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     Volume 7 Issue 42 | October 24, 2007 |

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Cover Story

Crucial Steps to the Election

Syed Zakir Hossain

When the Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed-led caretaker government assumed power two years ago, its most important task was to hold a general election free of the vile power of money and muscle. A drive on corruption was subsequently launched to wipe out corruption: many alleged corruption suspects have been brought to book though the legal process is yet to be completed. With the country less than two months away from an election the overwhelming support that Dr Ahmed's government has enjoyed at the beginning of its tenure is waning. Many known corrupt persons are out on bail; even though a state of emergency still prevails in the country, the law and order situation is gradually declining. Thanks to the hard work of the Bangladesh armed forces along with the Election Commission, we have a highly credible voter list for the coming general election. The crucial issue of re-demarcation of constituencies is still in court. Even though all the major political parties have amended their constitution to get registered with the Election Commission, risks are there that the country might revert to the culture of anarchy and lawlessness that used to dominate its polity before the advent of the current government.

Ahmede Hussain

The chief of the Army once said that the train to democracy has been derailed and the task of the government is to bring it back to the track. To achieve that, the government had set before itself two goals--curbing corruption and holding a free election. Its war on corruption has witnessed the arrests of the bigwigs of Bangladeshi business and politics, some of whom have thought themselves beyond the reach of law.

During the 3-month rule of President Iajuddin Ahmed's caretaker government, the EC earned itself the notoriety of being a stooge of the past Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led Four Party Alliance. One of the first steps that the current caretaker government (CTG) took for a free election is the reconstitution of the EC. After its overhaul on February last year, an electoral roadmap was announced on July 15, according to which the voter list would be prepared by October this year, and the political parties would be told to register by June 2008. The EC also announced that it would rearrange the 300 constituencies, saying that, "In the 2001 election, the parliamentary constituency of Dhaka-5 had a total of 6.33 lakh voters while Faridpur-5 had 1.54 lakh voters. Such inconsistencies cannot remain.” The Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) ATM Shamsul Huda also announced that day that Upazila elections, which were stalled for the last 17 years, would also take place simultaneously with the general election. In the roadmap, the CEC also promised to hold local government body polls by January 2008.

One of the major successes of the roadmap has been the completion of the voter list with photograph. The task was mainly performed by the Bangladesh Armed forces have made with the help of 1.5 lakh computer operators in 30,000 voter registration centres. Completed 15 days ahead of deadline, the project is indeed a remarkable achievement. Every voter will eventually be handed over a multi-purpose national identity card.

One of the major successes of the roadmap has been the completion of the voter list. Photo: SYED ZAKIR HOSSAIN

Except for the voter list the EC, mostly due to its somniferous pace, has missed all the deadlines in its roadmap. The dialogue, which according to the roadmap was supposed to end by November last year, is still going on. The EC first invited the reformist faction of the BNP for dialogue, events took a dramatic turn when a lawsuit was filed with the court and later Saifur Rahman, acting chairman of the reformist faction of the party, publicly denounced his own factions.

Even though elections to four municipalities have taken place on August 13 this year with an average of 77 percent voters casting ballots, the EC has failed to hold other local body elections as promised in the roadmap. This failure has forced the government to accede to some political parties demand that the general elections are held before the local body polls. And as according to the dates declared by the government the general elections and the Upazila elections will be held within a week of each other, it will certainly test the EC's ability to hold both the polls smoothly. The whole process could have been done smoothly had the commission been less lackadaisical.

After the election, the law must keep its own course and the country's judiciary has to be allowed to work freely. Photo: Shawkat Jamil

The delimitation of constituencies, on which the CEC has placed so much importance in his roadmap, is now facing all sorts of legal tangles. On August 7 this year, a former MP of the BNP filed a suit with the court, which stayed redrawing of the constituencies for three months. The delimitation battle is still going on and the function of demarcation of constituencies is withheld. The EC is fighting a legal battle, which may turn out to be a long and laborious one. Even if the EC wins, chances are there that a new appeal by the petitioner might delay the process of delimitation even further. Given that the EC needs around 45 days in hand to announce the election schedule, the writ now stands as the only barrier before holding the election according to the roadmap on December 18.

