The Election Commission (EC) had announced the schedule for the 11th parliamentary election on November 8, 2018 and shifted the poll date from December 23 to December 30, 2018 as the opposition BNP and the newly formed alliance Jatiya Oikyafront decided to hold a couple of rounds of dialogue with the government. Most of the important demands of Oikyafront remain unfulfilled.
However, with the announcement of the decision of their participation in the upcoming election, the political situation has eased to a great extent. The ball is now in the EC's court which is mandated by the constitution to hold a free, fair, credible and genuine election. These requisites are, among others, essentially important to ensure and maintain “electoral integrity”.
Before I proceed further it would be worthwhile to put forward the scholarly definition of “electoral integrity”. It is also conceptualised as “electoral quality”. The Kofi Annan Foundation, named after and established under the late former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, defines electoral integrity as “any election that is based on the democratic principles of universal suffrage and political equality as reflected in international standards and agreements, and is professional, impartial, and transparent in its preparation and administration throughout the electoral cycle.”
However, those four terms—“genuine”, “free”, “fair” and “credible”—do not have a universal definition and are centred on personal understanding within the purview of democracy and good elections. The understanding of a “free”, “fair”, “credible” and “genuine” election largely depends on the interpretation of political pundits. Nevertheless, this understanding differs from country to country depending on its political culture and state of democracy. In a mature democracy these adjectives associated with a democratic election are taken for granted but in countries like Bangladesh, these prerequisites associated with genuine elections are not guaranteed and are to be interpreted as per an individual's personal understanding. Terms associated with elections are often “difficult to describe, imprecisely defined, and open to disagreement.” “The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights refers to 'genuine elections' but does not provide a working definition of the phrase nor does it provide a breakdown of the indicators or means to achieve them” (ACE Electoral Knowledge Network).
Nevertheless, based on empirical studies and firsthand knowledge of the electoral process in Bangladesh, these terms need to be defined within the appropriate context. There has been a gradual deterioration in the electoral processes in the last five years. Therefore, these attributes assume greater importance in assessing the upcoming election. There are national and international laws that can give us an idea of a “genuine” and “democratic” election—but in Bangladesh you have variations such as the topic of election-time government which remains a disputed issue.
The term “free” is associated with electors (voters) and candidates throughout the pre-electoral and electoral period. These periods have a deciding role in an election being “fair”. Evidently, there has been no even playing field during the pre-electoral period (the period up until the announcement of the schedule). Ironically, the pre-electoral period was dominated by the ruling party. The government which is mainly responsible for maintaining a balance failed to do so. Certainly, it has an effect on the electoral period that we are already in. The violent incidents in Nayapaltan on November 14, 2018 are a manifestation of that, whereas the EC tolerated the ruling party's “showdown” while buying party nomination papers in contravention of Section 44B(3A)(g) and (i) of the RPO and spirit of the Code of Conduct. If and how such acts affect the campaign period remains to be seen.
For an election to be “free”, the campaign period should be equally free and for that an atmosphere that provides a level playing field has to be established. Each participant should be able to, within given constraints, campaign without any hindrance or intimidation and be free of partisan behaviour of electoral administrators. The electoral period, from the schedule to validation of results by the EC, can negatively be swayed by the ambience of the pre-electoral period if the government of the day fails to provide a level playing field to the opponents. Yet it is the duty of the EC to ensure a free and fair atmosphere during the campaign to the best of their ability. However, in most cases, particularly since the 2014 election, the campaign period has been marred with corrupt electoral practices which went beyond the control of the EC.
While emphasising the paramount importance of electors' role in a democracy, Winston Churchill said, “At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy, is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper.” He referred to the fact that an elector must be allowed to exercise his or her choice and vote “freely” without any intimidation and fear to lay a legitimate base for democracy. But of late such an atmosphere has been absent in our elections, both national and local, in the last five years. Voters were intimidated, and obstacles created so that they abstained from voting. Corrupt practices such as “booth jamming” and ballot stuffing were resorted to. Other discouraging acts were witnessed too such as a short supply of ballot, booths being captured with impunity, and voters being forced to hand over ballot papers. One such example was the 2014 election where attendance was less than 10 percent and 40 centres went without a vote cast. This phenomenon continued in all elections thereafter. Gradually, voters, particularly women and marginalised voters, lost interest in voting. There was no semblance of a “free” election that calls for “free expression of people's will to choose.” Election administrators failed to control the entire electoral process.
A “fair” election is one where voters' choice is truly reflected or translated into results without any manipulation at any stage. But there are numerous past examples where results were manipulated, particularly while counting at the centre. Most often than not, counting agents of opposing candidates were barred from the counting centre and, in most cases, corrupt officials either forged or forcibly obtained tabulating sheets before voting closed. Empirical studies and personal observations show that Returning Officers (ROs) rarely resorted to recount on genuine complaints of opponents while consolidating and validating results. These immoral and corrupt practices question the fairness of election results.
The overall credibility of an election depends on how voters, the general public of that region, constituencies, civil society, national and international observers and participating political parties perceive the election. However, in Bangladesh, election results have given rise to questions even when such results were largely accepted by voters and the public in general.
The parameter of a free, fair, credible and genuine election and standards set by the United Nations Official Document A/66/314 “have been endorsed in a series of authoritative conventions, treaties, protocols, and guidelines by agencies of the international community, notably by the decisions of the UN General Assembly, by regional bodies such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Organization of American States (OAS), and the African Union (AU), and by member states in the United Nations. Following endorsement, these standards apply universally to all countries.”
We, as a member of the UN, are also party to these conventions, susceptible to international scrutiny and bound to hold free, fair, genuine, and credible elections for which EC and the election-time government are responsible. For EC the 11th parliamentary election would pose unprecedented challenges for multifarious reasons, mainly because of the constitutional changes in Article 123 (time for holding elections). Therefore, both the government and the EC have to act in a mature manner. Particularly, the EC must anticipate the challenges and be prepared to face them. The country can hardly endure another “flawed” election. The nation deserves a good election where the voters' choice will be truly reflected.
M Sakhawat Hussain, PhD, is a retired army officer, former election commissioner of Bangladesh and currently Honorary Fellow, South Asian Institute of Policy and Governance, North South University. Email: email@example.com