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            Volume 11 |Issue 06| February 10, 2012 |


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Current Affairs

EC at a Crossroads

Shakhawat Liton

History Repeats Itself
In the wake of a street agitation led by the BNP and like-minded opposition parties, the then Chief Election Commissioner Abu Hena resigned on May 8, 2000. Hena was appointed as the CEC during the then caretaker government led-by Jusitce Habibur Rahman after the resignation of his predecessor Justice AKM Sadek. Being the CEC, Justice Sadek was mired in deep controversy for his role in holding the February 15 farcical parliamentary polls in 1996. The sixth Parliament constituted through the February polls could not last. So, the same year in June, the EC under Hena's leadership conducted the seventh parliamentary polls in which the AL won and assumed the state power after 21 years.

However, after Hena's resignation, the then Opposition Leader Khaleda Zia on May 9, 2000 wrote to then Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina seeking to hold discussion with the president over the appointment of a new CEC. The then AL-led government rejected the BNP chief's proposal and appointed the same month MA Syed as the new CEC. The BNP-led opposition four party alliance had outright rejected the appointment, but they contested the October 2001 parliamentary polls under the EC led by Syed and got a landslide victory.

The outgoing EC – leaving a good track record but now what? Photo: Star File

After around five years, Khaleda Zia, who became the prime minister after winning the 2001 polls, got the opportunity to open discussions over the constitution of the new EC when the tenure of MA Syed was about to expire in May 2005. But her government rejected the AL-led opposition parties' demand for appointment of the CEC on consensus, and appointed Justice MA Aziz on May 23, 2005 as the successor of Syed. The AL-led opposition parties took no time to reject the appointment.

Justice Aziz however was unlucky compared to his predecessor as he had to leave the EC bowing down before a strong street agitation led by the opposition parties who rejected his appointment. He did not get the opportunity to conduct the parliamentary polls. Amid increasing political turmoil, the president declared the state of emergency on January 11, 2007, installing an around two year-long unconstitutional regime led by Fakhruddin Ahmed. Justice Aziz and all other election commissioners—Justice Mahfuzur Rahman, SM Zakari and others–were forced to resign.

The interim regime, led by Fakhruddin Ahmed, in February 2007 appointed ATM Shamsul Huda as CEC and Muhammed Sohul Hussein and Brig Gen (retd) M Sakhawat Hossain as election commissioners. None of the political parties rejected the appointments. The tenure of the incumbent CEC and election commissioner Sohul Hussein expired on February 4 while the other election commissioner Sakhawat will retire on February 14. So, formation of a new EC is just a matter of time. The new EC will conduct the next parliamentary polls to be held at the beginning of 2014.

An Impasse in the Making
This time, Opposition Leader Khaleda Zia did not need to write to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressing her desire to hold a discussion with the president over the appointment of the new CEC and other election commissioners to constitute the new EC. On advice of the prime minister, President Zillur Rahman himself had opened talks with the political parties from December 22. He held talks with 24 political parties for over two weeks seeking their opinion over the formation of the new EC. The BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia herself led the BNP delegation to the talks with the president on January 11.

It is interesting to note that Khaleda, who wrote first to Hasina in 2000 to discuss with the president over the appointment of the CEC, got the opportunity to do so in 2012. But by the time span of over a decade, the political situation has been more confrontational. When Khaleda wrote to Hasina in 2000, there was no problem with the formation of the caretaker government before the 2001 parliamentary polls. But this time, the caretaker government system did not exist when Khaleda met the president at Bangabhaban. So, naturally, the BNP chief did not speak over the formation of the new EC. Rather she demanded that the government restore the caretaker government system first, and then take an initiative to form the EC. Some other political parties also spoke almost the same way in the talks they held with the president. At present, the caretaker government issue is dominating the political landscape as the opposition parties have made it their prime demand.

However, the president will appoint, on advice of the prime minister, the new CEC and other election commissioners this February to constitute the new EC. The search committee formed by him proposed some names of individuals to be appointed as CEC and other election commissioners. The BNP-led opposition combined and some other parties did not send names to the search committee. So, it is now evident that a political consensus is not in sight right now over the formation of the new EC. And the government's move to lessen the strong demand for reinstating the caretaker government system abolished last year by forming a controversy-free EC may not work.

MA Aziz Syndrome?
Given the prevailing political situation, people are concerned about the fate of the new EC. If the new EC has to face political opposition, it may be difficult for it to perform independently. If such a situation prevails, then will it be able to continue with the process of bringing changes to the electoral culture in Bangladesh? Or will it face the similar consequences as that of the EC-led by Justice Aziz or the EC-led by Justice Sadek?

The incumbent EC-led by Huda performed well over the last five years, except for one or two initiatives that drew criticism. Preparation of the voter list with photographs and national identity cards simultaneously was one of the biggest successes of the outgoing EC. Its move to bring sweeping electoral reforms also succeeded. The almost impossible task of political parties' registration with the EC was made mandatory. The electoral reforms gave birth to a new culture of electoral campaign in the country. The outgoing EC has also been able to boost up the election officials who were demoralised due to controversial works by the EC-led by Jusitce Aziz.

And finally, the biggest success of the incumbent EC was holding the December 29 parliamentary polls in a free and fair manner. The polls to local government bodies--city corporations, municipalities were also largely peaceful, free and fair. The electoral reforms also brought changes to the culture of local bodies' elections. The outgoing EC has some other proposals to carry forward the electoral reforms including the use of electronic voting machines.

During its tenure, the outgoing EC also stressed the need for developing the mechanism for appointing competent people at the EC. It had drafted proposals for enacting a law in light of the article 118 of the constitution specifying qualifications and disqualifications of individuals to be appointed as CEC and other election commissioners. But the law was not made. Many people are not sure whether the upcoming appointments to form the new EC will be acceptable to all or not. Will the new CEC and other election commissioners be able to exhibit their integrity and boldness to carry forward the ongoing electoral reforms?

If the new EC falls into political controversy, there is a huge risk of deterioration in the ongoing process of bringing changes in the electoral system. We hope both the government and opposition parties will act sensibly so that the ongoing efforts to change the electoral system are properly carried out. Let's hope for the best in the coming days and let's congratulate the outgoing EC once again for its excellent service to the nation over the last five years.

The writer is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2012