One of the biggest step towards a free and fair general election that the government has taken is perhaps the Representation of the People's Ordinance (RPO) Ordinance 2008, which has been promulgated belatedly on the 14th of July this year. The RPO reflects the people's demand for change in politics. It aims at electoral reform, making registration with the EC compulsory for the political parties. Among the salient features of the RPO, which was later revised, include: To be registered with the EC, a party must win at least one parliamentary seat or must obtain 5 percent of the total votes cast in a constituency in any of the elections since 1971. It also requires the parties to have functional organisational units and offices in at least one third of the districts or in 100 upazilas and they must also have at least 200 members in each upazila of each district.

The new ordinance bars candidates from participating in more than three seats, and it also stipulates that the contestants must submit their election expenditure statements and related bank account statements to the EC. To bring financial transparency, the new law fixes a ceiling for election expenditure at Tk 15 lakh for individual electoral campaigns. To free the student and labour bodies from the clutches of national politics, the RPO says that the parties intending to be registered must declare in their constitutions that they do not have front organisations of students, teachers and workers.

The RPO requires that the political parties must have internal democracy in their folds and they must declare that they will have 33 percent women members at every level of the organisational committees by 2020.

Click to enlarge

There are also a number of clauses regarding electoral alliances, disqualifications for running in polls, and about prohibitions on forming front organisations by political parties, pasting campaign posters, bringing out electoral processions and holding rallies, and the use of decorative lightings.

The Election Commission has repeatedly missed its own deadlines. The Chief Election Commissioner, ATM Shamsul Huda. Photo: Zahedul I Khan

Of the major political parties the Awami League (AL), has applied for registration with an amended constitution, its bitter rival the BNP, after much whining, has also followed suit. The AL has set a provision in which its grassroots will nominate a panel of five candidates for each constituencies from which its parliamentary board will choose one candidate. The party, however, has refused to sever ties with its front organisations, calling its labour and student wings the party's associate organisations.

The BNP, on the other hand, refused to register with the EC, demanding cancellation of the RPO. But last week, in an emergency meeting of the party's standing committee the party has approved a draft constitution, amending certain provision in the previous constitution to get registered with the commission. The most notable of these changes is the abolishment of the party chairperson's sole power to expel anyone and dissolve or reconstitute any committee. The new draft also requires the members of the party's standing and executive committees, two topmost bodies, to be elected in the national council. The party also severs its ties with front organisations but it keeps the provision of associate organisations made up of students, teachers and other professionals. The BNP, even though it has been democratically elected twice in majority vote since the restoration of democracy, has never practised internal democracy. The amended constitution, though inadequate, is a good beginning; the challenge though remains as to how the party practices them in the days to come.

The Jatya Party (JP) has also made amendments to its constitution, curtailing the power of its chairman deposed military dictator Gen HM Ershad. According to the new amendment an individual cannot be elected to the posts of chairman and secretary general for more than two terms, and also the chairman will have to take decisions in consultation with presidium members. The JP, born in the womb of military dictatorship, has remained the sole proprietorship of Ershad, whose whims dominate the party's policy. The party has to live up to the changes that it has made in its constitution and has to reform its fold further.

The Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), which opposed Bangladesh's birth during the liberation war of 1971, has renamed itself as Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, and for the first time in the party's history has recognised the country's liberation war. The party, which has collaborated with the Pakistani army during the liberation war, in the new constitution, opens it doors to non-Muslims. It is time that the party proves before the nation that it is sincere about the new clauses and its new place in our politics. The party is yet to denounce its past, which is replete with people accused of war crimes. To have a place in the politics of independent Bangladesh the party has to denounce the genocide and rape some of its members have committed in 1971.

Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia must forgo confrontational politics. Photo: Star

The reforms that the RPO has prompted the parties to make are no less than significant. Throughout our recent political history, the major political parties have not gone through any major reform as no serious dent has been made in their bastion of power. The wind of change, however marginal, has started to blow now. The onus now lies on the government and the EC; the commission has to make sure that the parties are following the RPO and the EC must handle any violation with a strong hand.

Security will be a big issue in the next elections. Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain

Even though all the major parties have brought amendments to their constitutions, the old guards of our politics have remained in the helm. The parties have not yet reformed themselves. We hope that the politics of anarchy and lawlessness that has made the state of emergency inevitable has become a thing of the past. Although Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed, in his first speech to the nation has promised to wipe out corruption to hold a free and fair general election, the pace of the anti-corruption drive has slowed down significantly. Last month, in an unprecedented incident, 206 persons facing corruption trials were given bail on a single day. Of the 244 cases tried in the ten special courts, 122 have been delivered and a whopping total of 89 cases have been stayed by the higher court.

It is understandable that the corruption that has taken a firm root over the last couple of decades will not be easy to eradicate in two years. But the slower pace of the drive, after the hoopla of its first one year in power, has certainly undermined the government's anti-corruption drive.

The general election of December 18, 2008 promises to be a milestone in our national history as after nearly two years of structural and political reforms we are going to taste the fruit of democracy again. The issue of withdrawal of emergency before the election, however, has remained the bone of contention. Both the AL and the BNP want it to go, and both of these parties, which ruled the country alternately for the last sixteen years have set the withdrawal of an emergency as a precondition for their participation in the election. There is a genuine concern on the part of the government that if the emergency is not continued, the country might go back to the days of street agitation and violent confrontation as we have witnessed two years ago. To dispel such fears the government may ask the parties to pledge that they will not resort to violence and anarchy if emergency is withdrawn. The government should lift the state of emergency before the election; if the government cannot do so, it must tell the nation what is compelling it to keep the law in force.

The parties must also pledge to continue the anti-graft drive and other reforms that the CTG has initiated in the last two years; they must also promise to ratify the ordinances that the CTG has promulgated in its tenure. After the election, the law must keep its own course and the country's judiciary has to be allowed to work freely. In the historic election that is going to take place within two months time, the parties must listen to the voice of the grassroots and nominate honest, patriotic and competent candidates for the polls. It must make a break with the tradition of nomination business and focus on the democratisation of their rank and file. The parties can also sit together to forge a unity on matters of vital national and economic interest. They must leave the past of boycotting the parliament behind and vow to make it an effective institution.

The nation is desperately waiting to elect a truly democratic, transparent government. Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain

The democracy practised over the last 16 years had some fundamental flaws. When after the fall of Gen HM Ershad democracy was restored in 1991, the whole nation expected to see parliamentary democracy take a firm root in the country. Instead we have seen a politics of confrontation, oppression of the opposition by the ruling party, opposition boycott of the parliament and the plundering of the country's economy. On top of it all has been the bickering between two leading ladies of the national politics. Corruption has been ever pervasive; yet there is no denying that the only way to fix a flawed democracy is through establishing a truly democratic political culture. The nation is waiting for the December 18 election with the hope of seeing the establishment of rule of law and good governance. The next 55 days are going to be crucial in our national history. The train to democracy should start to roll, only time can tell now who will be in the driving seat and to what destination the train will lead us. One contentious issue over the withdrawal of state of emergency still remains unresolved. Both the major parties have declared that they will not participate in the next elections if the emergency remains in force; the government, on the other hand, has said that it will withdraw all the restrictive elements in the emergency for the total participation of the parties. The issue of the withdrawal of the state of emergency lends a certain degree of uncertainty to the holding of the elections. It can only be hoped that this uncertainty will be removed, the necessary civil and political rights will be restored for the people to vote freely.



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