The much-awaited dialogue with the Election Commission (EC) had started with the participation of some prominent civil society activists and members of civil society organisations (CSOs), followed by senior media personalities both from print and electronic media. These dialogues would continue, as per the work programme that EC has released, with other stakeholders, chiefly the political parties who matter most. The aim of these dialogues, according to the EC, is to gather opinions on a few important issues as identified by them so that a free, fair and all-inclusive 11th Parliament election could be held with the current parliament un-dissolved and the AL still in office.
The EC's effort definitely deserves praise as it has continued the good practice that was initiated in 2008 but discontinued during the Rakib Commission. Like the CSOs, voters and the public in general do not want a repetition of the election held in 2014, which did not quite help sustain the democratic process in Bangladesh.
However, the dialogue that the EC has held so far would have been more meaningful if they were held to thrash out specific issues and suggest the modus operandi. The current exercise has not brought out the operational aspect of the issues discussed. Nevertheless, most of the participants emphasised the need to hold an acceptable election where voters can vote freely and for the EC to take steps to create such an environment. There were suggestions of all kinds, but the dialogue seems to have revolved around two issues: (i) deployment of the armed forces for effective electoral security, and (ii) reintroduction of “no vote”. There were participants who had different opinions particularly on the issue of deployment of the armed forces during the next election, forgetting the fact that deployment of the armed forces has been a practice in all parliamentary elections since 1973, when the first post-liberation election was held. Those opposing the idea could not forward a solid logic in their defence.
The requirement for deploying the armed forces is connected with the electoral security which features most prominently in our country's electoral governance, particularly when elections are held under a political government. While securing the electoral process is a very important factor, particularly in our country, it is not the only factor for ensuring a free, fair and acceptable election.
However, there are other factors that would create difficulties for the EC in holding elections under the present condition of Article 123(2)(a) of the Constitution, without dissolving the Parliament. These factors are: (i) continuous patron-client political culture; (ii) weaknesses within the electoral institutions; (iii) a polarised civil administration including law enforcement agencies; and (iv) electoral security arrangement. These are very important factors that would come into play in spite of the fact that Bangladesh has, theoretically, one of the most powerful electoral institutions and largest infrastructures of EC in the subcontinent. Yet, in practice, it is the weakest institution as far as its effectiveness is concerned.
One of the weak areas of electoral governance in our country is lack of continuation of the institutional good practices and planning an action-oriented electoral process. One glaring example of shortcomings in addressing the security issues, for example, is that the EC is not yet sure whether they would need additional forces in the form of armed forces, and if so, who would be their controlling authority—EC or magistrate, etc. The fact is, the EC would need the help of the armed forces to execute its security scheme, however ill-planned. The fact remains that our electoral management is becoming increasingly dependent on the security agencies, mostly of the Ministry of Home Affairs, which by and large would remain under political influence, as seen in the past.
Therefore, the armed forces are viewed by a large section of voters and the public as a neutral institution and they feel confident and safe in their presence. Since electoral security is one of the important determinants of an acceptable electoral process, the EC must be the one to decide on the issue. It is preferable that the armed forces be within the definition of “law enforcing agency” under Article 2 (xiaa) the Representation of the People Order (RPO). Being deployed under the said article does not mean that they would be automatically deployed. It would not be tasked unless the EC felt the need for it, otherwise having such a potent force at EC's disposal would not pay any dividend.
I have very briefly highlighted the important aspect of security planning and deployment of security forces to ensure maximisation of security so that the weaker section of the voters, women and minority voters, feel safe to vote while the officials at field level feel confident to discharge their duties.
Unless the voters feel safe—and if the EC fails to deploy forces under its control within a security template that should have been prepared by now (and if the use of security forces is reactive rather than proactive)—it will be a total wastage of the 70 percent of the election budget apportioned to security. What is to be noted is that it is the EC that is in charge of creating a secure environment. Therefore, let it decide on the nature and quantum of force that would be appropriate, and who should be their controlling authority during the election.
M. Sakhawat Hussain is a former Election Commissioner, a columnist and PhD fellow.