Notwithstanding the serious questions raised about the credibility of Khulna and Gazipur city corporation elections, we had in the recent past free and fair elections in Narayanganj, Kumilla and Rangpur cities. An exceptionally fair election was held in Rangpur, that too under the present Election Commission (EC). Important lessons were learnt from the experiences of these elections based on which some reforms can be urgently implemented to make the coming elections credible.
Major stakeholders in elections are: the EC, the government which includes the bureaucracy and law enforcement agencies, political parties, media and civil society. The voters' ability to freely cast their votes is dependent on these stakeholders' ability to perform their respective roles. If the stakeholders do not, or are unable to, do their jobs, the credibility of an election is bound to be questioned.
However, the importance of the roles of different stakeholders varies. The role of the EC is most important in elections. In fact, the commission is created as a specialised institution to ensure free and fair elections to make the democratic polity functional.
Other major stakeholders include the government and the ruling party. It is once again clear from the recent elections that if the bureaucracy and the law enforcement agencies as well as the ruling party do not act responsibly, the EC is unable to arrange free and fair elections, and even important stakeholders like the media and the civil society are unable to play their expected roles. Thus, even if the EC's role is crucial, it is not sufficient for credible elections. However, the commission can use its constitutionally mandated power to prevent unfair elections by refusing to hold elections or stopping them, or cancelling, upon investigations, the election results. Thus, the honesty, courage and neutrality of the EC are the preconditions for credible elections.
It should be noted that election is a process, not a one-day affair. Incidentally, with elections being one-day, election-day affairs, “one-day democracy” is created, which is no democracy at all. The electoral process starts with the day after an election and ends after five years with the next election. The electoral process has many steps, and the integrity of these steps determines the genuineness of elections. Incidentally, under international laws and agreements such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Bangladesh is obliged to hold “genuine” elections. Thus, others can legitimately raise questions about our elections, as they can about our human rights situations.
The essential steps for genuine elections are: those who are eligible can become voters; those who are interested can become candidates; voters have credible alternatives before them; candidates and contesting parties can campaign freely; polling agents of candidates can perform their responsibilities without intimidation and harassment; voters have before them reliable information about the antecedents of candidates; voting is free of the influence of money and muscle; voters are able to freely cast their votes; no canvassing, intimidation or indiscipline in polling centres; accurate vote counting and declaration of the results; no governmental efforts to impede the verdict of the voters or punish them; and most importantly, the whole electoral process is credible.
If these steps are fair and upright, a level playing field is created for all contestants, paving the way for genuine elections.
The unfairness of some of these steps has made the credibility of the recent Khulna and Gazipur elections questionable. Based on these experiences, we therefore propose the following reforms to make the coming elections credible:
First, according to electoral laws, the nomination of those hiding information or providing false ones in their affidavits can be cancelled, and if elected, their elections nullified. In order to make our political arena clean, we recommend that the EC/Returning Officer (RO) scrutinise the affidavits, especially those of the mayoral candidates.
Second, in the parliament elections, candidates can challenge the affidavits submitted by her/his opponents by filing counter-affidavits. The same opportunity should be created for local elections and for all voters.
Third, the spirit of all our electoral laws is that during elections, the bureaucracy, law enforcement agencies and the magistrates engaged in electoral duties will serve under the direction of the EC/RO, which does not happen in reality. Therefore, the relevant laws—for example, the City Corporation Election Rules, 2010, sections 84 and 89—need to be made clearer in order to end the prevailing “dual rule” so that all relevant government functionaries and the law enforcement agencies operate under the supervision of the RO.
A concrete step in this regard would be for the commission to immediately issue a circular, similar to the one issued on June 24, 2018 preventing the arrest of any resident or voter of Gazipur without warrants, in order to create equal opportunities for all candidates contesting in the coming Sylhet, Rajshahi and Barisal elections. The circular should also make it clear that during the elections, no one should be arrested in these cities without the permission of the EC/RO. The commission should also strictly enforce section 81 of the rule to punish those who misuse their governmental positions to influence electoral results.
Fourth, the voting hours should be changed to 9-5 and the ballot box and ballot papers delivered to all polling centres in the morning rather than the night before. It is easy to make these changes in the summer and in the cities.
Fifth, while demonstrating that the ballot box is empty before the voting starts, a certificate to that effect containing the signatures of the polling agents of all candidates, unless waived by specific candidates, should be issued.
Sixth, the number of votes cast should be announced every hour and a certificate to that effect, containing the signatures of the polling agents of all candidates, should be issued.
Seventh, at the end of the vote counting, a certificate of the count containing the signatures of the polling agents of all candidates, unless waived by specific candidates, should be issued.
The EC has the power to implement the above reforms, as per Altaf Hossain vs. Abul Kashem [45DLR(AD)(1993)], in which the Appellate Division of Bangladesh Supreme Court unequivocally stated: “Election Commission's inherent power under the provision of 'superintendence, control and direction' should be construed to mean the power to supplement the statutory rules with the sole purpose of ensuring free and fair elections.” Our commission has also been given the power to frame rules. What is now needed is the sincerity of the commission.
Dr Badiul Alam Majumdar is the secretary of SHUJAN: Citizens for Good Governance.