An all-encompassing national election is a must

M. Serajul Islam

These days, those who think of the country and in which direction it is going are concerned about the next national election in a manner they have never been with any of the past national elections. It is now a matter of a few months that the Awami League would complete its five-year term and the country would have a new government through national election. What is supposed to be a normal democratic exercise is shaping to be anything but normal as the time nears for the voters to exercise their democratic and sovereign right to elect a new government of their choice.

The two mainstream parties, the ruling Awami League and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are fighting over the way the national election would be held. The Awami League wants the national election to be held under an interim government to be headed by the incumbent Prime Minister.

Futile to participate in such polls
There is genuine reason for the main opposition BNP to be alarmed that such a national election would be fraught with gross interference by the ruling party; so and it would be futile to participate in such an election. It therefore insists that the next national election should be held under a non-party government system for it to be free, fair and transparent. The fight, unless resolved, has all the potentials to send Bangladesh towards political disaster it has never faced since the country became independent.
The Awami League (AL) has already amended the Constitution (15th amendment) using its 3/4th majority in parliament to conduct the next national election under the interim government headed by the AL chief and PM Sheikh Hasina. In amending the Constitution, the AL ignored the Supreme Court ruling that had recommended that the next 2 national elections should be held under the Caretaker Govt (CG) system before the system is scrapped.
The Supreme Court was of the opinion that due to the conflicting nature of politics, it would be in the interest of the country to do so before holding national elections under elected government. The AL’s only argument for annulling the CG system is that unelected government cannot hold democratic elections. It did not care to explain why CG system was introduced in Bangladesh; its own role and reasons for demanding the CG system; the results the CG system brought for the country and whether it (the present AL Government) can be considered a legal and/or democratic government as the unelected CG conducted the election which brought the AL to power.
The way the bill for annulment of the CG system and its replacement for elections under the interim government was hurried through the parliament (it took a few hours to do so where all who were present were from the ruling party as the opposition had boycotted it) left many in doubt about the wisdom and intent of the ruling party regarding the next national election.
“Move to rig votes”
According to the news report dated 30 June, 2011, Bangladesh’s Parliament rescinded a 15-year-old requirement that general elections be overseen by non-partisan caretaker governments — “a move the opposition says could allow incumbents to rig the votes”.
The ruling coalition of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina pushed the constitutional amendment through Parliament with a vote of 291-1, well more than the two-thirds majority needed in the 345-member chamber.
According to the AP report, “Opposition lawmakers argue the new rules will allow Hasina to steer the result of the next parliamentary polls due in 2014.” “This will not be good for the future of our democracy,” said independent lawmaker Fazle Azim, the only lawmaker to vote against the amendment.
Te report continued, “Previously, prime ministers transferred power at the end of their terms to a caretaker administration that oversaw new elections. The provision was introduced in 1996 to prevent vote-stealing by incumbents”.
AL used one part of Supreme Court’s verdict
The BNP rejected the 15th amendment outright. They argued that the Awami League used the Supreme Court to serve its political ends; that it used one part of Supreme Court’s verdict and annulled the CG system but ignored the other part by refusing to hold “the next two national elections under the CG system”.
The opposition BNP had other strong arguments against the politically motivated nature of the annulment of the CG system. The BNP argued that the Awami League will not hold a free and fair election if those elections were to be conducted by an interim government headed by Sheikh Hasina. In making this argument, the BNP did not say anything new in the politics of the country. It simply reminded the people what the AL had argued in 1991-1996. At that time the AL had argued that it could not trust free and fair elections under an interim government headed by the BNP and that for national elections to be free, fair, transparent and democratic, the country needed to have a CG system.
The AL had taken to the streets and had made hartal after hartal a major strategy to force the BNP to accept its demand. In fact, in that period, the AL had called over 170 days of hartal during which the damages and destruction were widespread.
The AL also boycotted the Parliament at that time to force the BNP to introduce the CG system.
Politicised administration
The BNP also argued that under the present AL government, the administration has been politicized in a major way and the law enforcing agencies have also been likewise politicised; two structures crucial to hold a free and fair national election.
