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Wednesday, November 26, 2008
OP-ED

Towards a credible election

Stephenspillane.blogspot.com

IT appears that we are now on the highway to a participatory and credible election in just over one month. This optimism stems from the fact that BNP led 4-party alliance has finally whittled down its initial 7-point demand to two points as pre-condition for participation in election on December 29. The two points are lifting of emergency from the last day of withdrawing nomination and scrapping of Section 91 (E) of the amended RPO.

Thus, with a bit of give and take by the three stakeholders -- the government, AL-led 14-party alliance and BNP-led 4-party alliance -- it now seems possible to hold the next parliamentary election with all political parties taking part in it.

Such a prospect looked bleak not so long ago, and people almost came to terms with the feeling that the election would perhaps go ahead as scheduled without BNP participating in it until this latest decision was announced on November 23.

To my mind, it is the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) factor, which has influenced the alliance decision. JI has always been upbeat about participation in election. Unlike BNP, JI is well organised and united as a political party. The party has not suffered from the trauma of corruption of the party rank and file to the extent that BNP has. That JI would participate in the December election was never in doubt. But the fact that JI will gain more space politically if BNP is on board with it has finally defined the alliance attitude towards the election. This makes me further optimistic that perhaps the 4-party alliance will not eventually opt out of the December election even if its two demands are not fully met.

It definitely goes to the credit of the AL-led 14- party alliance and all other political parties except the 4-party alliance that, while they have raised similar demands like those of the 4-party alliance, they have not set fulfillment of their demands as pre-conditions for taking part in the election like the 4-party alliance has.

Moreover, in view of the fact that the AL-led 14-party alliance and all other political parties in the country, save and except the BNP-led 4-part alliance, have decided to take part in the election on December 29 without any pre-conditions whatsoever (the AL wants the upazila election schedule to be shifted, but has not made that a pre-condition for participation in the parliamentary elections), the 2-point demands of the 4-party alliance appear to be unacceptably obstructionist and deserve to be dismissed as such.

All said and done, the ball is now very much in the court of the government. Frankly speaking, in my opinion, it can totally disregard the BNP's 2-point demands and go ahead with the election on December 29.

However, that said, the government would do no harm to accede to the demand of scrapping of the relevant section of the amended RPO, which empowers the EC to cancel candidature of any candidate for having furnished false information. This power can be misused by the EC, not necessarily by the present EC but by any politicised EC like the one under former CEC Justice M.A. Aziz.

But what this government must guard against is the armed cadres and unruly youth fronts of the major political parties, which may surface again on the eve of election after having lain low so long under the state of emergency. These elements are potentially very dangerous in that they would intimidate voters of their rival party candidates to either stay away from voting or vote for candidates against their choice if our past experience is any guide.

Demand for lifting of the state of emergency has to be considered in the perspective of voters' security and voters' peaceful participation in election. Emergency is in no way an impediment to holding free, fair, and credible elections, especially in countries like Bangladesh where the law and order situation invariably worsens with listed criminals and political thugs of rival political parties trying to subvert a fair poll.

With a non-political and neutral caretaker government and an equally non-partisan EC in place, there is hardly any reason to suspect that that emergency powers may be misused in favour of or against a particular political party or alliance.

Meanwhile, the government must relax relevant provisions of emergency rule to allow movement of political leaders and workers of political parties freely across the country to hold rallies and projection meetings and to organise door-to-door campaigning in support of their party or alliance candidates.

The AL-led 14-party's acceptance of the poll deferral to December 29 in a spirit of accommodation and tolerance because it will pave the way for full participation of all political parties in the parliamentary election, is a mature step. Had this alliance chosen to decide otherwise, it would definitely have impacted adversely our transition to democracy.

It is good to hear that AL (the largest and the oldest political party in the country) has left out many of its old guard against whom there were specific charges of corruption and has given nomination to relatively clean and competent candidates. If all other political parties follow the same trend while giving nomination to their party candidates, there will be a positive change in the quality of people who will be elected representatives of the people in the parliament.

Brig. Gen. Shamsuddin Ahmed (retd) is a former secretary to the president.

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