A fresh start

What do the people expect from the new election commission?

A new election commission has been formed in Bangladesh. The chief election commissioner (CEC) and four election commissioners (ECs) were sworn in recently and they have already started to attend offices. Before the formation of the new election commission, an unusual enthusiasm was noticed among the stakeholders and the media, mainly because this is the first time the election commission was formed under a legal framework hastily enacted by the parliament on January 27, fulfilling a constitutional obligation that was long overdue. 

Now we come to the main topic. What do the people expect from the new election commission? The answer is very simple: The people want only fair elections at all levels. Nothing more is desired and nothing less is acceptable. In a fair election, all political parties and all candidates will have equal opportunities to contest the elections without any coercion or extra benefits. 

All registered voters will be able to vote freely, without interference by muscle or money power. All allegations of irregularities must be investigated impartially by the election commission and corrective measures taken promptly, if the allegations are found to be true. It should be remembered that like justice, fairness in elections must be seen to be done.

It is gratifying to note that the new CEC promised to hold free and fair elections while talking to the media during their visit to the national memorial at Savar on March 1, 2022 and also during subsequent interviews. But will simple promises convince all stakeholders that the elections will be fair? 

It is doubtful as many similar promises in the past failed to materialize. So to convince the stakeholders, the election commission must first demonstrate that it has the necessary will power to hold fair elections against all odds. The will power must come from within the election commission. Nobody can infuse it in anyone. 

This is the acid test. The CEC and the ECs must tighten their belts and pass this test.  

Second, they must come out with a genuine action plan to prove that they mean business. To make an action plan, they need not go too far. There are numerous examples of fair elections in neighbouring India. If the election commission carefully studies the election process in India and sincerely follows their system, I am sure they can hold fair elections in Bangladesh too. 

I would like to mention here that I was lucky to meet Dr S Y Quraishi, former chief election commissioner of India, in Dhaka on March 24, 2014 when he delivered a speech on “India’s General Elections–2014” at the CIRDAP auditorium. Our discussion centred on the caretaker government and neutrality of the election commission. 

He said, “There is no need for a caretaker government if you have a strong and independent election commission.” According to him, the government has virtually no function as far as elections are concerned and “the election commission assumes absolute supremacy over the administration during the polls.”I asked him if he ever faced any criticism about the neutrality of the election commission by any political party. He emphatically replied, “No, as far as I remember.” I was stunned by his bold and confident answer and wondered if India could do it, why couldn’t we? 

Dr Quraishi spoke for about an hour and later answered questions from the audience. He cited several interesting instances to show how the Indian election commission exercised its powers and maintained neutrality. He described how several chief secretaries, police chiefs, and senior officials of states had been transferred by the election commission, as they had been biased to a political party, and how some union ministers had to apologize to the election commission for violation of the electoral rules.

Dr Quraishi authored several books: one of which is An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election. I have not read the book but went through several reviews online. It is gathered from a review by Nagesh Kini (Moneyline online magazine dated May 14, 2014) that Gopalkrishna Gandhi, a former governor of West Bengal and grandson of both Mahatma Gandhi and Rajagopalachari wrote the foreword of the book. He says in his foreword that Dr S Y Quraishi has not only given us a “vivid portrayal of what makes India’s elections work and prevail over many obstacles that confront it,” but also “confidence and pride.” 

“The book is my modest attempt to unravel the myth and mystery behind the great election machine, the men and women who run the world’s largest democracy and the citizens who participate in it with great gusto,” says Dr Quraishi. To sum up, the book describes how the elections are conducted, how the challenges are overcome, and what motivates the people involved in this mammoth task.

I would suggest that our new CEC and four ECs read this book carefully, if they have not done so already. In addition, the CEC should invite Dr S Y Quraishi to Dhaka to lecture on how elections are held in India and to suggest what additional legislations are needed to empower the election commission of Bangladesh to the level of the Indian election commission. If needed, the CEC and four ECs may also visit New Delhi for a week or so to see practically how the Indian system of elections works.

Once their studies and understanding of the Indian election system are complete, the election commission of Bangladesh should draft a new bill entitled “The empowerment of the election commission of Bangladesh for holding free and fair elections-2022” and submit it to the ministry of law for legislation. 

With an absolute majority in the parliament, the present government should have no difficulty in passing the bill. If drafted properly, the bill may be passed unanimously in the parliament. The next step of the election should be to train and motivate sufficient manpower with necessary technical know-how to implement the action plan honestly and sincerely. 

If the bill to empower the election commission is passed and if the new election commission is sincere in exercising its powers to maintain its neutrality, there is no reason why they should fail to hold fair elections in Bangladesh. 

The new election commission has a golden opportunity to make a fresh start, no matter what other election commissions did in the past. It is hoped that the present and future  governments will cooperate fully with the election commissions of their time to show proudly that Bangladesh is not only capable of developing itself economically surpassing most of its neighbours, but is also committed to practice democracy in its true form. 

Dr Abdul Matin is a retired nuclear engineer and former professor at BUET.