In this age of democratic emancipation, the demand for a “free and fair” election has not remained confined to rhetoric only. Several studies have taken place to analyse and theorise the accepted standards of a free and fair election, against which the electoral system of a country can be assessed.
As Bangladesh is about to undergo an election which has caused not only controversy but widespread violence among the major political actors, it is pertinent to gauge the internationally accepted standards of free and fair elections to afford the major stakeholders an option to compare Bangladesh’s standards against it.
Among the major studies on which these standards were shaped, the first study was a White House-commissioned report by the US National Science Foundation, Internet Policy Institute, and the University of Maryland. The report was the product of a workshop in October 2000, in which political scientists, computer scientists, and election officials took part.
The second study was conducted in 1998 by KPMG for Elections Canada entitled “Technology and the Voting Process.”
The first principle of free and fair elections is the participation principle. This makes it mandatory that the electoral systems provide an equal opportunity to all citizens to participate in the electoral process and that they can access the ballot box.
The premise of this principle is that people should have the right to vote on a non-discriminatory basis, as opposed to a system that denies the right to vote to certain segments of the society in an arbitrary manner. However, this principle is subject to certain reasonable limitations and exceptions, such as age, mental sanity, criminal convictions, and non-nationals.
This principle also enshrines the right of citizens to form and participate in political parties and that these parties have the scope to contest in elections. There may be reasonable limitations placed before the parties can contest the elections, like registering and requiring a small deposit from candidates, in order to maintain the sanctity of the process and as a precaution against dummy candidates.
The second principle is the free-conscience principle. It means that voters must be afforded the opportunity to cast their votes without undue influence, intimidation, or coercion. In other words, voters must be allowed to cast their votes with a free conscience as opposed to being influenced or instructed into voting for a particular party or candidate. The system of secret ballots is the best mechanism to ensure that voters are not coerced.
The third principle is the election outcome principle. It lays the onus upon the electoral commissions to put up a system to accurately record, store, and count each vote, and accurately report the outcome. Electoral commissions must ensure that votes are not lost, intentionally disposed of, miscounted, or misreported.
The fourth principle is the knowledge principle. It requires that voters possess a minimum knowledge about the voting process, the candidates, and the political parties contesting the election. This principle is important for equipping the voters to make an informed decision.
The duty falls to the electoral commissions to educate voters about the electoral system, how to register to vote, and how to correctly fill out a ballot paper. In addition, the government and the electoral commission must ensure that the candidates and the political parties have the opportunity to express and publicise their policies and programs.
These principles are not static, but continue to evolve to embrace current international practices as well as community standards. For example, from the Roman time up until the mid-to-late nineteenth century, it was not only an accepted norm but a guiding principle of democracy and free and fair elections that voters declare their vote in a public forum
Today, it would be construed as an intrusion on voter privacy as well as inconsistent with the free-conscience principle, given the reprisals that could result from such an open system of voting.
It is rather unfortunate that Bangladesh is still in a nascent stage of democracy, in spite of achieving independence 42 years ago. Though our journey towards democracy has been chequered, we have reached the stage where elected governments can fulfil their full term without any unconstitutional or undemocratic intervention.
In spite of this achievement, Bangladesh periodically sinks into a deep political crisis, with a heavy toll on people as well businesses, on the modalities of election-time government. It is time that our major political parties come to a mutual understanding on what should be the standards of a “free and fair” election for which so many lives are lost every five years.