The mythical backbone of the Election Commission
For a democratic system to function properly, all elections must be free and fair so that the people's choices are reflected in how the country is run. That is the main essence of democracy, and the Election Commission has the single most important role to play in making sure that the polls held under its supervision are all impartial. During the period of an election, regardless of who is in power, the state mechanism should ensure the space the commission needs to function independently. At the same time, the commission should also be able to challenge any questionable action by the incumbent offices. Interestingly, apart from a few exceptions, such as the election commissions that staged the 1991 and 2008 parliamentary elections – two of the least debated elections in the history of Bangladesh – this ability or intention or courage (or however you may want to describe it) to challenge the incumbent authority has almost always been missing.
In 2013, BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia was addressing a rally in the northern divisional headquarters of Rajshahi. I was present there to cover the event. Speaking at the rally, the BNP chief said the then Election Commission (headed by Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmed) lacked an "upright spine."
What she meant by that was that the commission did not have the "guts" to challenge the ruling Awami League who, she alleged, was preventing a free and fair national election from happening.
But what followed that comment – the rebuttal from the then Election Commissioner Brig Gen (retd) Md Zabed Ali – created quite a buzz in the country's political arena.
Speaking to journalists at his Election Commission office, Zabed Ali said they (the commission) were fine and their spines were straight as they were working to ensure the same scope for all the candidates during the polls.
"See, I am 63 years old and I am fine. As per medical reports, my backbone is still straight," Zabed told journalists, standing up from his seat.
As humorous as this back and forth was, it also created controversy as to how an issue of such import was discussed so light-heartedly. And then we saw what happened in the parliamentary election that followed on January 5, 2014: a total of 153 candidates declared elected without contest.
There is another instance where the head of yet another controversial Election Commission was admitted to the hospital with "spine" problems in 2006. It later turned out that the then chief election commissioner (CEC), Justice MA Aziz, was literally hiding in the hospital to avoid finding replacements for his two deputies with whom he clearly had a difference of opinion regarding the "should-haves" before the parliamentary election scheduled that year. Eventually, the Aziz commission had to quit before carrying out the task they had been assigned.
With so many controversies, especially on the presence and alleged "absence" of a spine that has now reached mythical proportions, a comment about having an upright backbone by the current CEC, Kazi Habibul Awal, whose team is in charge of arranging and ensuring a free and fair parliamentary election, which is due in about a year and half from now, only dug up old memories about the past election commissions and their fabled spines. When your chief election officer has to say it out loud that his office has its backbone in the right shape, you know that something is not right there. Also, hearing such a comment, one can hardly be blamed for immediately starting to doubt the Election Commission's ability to carry out the primary task it has been assigned: shake off all fears and political intimidations and do what it needs to in order for the most popular and competent candidates to get elected in a fair manner.
Irrespective of what the CEC might be saying, the reputation of the EC's spine took a nosedive when it failed to rein in a ruling party lawmaker during the Cumilla city polls held in June. In what transpired as a blatant display of disrespect, Awami League lawmaker AKM Bahauddin openly refused to abide by the EC's orders to stay out of the city before and during the polls, and the commission could do nothing to enforce its own rule.
Incidents like this are what puts the current commission's "spine" under serious doubt, because in the ideal scenario, the Election Commission should be able to exercise a certain degree of authority over the law enforcement agencies to take care of anyone who may disrupt an election or stop it from being fair.
Our Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman will be remembered forever for his political heroics. But he may also be remembered for having the straightest spine a human being could possibly have – a spine that displayed uncompromising fearlessness and conviction for his ideals and beliefs, which enabled him to put everything at stake to drive his dreams home. If you want to know what an "upright spine" looks like, all you need to do is look into Bangabandhu's life. Once you do that, you will know how far the current Election Commission is from having an "upright spine."
Mohammad Al-Masum Molla is deputy chief reporter at The Daily Star.