The shocking contempt of the EC by civil servants

Often, it has been said that the EC lacks any meaningful authority to discipline any insubordination by civil servants as they are only accountable to the executive branch. VISUAL: STAR

The rude disobedience shown by the field-level administrators – deputy commissioners (DCs) and superintendents of police (SPs) – to the current Election Commission (EC) has once again shown us what's wrong at the core of our election management mechanism.

On the one hand, it shows that civil bureaucracy is now out of control due to the politicisation of the institution and their lack of accountability. On the other, it exposes the receding authority of a constitutional body. The faltering EC's struggle to earn public confidence has just gotten even harder.

Despite Election Commissioner Rashida Sultana's bold attempt to brush aside the civil servants' grievous misconduct by describing the incident to Deutsche Welle (DW) Bangla as a "simple misunderstanding," the nature of the friction between the EC and the returning officers during an ongoing electoral process should not be allowed to be swept under the carpet. Though the meeting was held on camera, the description of the untoward incident published in the media seemed well-substantiated. The narratives coming from both sides, albeit anonymously, were remarkably corroborative.

According to these reports, Election Commissioner Anisur Rahman expressed his dissatisfaction over the civil servants' emphasis on increasing their benefits for poll duties, but their silence about allegations raised against the way electioneering for the zilla parishad polls is going on. Reports quoted Anisur saying, "There are allegations that the officials work in league with the MPs and ministers. Many, while taking part in the talks with the Election Commission, also raised allegations of the officials' bias… have our officials become toothless?" The commissioner alleged that magistrates did not get the budget allocated for them as fuel cost.

His comments caused some commotion inside the EC's meeting hall – something one can visualise at college campuses, but not at official conferences. Several DCs protested his statement. Anisur said he had proof of those allegations and he wouldn't speak if the officials didn't want him to. According to these reports, Anisur stopped speaking after some officials shouted "no." He returned to his seat and none of his fellow commissioners or the CEC, who was chairing the meeting, spoke about the unpleasant misconduct by such senior officials.

When the Election Commission has decided not to consider this undesired misconduct as a contravention of service rules, why should it matter to other common citizens? It matters, because it happened during a mini-national election, the zilla parishad election, scheduled to be held on October 17, in which all these DCs have been appointed as returning officers. We know how much power and authority these returning officers hold, and how their partisan activities have already been creating controversies. The Chattogram DC's infamous public prayer for the success of the ruling Awami League nominee during the submission of his nomination papers for the election is a good reminder.

Article 126 of the Bangladesh Constitution stipulates, "It shall be the duty of the executive authorities to assist the Election Commission in the discharge of its functions." There's no ambiguity in this provision that the officers of the state have to submit to the EC's authority, which clearly was not followed accordingly by those who have expressed dissent and forced one commissioner to give them instructions. Under the law, all these commissioners are equal and any attempt to isolate any of the commissioners and defy that particular commissioner is bound to be considered as a contempt of the commission as a whole. The CEC and other fellow commissioners of Anisur Rahman are constitutionally required to treat this incident as a defiance of the institution and act accordingly.

Often, it has been said that the EC lacks any meaningful authority to discipline any insubordination by civil servants as they are only accountable to the executive branch, i.e. the Ministry of Public Administration; in relation to police or law enforcement agencies, it is the Ministry of Home Affairs. The EC can, of course, ask these ministries to take disciplinary actions against the alleged offending officers, but there are plenty of examples where such requests were wilfully ignored. However, making such requests public can, at least, shame those offending officers and their political masters. Besides, removing them from electoral duties, which is fully the commission's discretion, can also make people aware about the mischievous behaviour of the offending officials and identify them.

Over the years, we have seen conferences of DCs and SPs take place as an annual event, but no one ever heard of any commotion at such an administrative meeting. Imagine a scenario in which the chairman of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), another constitutional body, was holding a similar conference of DCs to talk about corruption allegations. Would these civil servants even dare to stop the ACC chief from raising such allegations? Presumably, the answer will be a big no, and we all know why.

The reason behind the bureaucracy becoming ever more powerful is the rapid erosion in democratic governance and lack of accountability. When the ruling party relies more on the bureaucracy for electoral success, instead of winning the hearts and minds of the people, the end result can't be anything different. The most crucial question now is: will the EC do something to rescue whatever dignity of the institution still remains?

Kamal Ahmed is an independent journalist and writes from London, UK. His Twitter handle is @ahmedka1