The afterthought in the democratic process
Quite simply, periodic elections are an integral part of the philosophy and process of liberal pluralist democracy. Election is the mechanism by which modern representative democracy operates. Yet, at least in Bangladesh, it has been treated as a poor cousin of the political ideology, as an afterthought of the process, only to be placed in the spotlight come election time. And, more often than not, that spotlight is riddled with shadows when directed at the electoral process. While politicians of all shades indulge in this dubious exercise, academics in this country have largely tended to ignore it as a subject of serious study. Brig. Gen. (retd.) Sakhawat Hussain has noted their relative lack of interest and, although not a pedant by profession, has undertaken to enlighten the readers on the subject matter, relying primarily on his experience as an Election Commissioner. The outcome of his endeavour is Electoral Reform in Bangladesh 1972-2008. Just how much he has enlightened is another matter, and the reader can make up his/her mind on the issue.
Hussain settles on an impressive-sounding objective: "...to probe the correlates of confidence in the conduct of elections, in order to determine what accounts for differential perceptions of electoral integrity both within and across the country," although one might legitimately wonder if he was not indicating "outside" rather than "across". After all, he includes a chapter on "Experience of Electoral Reform in Regional Countries". And, what does he find in his study? For one, although under Article 118 of the 1972 Constitution the Election Commission (EC) has been guaranteed power, independence and strength, it could not grow as a credible institution because of political manipulation. Fair enough. "In fact," as he points out, "the independent Election Commission secretariat did not come into effect till ordinance No. 5 of 2008, later turned into law, under the act of 9th parliament No. 5 of 2009, during the Caretaker Government (CTG) of 2007-08." However, he cautions, and this is particularly germane to Bangladesh, "Unless some basic democratic values are in practiced (sic) by the society it is difficult to sustain the reforms brought into the electoral system." Precisely. The institutional arrangements for democracy might be there; the constitutional provisions guaranteeing their existence might be written in golden letters, but unless the mindset for the spirit and norms of liberal pluralist democracy is ingrained in the persona of the general citizenry, none more so than in the political activists, true democracy will be hard-pressed to function in a society.
Hussain provides a fairly comprehensive account of the electoral system of Bangladesh in the lengthiest chapter of the book (Chapter 3). Not coincidentally, given his personal involvement in the process, the next lengthy section is devoted to "Electoral Reforms: 2007-2008" (Chapter 7). Eight chapters and a host of annexure make up the book. Much of its content and emphasis may be found in Chapters 3 and 7. The author draws attention to some serious problems afflicting the electoral process, but which have equal relevance in other areas of the state and its governance. One is the politicization of the civil service, which potentially negates the principle of neutrality during elections, when their services are extensively and critically required. Similarly, the police has also been politicized, which, again, makes it difficult for it to act in an impartial manner. Of course, the abysmal political culture obtaining in the country for some time now has to shoulder much of the blame, and, unless this state of affairs is arrested and, then, reversed, the proper functioning of liberal pluralist democracy would be severely compromised. Hussain also details a number of institutional problems the EC has encountered, including that of redistricting of constituencies (gerrymandering) according to the whims of influential local politicians.
Hussain is understandably proud of being part of the electoral reforms undertaken by the EC headed by Chief Election Commissioner Dr. ATM Shamsul Huda, and of which he was a Commissioner. One can understand his pride, but not his belittling of earlier Commissions, or his categorical, often contradictory, claims. The introduction of the voter identity card and the compilation of a revised voters' list to rectify the seriously flawed previous one were outstanding achievements, but these and a few other reforms undertaken certainly have not placed the Bangladesh Election Commission (BEC) and the election system "ahead of other South Asian countries." Certainly, such a claim would be justifiably subject to much contentious arguments. Pride in ones achievement should not automatically lead to jingoistic attitude or patting oneself on the back, or to the denigration of earlier efforts, especially as so much remains to be done to improve the electoral process, besides that the Huda Commission has also, rightly or wrongly, been subjected to criticism.
Given the political history and culture of the country, it is more reasonable to expect gradual evolution of any institution into one that is functioning reasonably efficiently. The same holds for the electoral process, one that has been held hostage more often than not to the whims of all the major political parties since sovereign independent Bangladesh came into being. Therefore, keeping this in perspective, it might have been imprudent to have contemptuously dismissed as half-hearted or feeble the previous Commissions' efforts at reform. It might be recalled that many held office when elected civilian governments were in power, and did not have the luxury of the backing of a protracted caretaker government fronting a military cabal. Even then, as the author points out, the EC headed by Huda found that some of its reform proposals to improve the election process were opposed by the same political parties who had supported the 2007-08 reform package. The point is that the political culture of this country dictates that political parties and politicians often will support or oppose political reforms or good intentions if that only suits their interests. That culture requires a thorough overhaul.
Hussain might want to be more consistent in his assessments. The atrocious 1994 Magura bye-election ushered in the contentious non-democratic caretaker government system, and the author on several occasions categorically called it most questionable. However, elsewhere in the volume he thought the bye-election to have been "alleged to have been rigged." Furthermore, he should have made up his mind over whether to designate Dr. Huda as "then Chief Election Commissioner" or as "present CEC." This discrepancy has occurred in several instances, but uniformity is required. Then there is this factual error. While discussing the French electoral system, Hussain states that the country's President is elected after "two rounds of poll." Actually, if any candidate receives over 50% of the votes cast in the first round, then s/he is deemed to have been elected President. Only in the absence of absolute majority by any candidate is the runoff election resorted to, with the two candidates with the highest percentage of votes gained in the first round contesting. Furthermore, the book suffers from an inordinate number of grammatical and spelling errors. Also irritating is the numerous unnecessary repetition of the same points at seemingly regular intervals throughout the book.
Hussain makes it a point of asserting at different times that the election held on 29 December 2008 was the best-ever witnessed in Bangladesh, had been hailed as the most free and fair ever by local and international observers, and that the losing BNP and its allies were not as vociferous as the previous losers were in castigating the elections as having been "engineered" because of "the greater transparency brought in the system." He backs his claim by stating that all the previous elections had led to the venting of popular protests, but not that of 2008. Actually, a perusal of the news media of the time will show that the losers of 2008 had cried foul at the election results as had the losers in the three previous polls, this time the allegation having been that of massive electronic rigging. And this charge continued to be heard for quite some time. Then there were street protests like on the other occasions. And, as the author records, international observers had also certified the other elections as having been free and fair!
The point is that the political culture of mirror imaging each other by the two major political parties, of mutual political intolerance and distrust, of winning at almost any and all cost, and of virulent partisanship will cause carping by disgruntled losers. Therefore, it is imperative that the political culture be cleaned up first by the political leaders showing the way. Here truly will be a case of if the leader leads, the followers will follow. The institutions of democracy, like the electoral system, can only do so much without the backing of a mindset for the norms and spirit of liberal pluralist democracy displayed by the general citizenry, especially the political activists. The electoral system is in a process of evolution. As Hussain concludes, "...the BEC initiated a massive electoral reform which has been acclaimed at home and abroad yet much remains to be done for strengthening BEC for future challenges by developing further infrastructure."
Dr. Shahid Alam is Head, Media and Communication department, Independent University Bangladesh (IUB)
In Nazma Yeasmeen Haque's book report last week, "easy chair" appeared as "early chair". We are sorry.