Blaming the bureaucracy
A level playing field for a free and fair election through the restoration of confidence in the Election Commission and Returning Officers is a must for creating equal opportunity in a system of multi-party democracy. The people are, by and large, encouraged to go to the polling stations to exercise their voting right where such an environment exists.
Whenever, the question of level playing field arises, all fingers are pointed towards the neutrality of the bureaucracy, as if they are responsible for all types of election engineering. I do oppose the accusation, since this is not the whole truth.
I had the experience of acting as Returning Officer of Gazipur in the Parliament Election held on February 18, 1979, and was involved many times before and after with local and national level elections.
I am sure that a few might be blamed for breach of neutrality, whereas almost all are in favour of creating a fair climate with maximum compliance to the oath of bureaucracy.
In spite of the above, massive transfer and posting of DCs, TNOs and police officers before the election takes place to exhibit the wishes of the government. All officers in charge of police stations were transferred 1996, 2001, and even in December 2006, before the parliament election.
Certain criteria were followed for such transfers, postings and withdrawals from the field of posting during election, such as, any one working in the same station for more than 2 years, or posted for the second time, was transferred.
At the same time, anyone working with any minister, state minister or deputy minister, or known to be related to a candidate, was withdrawn from the field during election time. This formula was followed for the last few elections, and accepted by the officials.
The creation of a level playing field, in fact, depends on few indicators:
- Equal opportunity for all parties to propagate their political programs openly through all media, without any discrimination.
- Civil administration and law enforcing agencies to be non-partisan while acting as the Returning Officers or ensuring law and order.
- The appointment of Presiding Officers, Assistant Presiding Officers, Polling Officers by the Returning Officers must be based on utmost neutrality. Besides, the selection of polling centers at a neutral zone, not near the premises of a particular candidate, and in consultation with all contesting parties and candidates might be a visible example of neutrality and fair play by the officials of the Election Commission.
- The counting and announcement of result quickly at the polling stations in a transparent manner, and allowing the agent to get a certified copy of the result, can demonstrate a state of level playing filed prevailing during the election.
- The People's Representation Order to be announced by the Election Commission must spell out details about the treatment of fake voters, false voting, deployment of observers, apprehension of media coup etc., so that contesting candidates are confident that there is fairplay.
Besides, a level playing field needs a lot of reformation, of which a fair electoral roll is fundamental. Thanks to the Election Commission and the government for giving the people national ID cards.
Apart from that, introduction of transparent ballot boxes, electronic voting system, ineligibility of the candidates, trading by political parties while nominating a candidate etc., are issues closely connected with the creation of a level playing field. The responsibility of the Election Commission is to oversee or regulate all this.
The Philippines promulgated a Fair Election Act in 2006 (Representative Act No 9006). The main purpose of the Act was to enhance the holding of free orderly, peaceful and credible election through fair election practices. This Act has very explicitly demonstrated the wishes of the government and was found effective.
Democracy thrives on information. It also thrives in an environment where media freedom exists. The media can play a pivotal role in creating a conductive field for the level playing only when democracy functions fairly with the support of the majority.
Thus, democratic values and mutual respect among the contesting candidates can create a level playing field. The desire to win the election by any means obviously generates violence during elections, and repression on the supporters of defeated parties and minorities.
Nowadays, people's confidence in the neutrality of the bureaucracy is eroding very fast. There are a few reasons for which the general administration fails to project its neutrality.
Firstly, some officials involved in the election process are closely related to politicians of different parties. Somehow or other, others know it in a closed society like ours.
Secondly, a few officials might have been be involved in student politics previously, and were now engaged in the election process. The neutrality of such officers is made questionable, without any fault in his behaviour.
Thirdly, many servants of the Republic cannot overcome the undue pressure from the party in power and bow down to its dictation, thereby renouncing their neutrality.
Fourthly, the party in power takes a plan to make the recruitment of their followers in the office of the Republic as a strategy to use them during election, or for any other purpose.
At the time of the election, services of all officials are placed with the Election Commission. The Commission must be strong enough to punish the delinquent officials breaching the trust of neutrality on the basis of any allegation with adequate evidence. This might act as lesson for the future.
It is impossible to create a level playing field without the active support of political parties or alliances. The tendency of political parties to utilise the bureaucracy of political parties during election, their intolerance of their opponents, and disrespect to the wisdom of the voters are major impediments to ensuring free and fair election in a country like ours.
Unfortunately, the tendency to blame the bureaucrats or law enforcing agencies for the breach of neutrality was observed by defeated candidates almost in all cases. This is not fair, and should in no way be encouraged. The government should protect the officials working so hard to hold a free fair and neutral election.