When the AL had pressured the BNP for introducing the CG system, the bureaucracy and the law enforcing agencies had not been as much politicised as it has been at present. At least, the AL did not accuse the BNP Government then the way the BNP is making the point of politicization against the AL government now.
The BNP also has a major issue over the Election Commission that would be expected to ensure fair and free national elections under an interim government to be headed by Sheikh Hasina as the Prime Minister. It did not participate in the process the Election Commission was chosen in which late President Ziaur Rahman had played a significant role.
The AL is making a case based on the way the Election Commission has conducted the local government elections to reject the BNP’s demand for restoration of the CG system. The AL has been reiterating this contention more forcefully after the recent elections in the four city corporations in which it lost to the BNP-backed candidates.
In the local elections held before these 4 elections too, the BNP had fared better than the AL. The AL has stated that as it has held free and fair local government elections and lost in most of these elections; therefore the BNP has no reason to feel that national election under it would be any different.
National elections are different
The BNP has not been convinced by this line of argument. It has claimed that local government elections and national elections are in different league and that in 1991-96, the AL had won important city elections in Dhaka and Chittagong but that did not encourage it at all to accept that the BNP was capable of conducting such free and fair elections at the national level. Thus in continuing to demand the CG system for national election, the BNP is arguing its case exactly as the AL had done in 1991-96.
The arguments of the two parties for and against the CG system notwithstanding, the local government elections and national elections are in reality not in the same league. To argue that because the local elections have been free and fair under the present government and the EC, the national election would also be likewise is not correct for a number of reasons.
Diametrically opposite
One, the stakes in the two elections are diametrically opposite. The stakes for the ruling party to interfere and turn the results in its favour in local governments are negligible. Victory in local elections does not give a national party the power to govern; the power to do pretty much what it likes.
Politics has evolved in Bangladesh in a manner that , being in the government gives immense powers to the Prime Minister, the Ministers or others in elected positions. It is also to those who are members of the ruling party and its various affiliated wings to act like the government and use its powers for personal benefits. In their direct and indirect involvement, these ruling party members exercise unlimited and unbridled power. In fact, the system that Bangladesh now has is an adulterated version of the US spoils system that has been deliberately allowed to go berserk.
Another important stake
There is another very important stake that the AL has in national elections; one that is very crucial to its motivation in winning it. Victory in the next national election is not just a return for it to office to continue to enjoy the perks of power and the benefits that go with it; it is also an insurance against threat of harassment, persecution and spending time in jail in case it loses it.
In the AL’s current term in office, the BNP leaders have faced harassment, persecution and time in jail in ways no opposition party leaders in Bangladesh’s political history have had. In addition, BNP leaders have also been taken on remand and tortured, something that has never been done to opposition political leaders in the past.
AL’s fears
The AL’s motivation to return to power is thus a strong one; it fears the same fate would befall its leaders if the BNP comes to power. As for the BNP, it has another strong motivation to stick to its demand for the CG system. All cases of corruption that were filed against the AL by the last CG/military-backed government were withdrawn when the AL assumed power. These cases were in thousands. Not one case against the BNP, also in thousands, has been withdrawn — while many hundreds more have been filed against them by the present AL Government. The BNP needs to have a fair chance of winning the next national election in order to save its members from being harassed and prosecuted on charges of corruption, majority of which are politically motivated.
The fact ignored
The AL has argued that as power under a CG system would be in the hands of unelected people, elections under it would be un-democratic. In making this argument, the AL has ignored the fact that the only free and fair national elections in Bangladesh have been held under the CG system; four in all where each parliament/government has completed its full five years in office. Those held under the system that the AL now wants have been rigged where the party in power blatantly interfered in ensuring the results in its favour.
Thus unelected people have favoured and sustained democracy better than have elected people. Further, despite its strong views that government elected through the CG system cannot be democratic; it has been silent about the fact that it was elected under such a system that was made even less acceptable by that CG being under the grip of the extra-constitutional forces, the military.
