The Election Commission (EC) has completed its dialogue with the political parties and representatives of the civil society and the media. The dialogue commenced on July 31 and continued until October 24. The EC also met with election observers and election specialists. The EC, reportedly, had substantive discussions with the stakeholders and about 400 recommendations were received from the political parties. They argued that implementation of the recommendations would be pivotal in holding a credible parliamentary election, expected to take place at the end of 2018. The EC plans to compile the recommendations into a book and publish by December this year.
The Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), in a post-dialogue press conference, maintained that the recommendations largely fall into three categories. Some of the recommendations have legal implications and some are pertinent to the constitution. In these two categories, the government can move through parliamentary process -- through discussion in Parliament. The recommendations falling into the third category come under the purview of the EC and these will be addressed in coming months. This is a fair statement. The EC is a constitutional body and enjoys considerable freedom; nonetheless, it operates within a set of parameters. It cannot do everything in order to conduct a credible election. The EC cannot transform itself into a transitional government.
At the dialogue, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) demanded poll-time supportive government and dissolution of the existing Parliament prior to the election. If BNP implied a caretaker government under the garb of supportive government, the party leaders should recall that the 9th Parliament had abolished the caretaker system and the EC doesn't have the authority to overturn Parliament's decision and restore it. With regard to dissolution of Parliament, it should be noted that only the president, at the request of the prime minister, can do so. It is true that in Great Britain, India and in the countries practising parliamentary democracy, election to new Parliament is held after the dissolution of the incumbent Parliament. This has been the practice in Bangladesh as well. However, in 2014, the government departed from this long-held practice and election to the 10th Parliament was held keeping the 9th Parliament in existence. This is repugnant to parliamentary democracy and the government will be well advised not to repeat this in future.
BNP's demands included termination of criminal cases against its leaders and workers, release of political prisoners and stopping extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances. These are legitimate demands but these are for the government to address. If threats loom large and arrest warrants hang over the political leaders, the opposition candidates will be unable to launch effective campaign. The government, for the sake of ensuring "level playing field", will have to create a conducive environment and release the political prisoners. In 1969, the Pakistan government released all political prisoners prior to holding the Round Table Conference in Rawalpindi. The Agartala Conspiracy case was withdrawn and Baghabandu attended the conference as the undisputed leader of the Bengalis.
Many political parties suggested deployment of the army during the election in order to ensure safety of voters and prevent unlawful activities in and around the polling centres. The CEC accepted the demand in principle and vowed to seek deployment of the army should the situation so demand. The civil society demanded reinstating "no vote" option in the ballots. If it is so done, it will lead to "useful information" why a section of the electorate lacks confidence in the candidates and disapproves the mechanism in which representatives are chosen.
The Awami League demanded, among others, introduction of electronic voting machines and voting provision for expatriate Bangladeshis.
The meetings with the political parties and the EC's most recent consultation with former CECs and Election Commissioners underline the commitment of the EC to conduct a free and fair election. Given the deep polarisation in our society and lack of trust between the major political parties, it always remains a litmus test for the EC to conduct a credible election. In the past, even the most acceptable election was dismissed by the parties, failing to do well, as rigged. The EC was accused of being complicit in alleged wrong-doings. It is now imperative that the political parties should come out this culture, learn to honour the verdict of the people and accept defeat gracefully.
A credible election cannot be arranged by the EC alone. The EC depends on the police, BGB (Border Guard Bangladesh) and the army to maintain law and order in and around the polling stations. The local-level officials are central to the entire electoral exercise. They are entrusted to conduct the polling and apprehend the perpetrators striving to manipulate the outcome. The officials owe their loyalty to their respective departments and are unlikely to comply with EC's instructions unless instructed by the parent departments. In the event, the Defence Ministry refuses to deploy the army in the "violence-prone" areas, the EC can do very little. In short, the EC cannot perform effectively without unconditional cooperation of the government. The EC values media's unbiased reporting of the incidents, especially those taking place in remote areas. Above all, cooperation of political parties is of paramount importance in holding election in a peaceful atmosphere.
The BNP-led opposition parties and the Awami League-led coalition are poles apart on the "configuration of the government" under which the election should take place. Clearly, the divide between two major adversaries is too wide to be bridged. The BNP is apparently keen to participate in the election as another boycott might pose an existential threat to it. But if the party is pushed to the wall and decides to boycott the election, the election will suffer from lack of legitimacy for the second consecutive time. It is undeniable that BNP represents a political force and commands considerable support among the electorate. It will be politically incorrect to have an election without BNP's participation. The Awami League leadership is indeed aware of this and should be prepared to let BNP join the electoral race.
Political parties share profound responsibility to create a healthy atmosphere for the election. The opposition leaders should refrain from challenging the integrity of the EC. It hasn't yet done any wrong. Qualitatively, it is superior to Raqib Commission. It has been engaged in making sincere efforts ever since it started to function. Leaders from both camps should campaign on issues that are of concern to the people. They should not loose sight that unscrupulous conducts of the party activists, if not checked well ahead, will run the risk of causing all kinds of conceivable problems.
Months preceding the election will be crucial. The international community will keep a watchful eye on the situation. It had expressed concern over lack of inclusiveness in the 2014 election and will strongly disapprove repetition of the same. The influx of Rohingya refugees has put stress on our economy. The influx would most likely soar to one million before it stabilises. The devastating flood has caused massive damage to agriculture and the government will have to import more food grains. Ever-increasing prices of food items have compounded the hardship of the people. Law and order situation, especially in urban areas, is troubling. Despite repeated attempts, Tista water sharing agreement remains stalled although India secured transit through our territory. All these will have far reaching ramifications on the upcoming general election and beyond. The EC has a solemn responsibility to conduct a free and fair election and it must succeed.
The writer is a former official of the United Nations. [email protected]