parties give importance to the CTG? The reasons are: (i) the result of an on-line survey conducted by The Daily Star on the question “Do you agree with the prime minister that an environment has been created for EC to work independently and neutrally?” Out of 329 votes, ‘Yes’ got 9%, ‘no’ got 90%, and ‘no comment’ got 1%; (ii) Brac University Institute of Governance Studies conducted a nationwide Bangladesh Youth Survey in December 2011 among 6,575 youths to get an in-depth understanding of youth and their demands. In the survey the youths, who are believed to have played a decisive role in the last elections (Dec, 2008), voiced objections to staging upcoming national elections under the ruling party. Analysts present at the primary dissemination at Brac Centre term the finding “significant”; and (iii) voters have grown impatient with the proliferation of “self-interest” politicians who will not let go of the benefits they accrue from their position of power.

The ruling grand coalition says that since the Supreme Court has declared the caretaker system to be illegal there is no scope to revive it. But they don’t mention the two important observations that are tagged with the verdict; (i) that the void system (CTG) maybe practiced for another two parliamentary terms for the sake of “safety of the state and the people,” and (ii) that the parliament should amend the constitution to ensure that former chief justice or any Supreme Court judge (Appellate Division included) is not chosen as head of CTG, if the system is retained. This verdict of national importance was reached on majority vote by a panel comprising of seven members headed by the chief justice, and as such, it cannot be ignored.

Only two steps are required to form the caretaker system:

First, to follow the advice of the Supreme Court and make the amendments as stated above;

Second, invite all the former chief advisers and advisers of previous CTGs, and former chief election commissioners and the commissioners of the EC who were in office during the period 1991-2008. Their past experience and competence would be most valuable. A committee from amongst them should be formed and given the responsibility of choosing the chief adviser and ten advisers for the new caretaker government. The final list can be presented to the concerned authorities for acceptance.

The EC reported two new developments: (i) that the total number of voters in the next general elections may cross 92 million mark, and (ii) 31 new organisations have filed application for registration as political parties. The EC is already scrutinising their details and the results will be published, hopefully, between August-November, 2013.

Under the CTG system the president’s power are substantially enhanced. He has control of the Ministry of Defense, the sole authority to declare a state of emergency, and dismiss the chief adviser and other advisers of the CTG. Both the CTG and the EC report directly to him.

Let us hope that politicians, to earn the trust and confidence of the voters, will work to find a solution instead of resorting to hartals, protest marches and grand rallies wherein the leaders and their cohorts spit venom against each other.

The writer worked for various United Nations Agencies in Bangladesh, Somalia and Uganda.