Very recently, a think tank in association with electronic media arranged an animated discussion under the title “Political process and participatory election”, in a roundtable format at a local hotel. The speakers represented a cross-section of society that included, amongst others, journalists, rights-body activists, lawyers, election monitors, NGO personalities, cultural activists, academics, business leaders and public representatives like the City Mayor and prominent civil society members. They all agreed on the imperative of an inclusive and broadly participatory election in the interest of democratic and developmental progression of our polity.
Election, in essence, presupposes the participation of all recognised stakeholders and thus the prefix of 'participatory' in the title of the aforementioned discussion sounded significant. The significance obviously relates to the implicit realisation that the national election of the recent past was not, unfortunately, a desirably participatory one. Consequently, it was felt that the body politic has been in an uneasy state. This realisation may have prompted the think tank to organise a broad based discussion with a view to finding ways and means to ensure a constitutionally and morally correct election in the interest of a healthy democratic polity.
The speakers in the meet were quite eloquent in pointing to the primacy of election in our political progression dating back to the pre-1947 period and culminating in the historic 1970 election that decided our national identity and destiny. They were of the view that our people never faltered to give their reasoned judgment when the situation so demanded and that our democratic existence demands the holding of politically correct and credible election.
The crux of the matter lies in the trust factor. As such, cynics cannot be faulted when they say that the caretaker system is, in fact, a scathing indictment on the unreliability of our political class. To them the situation appeared ludicrous because although a five-year tenure could be run on a democratic system characterised by the primacy of politicians, elections were managed by a clearly non-democratic arrangement.
The question is, how have we created the apparently unbridled trust deficit? Is it the result of cumulative deficiencies of the regulatory institutions that we have allowed to grow willy-nilly at our own peril? A circumspect view would be that multiple institutions have not displayed the courage, fairness and firmness expected of them in ensuring propriety in conducting elections.
No matter under what arrangement—caretaker or party government—the elections are held, the determination and firmness of the executive branch has an overarching role in ensuring reasonably fair elections. Experience shows that the conduction of election is pre-eminently an executive function. The skipper, the National Election Commission, performs some judicial and quasi-judicial functions with regard to election matters but it is the unstinted support and loyalty of the district and police administrations coupled with the deterrent presence of the armed forces that largely determine the course of the election.
As per constitutional provision and administrative directives the Election Commission (EC), a constitutional body, enjoys complete command and control over the executive branch, including the armed forces in so far as it relates to the conduction of election. Therefore, the Commission can effectively energise field-level executive magistracy and law enforcement functionaries. On the ground it is the magistracy and police who deal with the specifics of election management like the selection of polling agents, safety and security of ballot boxes and polling centres and ensuring a peaceful environment.
Before and during election, some judicial officers under the direction of the EC acts against electoral malpractices, but again, it is the executive branch that, on account of their full-time presence on the ground, can play an effective deterrent role in preventing and punishing electoral malpractices of all descriptions.
In most democracies the incumbent political government oversees the election after reducing its size to the bare minimum necessary for carrying out routine work. Constitutional bodies, the services and regulatory institutions do their mandated job to smoothly conduct the election. Everything operates normally, as has been the case in the recently conducted general election in the neighbouring West Bengal State of India.
In Bangladesh, however, owing to reasons that are well-known, we cannot put our faith in the normal arrangement. The suspicion, therefore, is, have those institutions that ensure fair election been adversely incapacitated? If that is so, how did it happen? Additionally pertinent is the question as to whether the proposed strengthening of the EC would guarantee fair election.
It is relevant to note that the civil service of the republic owes its loyalty to the government of the day, irrespective of political party, and it is imperative that it avoids creating the impression of being politically biased. The civil servants are expected to conduct themselves in such a manner that they deserve and retain the confidence of ministers and are able to establish the same relationship with those whom they may be required to serve in some future administration.
The above is the desirable course, but the ground reality is the steady erosion of bureaucratic ethos and politicisation of the service. Professionalism, competence and honesty, the hallmarks of a hallowed system, are allegedly giving way to cronyism and pliability. Favours are being given to so-called loyal and partisan officials who unlawfully please their superiors. In such a situation it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep faith in the impartiality and integrity of public servants who are crucial in ensuring fair election.
The need, however, is to ensure that public servants are not preoccupied with inconsequential matters to the detriment of national interests. This is paramount, because in our situation public leaders are publicly expressing doubts about the neutrality and integrity of vital organs of the state whose functions can neither be arrogated to others nor be privatised. Therefore, fears about whether the election would be fair needs to be allayed.
Morbidity and mordant behaviour will only paralyse the nation. Therefore, our conscientious mandarins, of present and yesteryears, howsoever small they may be in numbers, in their responsibilities as appointed representatives of our republic, need to rise to the occasion and sustain our fledgling democracy.
For our democracy deficits to gradually lessen and disappear, the political parties have to make the crucial choice between absolute power on the one hand and the restraints of legality and the authority of tradition on the other. They have to decide on whether to constitute a moral association maintained by duty or a physical one kept together by force. They have to decide whether executive action that violate the rule of law has to be tolerated and if the balance between legislature, executive and the judiciary has to be rudely shaken.
The fundamental problem of constitutionalism in our situation has been that the key players have not accepted the rules of constitutionalism. In fact, the credibility of the entire structure has been called into question because the most influential actors who operate the levers of power have disturbingly breached the rules. There have been unsure attempts to engage the accountability mechanisms, but in the process, the authority of the constitution has sadly been dissipated.
Muhammad Nurul Huda is a former IGP and columnist of The Daily Star.