The Election Commission (EC) must be above question. But to be so, it must answer all questions. To ignore, evade, downplay or malign citizens who ask the questions is the surest way to sow doubt in the public mind that an attempt is being made to hide, something that is neither good for the EC and definitely not for the future of democracy.
The EC oversees the most crucial of events in a functioning democracy: the national and local elections. It is through that act that people's "will" is expressed, public representatives are chosen, the central institution in a democracy—parliament—is constituted, governance by the electorate (voters) is ensured, an elected government is formed, people's wishes get reflected, public mandate gets expressed, peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another takes place and, in case where the incumbent is voted out, public wrath is writ large. In short, everything in a democracy derives its legitimacy through the process of election. And the EC is solely responsible for making that election free, fair and truly representative. Any blemish on the EC is a blemish on the totality of the above process.
It is for this reason that our constitution gives such a pride of place to the EC and protects it from external influence. It is a constitutional body with its powers and responsibilities clearly delineated, and its functional independence guaranteed, making it a de-facto government in a limited sense during the process of election. The chief election commissioner and other commissioners are protected and cannot be removed from office without following the same process as in case of removing a Supreme Court judge. All this is done only to ensure that the election is free and fair in nature.
It is simply impossible to overstate the importance of the Election Commission. And in the same breath, it needs to be said that it is impossible to overstate the need for the EC to enjoy the highest level of credibility in the public eye. Like justice which must not only be done but also seen to be done, the Election Commission too must not only strive to achieve the highest level of integrity but also have that integrity tested through a stringent process of public scrutiny and accountability, especially in financial matters. This is the only way to gain and maintain public trust, which is a precondition for it to conduct credible elections.
The above introduction was necessary to understand and truly appreciate the importance of some highly respected citizens' recent appeal to the president of the republic to investigate corruption allegations against the EC. Forty-two (for us, one Serajul Islam Choudhury or Akbar Ali Khan should suffice) professors, teachers, past advisors to caretaker governments, former government secretaries, academics, senior economists, lawyers, bankers, doctors, human rights activists, civil society leaders and others—all prominent tax-paying citizens and voters of a democratic country—have appealed to the president to set up the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) under Article 96 of the constitution to investigate the allegations.
Why SJC? Because the EC, being a statutory body, cannot be investigated by the police, other law enforcement bodies or the Anti-Corruption Commission. Why the appeal to the president? Because only he can initiate the necessary process.
The allegations against the EC are of two distinct categories: a) election-related; and b) corruption-related.
Whether the EC did a competent job of holding a truly free and fair election as per law, whether it saw to it that all norms were complied with, whether it took all complaints into consideration and investigated them thoroughly to the satisfaction of all parties, whether proper post-election examination was made of all aspects of the elections, and whether the election tribunals discharged their duties well, are issues that require detailed examination and expert investigation. While in no way undervaluing their importance, we want to leave the above issues to the experts and to the more knowledgeable.
We, on our part, want to focus on the mundane, the prosaic, the more concrete—issues on which there should not be too much divergence of views as they are more fact rather than opinion-based. They can all be resolved by just going through the relevant papers of the EC. We want to focus on corruption allegations and the need to investigate them both to set the record straight and to maintain EC's credibility, whatever is still left of it, as some would say.
The allegation is that EC members paid themselves Tk 2 crores just for attending events and as "special speakers" about national elections. On this allegation, we have five points to make.
First, does the law permit them to accept any financial benefit from anybody, for any work and under any circumstances? If it does not, then they are clearly in violation of the law. If it permits it, then what are its parameters and have they been exceeded? The EC members' salary and allowances are substantial and cover all areas of their work. So why the extra payment?
The second point is about the amount taken. Even if there are provisions for taking "speaking" or "training" fees, can that amount to crores of taka? One particular official of the EC (a government servant) took more than Tk 70 lakhs as speaking and training fees.
Third, they spoke at training sessions for election officials to prepare them to properly conduct the elections. Isn't this an integral part of their job? So why the extra payment?
Fourth, they are supposed to have spoken at 520 places in 18 days, and in each instance, several of the commissioners were supposed to have been present—a task that appears humanly impossible to accomplish. EC papers show that such visits actually had not taken place. So what really happened? Would it be wrong to ask whether it was a case of false billing?
Finally, was no audit done for all the public money that was spent in connection with the elections? Isn't it mandatory that the money spent be audited? How could the EC not have its account audited?
Another set of corruption charges has been levelled by one of the members of the Election Commission itself, and it deals with staff recruitment involving Tk 4 crore. In his written submission to the CEC, the said election commissioner laid out his allegations in detail, putting his personal reputation and integrity on the line. His allegations merited serious consideration and an independent investigation. Anywhere else in the world it would have received far greater attention than it did in Bangladesh, at various levels including in the media.
There is an additional allegation of misuse of official cars by the CEC and some commissioners. They are entitled to two cars but they are using, or had used, three. Why they should need three cars and how it was shown in the log books of the commission is a question that can be verified easily, if there is the will to do so.
In Bangladesh, investigation of corruption allegations is done by state officials, none of whom have any autonomy of action, and hence it always ends up as a political decision. There are early signs that the petition of the 42 citizens to the president may also go in that direction. It should not. The EC is not a part of the government and the latter should not take the responsibility of defending the former's alleged corruption. The argument that any discrediting of the EC will delegitimise the elections that were held under it is a laboured one, and should not cloud the government's thinking.
I would like to conclude with a reminder that at this stage, we are talking about "allegations" of corruption, not "proof" of the said corruption. The distinction is important and we in no way want to ascribe guilt without investigation. However, the allegations are serious and mostly based on EC documents. We strongly believe that these allegations deserve to be looked into, and it is only through a professional investigation—and not any eye-wash—that the truth will come out and our claim that nobody is above the law will get some credible traction. And hence the appeal to the president.
The nation's eyes are on him now. Will he honour the citizens by listening to their grievances, or will he ignore their voices?
Mahfuz Anam is Editor and Publisher, The Daily Star.