 Further, there is nowhere in any manual of democracy that says that only elected people can hold democratic elections. In most democracies, elections are held by independent commissions and institutions which are all unelected individuals where elected governments under which such elections are held have no power over election officials.
Rule of law, people’s rights
Democracy is a dynamic concept that is changing and developing all the time. Democracy in the context of the state in most general terms rests on two fundamental pillars. The first is the rule of law and the second is the right of the people to choose their government by free, fair and transparent election based on universal adult franchise. Within these two pillars, functioning democracies have resolved their concerns about undue interference in elections by the government conducting it by establishing electoral laws and electoral commissions comprising unelected people. They wasted no time or energy worrying whether elected or unelected people conduct elections because they have no fear that any force in the country, be it the ruling party or the government conducting and favouring the ruling party, can in anyway interfere with election.
Polls under party govt. were not fair
In Bangladesh unfortunately, elections under party government have historically not been fair or transparent. Ruling parties have blatantly used powers of the government to interfere and turn election results in their favour because of the poor state of the rule of law and the absence of credible election commission. In fact, that was the reason why the AL had demanded the CG system. That situation has worsened today.
Countries in similar situation as Bangladesh that fear government influence of the ruling party in national elections have looked at the CG system that Bangladesh developed and then annulled with positive interest.
CG in Greece, Nepal, Pakistan 
Pakistan just successfully conducted its national election under the CG system and Nepal is getting ready for its national elections under such a system. Believe it or not, the country that gave birth to democracy, Greece, has held national elections on June 17th under the CG system where the Head of the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court was the head of the caretaker administration!
Thus the BNP is arguing for the same that the AL had argued in 1991-96; a level playing field for free, fair and transparent national election that only the CG system can ensure.
Only, the developments in politics and the BNP’s predicament in the last five years have lent a great deal more justification to the demand for the restoration of the CG system than when the AL had demanded for its acceptance in the constitution in 1991-96. Public opinion in the country also favours the CG system for the next national election as the only way to bring the country back on the rails.
90 per cent people want CG system
An opinion poll recently conducted by the influential Bengali daily Prothom Alo has shown that 90 per cent of the people want the next national election to be held under the CG system. The result of this poll has been accepted by everybody except the activists of the ruling party. All electronic polls conducted by newspapers have favoured the CG system by the same margin as has all public opinion polls conducted by the TV stations.
Friends of Bangladesh have avoided getting involved in the controversy over the CG system. They have instead suggested that Bangladesh must have, in the words of the Canadian High Commissioner Heather Cruden, “free, fair, transparent “and “inclusive” national election for political stability and its future. Before her, the US Under-Secretary Wendy Sherman and the British Minister who visited Bangladesh recently had also suggested “inclusive “national election. In other words, they have all been unequivocal that the BNP must participate in the next national election.
The Canadian High Commissioner has asked the AL to show the political will to amend the Constitution to hold the “inclusive” national election. Today, the BNP is no less acceptable in public perception than the AL and perhaps more so after winning the city corporation elections that were fought on national issues by big margins. Therefore simple common sense should lead to the simple conclusion that the next national election in Bangladesh will not be free, fair, transparent or legitimate if the BNP boycotted it.
Ball is in the court of Awami League
Thus the ball is now in the court of the Awami League to take Bangladesh away from disaster over the issue of holding the next general election. As far as the people are concerned, they do not want their choice of the next government to be restricted to vote just for the Awami League that could turn the national election into rubber stamping it back to power. Without “inclusive” national election, the issue would be not whether Bangladesh would have a democratic election or not for such an election would be undemocratic if not “inclusive” by any definition as well as lose its legitimacy. More ominously, the issue would be whether Bangladesh would survive as a nation without “inclusive” national election for the dangers of not holding “inclusive” national election are too nightmarish even to conjecture.
Source: Weekly Holiday

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