Shouldn’t the EC be saying how it will make elections free and fair?
As the mainstream political parties have been engaged in endless squabbling on how the next general election can be a credibly fair and inclusive one, our law minister, Anisul Huq, has informed Jatiya Sangsad that the Election Commission has already formulated its work plan to make the upcoming election "transparent, free, fair, and peaceful." The law minister further said that the EC wanted to ensure equal opportunities for all parties in the elections and that no government agency would file any case to harass anyone. He informed the lawmakers that the EC had finalised an 11-point decision for the next election.
The decisions he listed are nothing special or unique. The only one that's probably new is the move to appoint more qualified officials from the EC as returning officers. Other decisions – such as preventing attacks on candidates, their supporters, houses and business establishments and taking swift action as per law if such a incident happens, conducting drives to recover illegal weapons, ensuring equal treatment to all candidates, taking disciplinary action against violations of electoral laws and rules as well as bias shown by officials – have been in the rule books for ages.
One may wonder why we haven't heard about these decisions from the Election Commission first, instead of the law minister. Shouldn't decisions about the rules regulating elections and the electoral code of conduct be coming from the EC itself? If the law minister was right that these decisions were the EC's, then they are not part of any legislative business. It rather raises unnecessary suspicion about the government's role in the EC's decision-making process.
Since the law minister's statement about the EC's decisions followed his placing of the Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill, 2023, which has widely been seen as an attempt to curb the EC's power, it makes critics of the government more suspicious.
One may wonder why we haven't heard about these decisions from the Election Commission first, instead of the law minister. Shouldn't decisions about the rules regulating elections and the electoral code of conduct be coming from the EC itself? If the law minister was right that these decisions were the EC's, then they are not part of any legislative business.
Despite the government's claim that the amendment would empower the EC to cancel or postpone voting at one or several polling centres in face of unwarranted circumstances during the election, in reality, if the bill becomes law, the EC would no longer be able to cancel or postpone the election of an entire constituency. The current EC led by Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal, specifically sought such authority following sharp criticism from ministers and leaders of the ruling party after the annulment of Gaibandha-5 by-poll. In fact, though the EC retook votes in the entire constituency, it did not follow the rules of a fresh by-election, which should have required a new schedule and nomination process.
Another disturbing element in the proposed amendment is limiting the EC's authority by replacing the word "election" with "polling" in the provision that allows the EC to stop polls at any stage of the election if it is convinced that it won't be able to ensure the conduct of the election justly, fairly, and in accordance with the law due to malpractices, including coercion, intimidation and pressure. Though replacing the word "election" with "polling" appears to be innocuous, it severely curtails the EC's power in taking drastic actions, like postponing the election in a constituency in the event of serious disturbances or electoral violence during the whole electoral process, except on the polling day.
The proposed amendment alone would leave the EC in a precarious position in which it would be impossible for them to enforce its 11-point decision, which the law minister wanted us all to believe is a recipe for making the upcoming parliamentary election free, fair, and peaceful. The law minister's portrayal of these decisions as the proof of intention and ability of the EC to deliver a credible and fair election, however, is a mere repetition of the policies, which didn't work in 2014 and 2018, largely due to the government's control and influence over the commission.
There's no reason to believe that the current EC has either the will or the ability to act independently seeing as their appointment has been plagued with controversies. It gets even more complicated when a partisan government lacks trust from other contending parties, who have been demanding that the next election must be held under a non-party caretaker government.
As I have argued before, setting rules of the game without all parties' consent may prove unwise; there's plenty of time to bridge the gaps in a political solution to the issue of holding a free and fair election. Instead of rushing through legislation and imposing decisions regarding electoral codes arbitrarily, which in reality hampers the democratic process by creating even more distrust, a national conversation should be initiated at the earliest. Without such a dialogue and a consensus, a credible and fair election will not be possible in Bangladesh.
Kamal Ahmed is an independent journalist. His Twitter handle is @ahmedka1