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OP-ED: For an assertive Election Commission, for restored values

  • Published at 07:00 am October 7th, 2021
WEB_Bangladesh Election Commission_Ballot Boxes_Syed Zakir Hossain_Edited_25.12.2018
File Photo: Bangladesh Election Commission-approved ballot boxes are being prepared for a local election this year Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

The EC should send a message out: It will brook no challenge to its authority from any political party or group

There is hardly anyone who will disagree with the civic body Shujon on the need for a good, powerful Election Commission to replace the existing one in February next year. In a democracy, or more specifically in a country trying to graduate to a full and purposeful democratic order, an Election Commission which knows its job and which knows how to assert itself is of critical importance. 

In Bangladesh, the manner in which an Election Commission can assert itself without prejudice to any political leader or party was demonstrated by the one headed by ATM Shamsul Huda in the period of the military-backed caretaker administration between early 2007 and early 2009. Huda and his colleagues Sakhawat Hossain and Sohul Hossain did a remarkable job, one that has not been matched by those who came after them. 

There is all the criticism we can level at the government which Fakhruddin Ahmed and General Moin U Ahmed presided over in that period, but what one cannot deny is the commendable measures it took in ensuring that democracy was elevated to a level the nation could be proud of, with the Election Commission and the Anti-Corruption Commission persuading citizens into believing that there was light at the end of the tunnel, that the principle of democracy as enshrined in the nation’s constitution would finally be the big reality in our collective life.

It is that instance which we recall today as we pore over the suggestions which have come forth from the recent Shujon roundtable on the question of the EC that will succeed the present one in a matter of months. The president of the republic will delegate a search committee with the power to delve seriously into the question of examining the record and background of the men and women who will constitute the new EC. That is perfectly within the ambit of political necessity, but the first step required here is for the country to be apprised of the background of those who will constitute the search committee. 

We expect to have on the committee individuals possessed of a deep understanding of the constitution and cognizance of all the buffeting the country has endured in the past many decades over the democracy question. The members of the committee necessarily must be men and women of impeccable ability and experience, with a clear knowledge of all the pitfalls the nation has been plodding through down the decades.

That said, the next chief election commissioner and election commissioners should be people whose reputation for impartiality in conducting themselves and firmness in warding off all attempts at influencing or intimidating the Election Commission ought to be paramount. 

The EC should right from the beginning send the message out, through the modalities of its work, that it means to be independent and that it will brook no challenge to its authority from any political party or group. The issue here will not only be for the EC to go out on a limb to convince the country that it is playing an impartial role but also to inform the political classes that it will not allow anyone to wade into its turf and dictate terms. 

A weak and pliant Election Commission is a mortal danger for democracy, for it is consistently willing to be silent when its authority comes under assault or is eroded. A powerful Election Commission keeps politicians and parties on their toes, indeed on edge, through using authority which respects no attempt to interfere with its work. The next EC should therefore be a body of some of the finest of our citizens, men and women whose integrity in public life has been beyond question. 

They should be individuals who should have the boldness to say “No” to politicians when a “No” becomes necessary. They should be people who can swiftly go into action anytime a political party or its elements try tampering with ballots, when political elements go into the sordid business of preventing other political elements from engaging in constitutionally-ordained activities.

A strong and independent Election Commission will be the best response to those who today demand that an election-time government, otherwise known as a caretaker or interim administration, be brought in to supervise the next general election. The concept of a caretaker government is no more part of the political system in the country and it need not be brought back, for the good reason that it is non-elected, it has no constitutional authority in affairs of state, and it is a misnomer in modern-day political pluralism anywhere. 

But, of course, one quite understands the grievance of those who yearn for the return of a caretaker administration prior to the next election. That grievance can only be addressed through the arrival of an Election Commission that will be regarded as an authentic guarantor of a free and credible election. 

It must now be the responsibility of the government to convince the political opposition as well as the broad mass of citizens that the new EC will be one of substance and will exercise unfettered freedom and power in conducting the election. That 53 eminent citizens recently called for the process of a reconstitution of the Election Commission to get underway ought not to be taken lightly. 

And, yes, democracy in Bangladesh as envisaged in the 1972 constitution came in lockstep with three other principles -- secularism, socialism, and nationalism. Since August 1975, the nation has been burdened with the puerile concept of “Bangladeshi nationalism,” an idea at cross purposes with the theme of Bengali nationalism that underpinned the nation’s struggle for autonomy and then independence. 

“Bangladeshi nationalism” is a blatant violation of the values of the War of Liberation and unless those values are restored through sweeping away the detritus of the August 1975-June 1996 period, democracy will remain in the eerie shadow of the polarization which has continued through the national failure to do away, legally and constitutionally, with this spurious idea. 

If parliament has been able to do away with such a notoriety as the Indemnity Ordinance, it might as well seriously go into cleansing the country of the bad legacy of extra-constitutional rule which “Bangladeshi nationalism” is.     

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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