What we mean by a fair election

What we mean by a fair election

As the national election approaches, many questions are creeping into the minds of the concerned citizens and ordinary non-partisan people and voters. One of the key questions is, will the upcoming election be a credible one or, as renowned scholars use the term, a “flawed” or a “failed” election like in 2014? No doubt that the 2014 election, as per minimum international standards, “failed” because of non-participation of a large number of political parties including one of the main parties, BNP. It even failed within the parameter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which calls for, among other things, the right of all eligible electors to vote, genuine election, and election reflecting the free expression of the will of the people.

In the backdrop of that bitter experience of 2014 and the prevailing uncertain political scenario, the other question haunting the general public is, even if the election is inclusive, will it be “contested”? Will voters be able to vote for their chosen candidates? These are pertinent questions no doubt but tough to answer in unpretentious terms.

If elections are “flawed” or “failed”, the foundation of democracy becomes weak and the government produced by such elections is termed, by social and political scientists, as a “hybrid” democratic government. Professor Dr Pippa Norris of Harvard Kennedy School posits that a “hybrid government” can neither be “fully autocratic” or “fully democratic” in character and such a government depends on coercive state power rather than people’s power.

Scholars suggest that the political activities during the entire electoral cycle, particularly the political atmosphere in two main segments of the cycle, would indicate the quality of the next election. The electoral cycle is defined as “the period between one election and the next election” and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) divides the entire cycle into three main segments or distinct phases: the pre-election period, electoral period and post-electoral period. This entire cycle is the centre of “electoral governance” where three main institutions, apart from strong players, are involved. These institutions are the Parliament that makes, amends or expands the electoral law; electoral management body (EMB), which in our case is the Election Commission, that plans and executes the electoral law and is responsible for seeing that the conduct of the election is within the bounds of the Constitution and electoral law; and the judiciary which resolves election disputes. Resolution of electoral disputes is the culmination of the electoral process. However, the EMB (the Election Commission in our case) is the central institution of electoral governance.

Notwithstanding the important electoral governance institutions, there are other players or stakeholders who play a major role and operate within the electoral cycle. These are the government, political parties, civil society, and the media, among others, that play a crucial role. The most important of all is the ruling party and the government, and in the case that both are blended together, it is the government, more so in unitary government, that plays a critical role during the entire electoral cycle, as it is the government that is responsible for creating the enabling conditions for elections. As Dr Pippa Norris points out, whether an election is “flawed” or “failed” can be measured during the entire electoral cycle and through the role played by the government in power. Nevertheless, I feel that these ingredients of measurement could be phased in accordance with each stage of the electoral cycle.

Dr Norris, in her book Why Elections Fail, lists numerous types of “flaws” throughout the electoral cycle. I took the liberty of categorising them along with some additional flaws that I observed through my own experience. Flaws that are mostly observed in the pre-electoral period are: (1) opponents are disqualified, mostly through the use of partisan courts; (2) gerrymandering of constituencies while redrawing boundaries; (3) muzzling of independent media; (4) officials abuse state resources; (5) level playing field not ensured; (6) opponents are not allowed to hold rallies and meetings; (7) airwaves favour incumbents; (8) use of government facilities for advance campaigning; and last but not least (9) skewing the electoral law. This is obviously not an exhaustive list.

These flaws that take place during the pre-election phase cast shadows and linger into the election period leading to the voting day. These flaws, which can be observed particularly in countries where democracy is yet to take root, could result in a “flawed” election. The flaws often seen during the electoral period are: (1) distorted level playing field during campaign; (2) voter intimidation; (3) stuffing of ballot boxes; (4) abuse of power by polling officials to favour a candidate; (5) votes are bought; (6) use of muscle power to capture booths; (7) issuance of more than one ballot paper; (8) lengthening the voter line to slow down voting; (9) partisan behaviour of law-enforcing agencies; (10) intimidation of minorities; (11) running out of ballot papers; (12) inaccurate counting to favour a particular candidate; and, most importantly, (13) EMB’s failure to rigorously implement the electoral law and code of conduct.

Lastly, in the post-electoral period, courts fail to resolve election disputes properly and within the stipulated time.

Scholars suggest that within this framework, elections could be measured for their quality. And pre-election flaws may lead to the conclusion that a certain election will run the risk of being “flawed” and may result in an “electoral failure” which may then lead to an internal dissension and political consternation.

For Bangladesh the next election is crucial both for democracy and establishing a positive electoral culture. Neutral observers would measure the upcoming election within the framework discussed. So far, it does not paint a rosy picture. The pre-electoral phase seems to be dominated by the party in power which, in recent days, has been giving the opposition limited space. This can spill over to the next phase, which is the electoral period—ultimately putting a lot of stress on the EC. EC would be left alone to handle these challenges. And just how prepared this institution is, is something that remains to be seen.

The country can ill afford yet another “flawed” election. Nonetheless, ordinary people remain hopeful that the next election will be credible and all-inclusive. Let’s hope that all political parties in the field realise that Bangladesh will progress much more rapidly if a stronger democratic culture is established. After all, as political scientists say, democracy is the tool for the sustainable progress of any country, be it developed or developing.

Brig Gen M Sakhawat Hussain, PhD, is a former election commissioner of Bangladesh and Honorary Fellow, SIPG, NSU.

Source: The Daily Star.