Monday, September 22, 2008

For a Free Election


Even though the government and the Election Commission have carried out some reforms in the electoral process to make it free and fair, honest, competent candidates are still difficult to come by


In the last 16 years of quasi-feudal democracy Bangladesh has witnessed three parliamentary elections in which power has swapped hands thrice. Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, who ruled the country and their parties with an iron fist, led Bangladesh’s politics into a new level of violent confrontation, making the national parliament Jatya Sangsad ineffective. Even though both the parties bowed to people’s demand and established parliamentary democracy in 1990 after the ouster of Ershad’s dictatorial rule in a mass upsurge, the post of the Prime Minister (PM), in the hands of Khaleda and Hasina, quickly replaced the power of the president. Everything remained in the hands of the PM; it was she who called the shots; she could hire and fire anyone she deemed fit. Whereas in other Westminster democracies, the PM is only the first among the equals, in ours the PM has enjoyed absolute power. A new law has been promulgated to bar floor crossing; the standards of the MPs, in any case, have never been up to the mark. Buying and selling of party nominations have been rampant as some businessmen have seen the election as an opportunity to earn a quick million, a venture in which a one-time investment of one or two crore (paid directly to the Madam or the Netri) could bring both money and power, for the sheaf of paddy or boat has always been good enough to make a few thousands butterflies flutter in the stomach of the voters.

The aborted parliamentary election of the immediate past is a case in point. Both the parties have compromised with their political belief. A bad precedent has been set in which the Awami League has given nominations to shady businessmen who have discovered a new-found love in the ideology of the party, ignoring its own trusted leaders. A vulgar tussle has ensued between the party and Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party for the support of deposed dictator Gen HM Ershad with the latter promising to withdraw cases of corruption against him and the former agreeing to make him President for six months. It was, actually, the possible jail term of the former military ruler, who had already aligned himself with the AL that prompted the AL-led Grand Alliance candidates to withdraw their candidatures from the elections, which paved the way to the emergency; Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed-led caretaker government assumed office in the backdrop of a possible civil war-like situation, the dress rehearsal of which had taken place in October 2006, in which the capital witnessed a flurry of pitch battles between AL and BNP loyalists.

After assuming power in January 11 last year, the current caretaker government has set before itself the task of reforming the country’s politics. The Anti-corruption Commission has been revitalised; most major corruption suspects have been arrested; institutional reforms have been carried out. But the fact of the matter is these reforms are turning out to be inadequate and the risk is there that the country and its politics may slide back to the heydays of quasi-democratic dictatorship of the last 16 years.

The Representation of People Order (RPO) has rightly incorporated many changes that the people have been eagerly waiting for. While the new RPO empowers the Election Commission (EC) to scrap the candidature of any candidate, the system has some loopholes, through which the thugs and goons can resurface to influence the people’s verdict. The RPO makes it mandatory for the political parties to get registered with the EC to participate in the election, it also requires the parties to have in their constitutions that they do not have auxiliary organisations of students, teachers and workers, or overseas chapters. A good move though it is, it has drawn criticism from the parties, who call the provision undemocratic and unconstitutional. Even if the parties agree to this clause, chances remain high that their possible declarations will remain on paper; they will never sever their ties with these professional bodies. Implementation of this clause is going to test the patience and prudence of both the EC and the political parties.

Any person who is declared a war criminal by local or international courts, according to the new law, has been made ineligible for contesting the polls. But, the government has done nothing to probe into the war crimes, and bring the criminals to justice to make the upcoming election more meaningful.

The provision for a ‘No Vote’ is exemplary, 30 percent of it cast in an election, unlike the existing provision of 50 percent that the RPO has, should be good enough to scrap the election in a particular seat.

Another prerequisite for the parties that the EC has made to get registered with it is that they must maintain bank accounts in any of the banks and electoral donations of Tk 20,000 or more must be made in checks. The provision of fining the parties for violating this clause is set at Tk 10 lakh, which, given the magnanimity of the crime, is too meagre.

The toughest task of all, is, perhaps, to find honest competent candidates, something, as the political history of the region suggests, has to come from within the political culture of the country. The government has a lot more to do to create a level playing field for everyone, so that a free and fair election can take place at the end of the proposed road map. What lies between now and the peaceful transition to democracy is an abyss of darkness the kind of which we were mired in during the gory days of late 2006.

It is not expected to see the country, after all the efforts that the government has made, to go back to the days of anarchy and lawlessness. The current government is a constitutionally mandated one; its prime responsibility is to hold a fair election, which will be free from the power of money and muscle; a new parliament will rule the country where the presence of the corrupt and war criminals will not be dominant. The next election will be flawed if the corrupt and war criminals make their way to the parliament, like the way they have done in the previous ones. Our democratic future is hanging in balance; one only hopes that in the next four months the government will be able to sweep clean the junk that the others have made in the last three decades.