A citizen’s manifesto for Election Commission
In his first media briefing on Monday, February 28, the newly sworn-in Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Kazi Habibul Awal ticked almost all the right boxes. Speaking to the Election Commission (EC) press corps, he pledged to work with honesty and sincerity to fulfil his constitutional duties to hold free and fair elections in Bangladesh. He invited all political parties, especially the opposition, to stay on the electoral trail and participate in the polls—regardless of what happens—for the sake of democracy. He talked about restoring public confidence in the voting process and the need for a consensus among political parties, assuring them of "swift actions" in case of any election-related complaints.
As first media briefings go, this was a pretty uplifting statement, rooted in a desire to signal a new beginning. The CEC struck a hopeful note about the future, but was cautious enough not to oversell it by pointing out the fault lines. He even made, earlier in the day, a meme-inducing comment about having only blood pressure, and no other pressure at all.
Despite the positive vibe, however, one may be pardoned for having a sense of deja vu, and of stagnation, seeing how certain words and phrases have a way of coming back. We seem to be stuck in a time loop in which the same conversations keep happening. Imagine, for a second, travelling back in time to February 15, 2017, the day when KM Nurul Huda was sworn in as the chief of the 12th Election Commission. In his first public comment, he too talked about trust, neutrality and gaining the confidence of all political parties. He, too, promised to uphold their constitutional duties to deliver free and fair elections. Five years later, we all know how that ended.
This is not to cast aspersions on the new EC—which deserves the benefit of doubt despite how it was formed—or the CEC's sense of responsibility. But the repetitive nature of these conversations and promises is a sad commentary on how our present electoral system keeps throwing up the same problems over and over again. The disastrous tenures of the last two commissions should be enough to shake us into a new sobriety: the realisation that "it's not really working."
This is where the need for a revolutionary EC comes up.
Let me explain what I mean by revolution. I don't mean a large-scale revolution involving drastic changes—in how we approach the bigger issues of EC formation, election-time government, or the overall electoral exercise—which, frankly, are beyond the scope of the present EC. What I mean is a personal, doable revolution on the part of the election commissioners. This will see them make a conscious effort to: 1) reject the laissez-faire approach of their predecessors; 2) set individual examples of honesty; and 3) move the needle on much-needed institutional reforms that they should be able to undertake. In other words, they will just be doing their job. But since no one before seemed to know or care what that is, it will have the revolutionary impact of challenging the status quo.
Right now, the main task for the new commissioners is to restore public trust in the EC. There are at least three associated challenges: 1) Eliminating the reasons for the opposition's disinterest in engaging with the EC; 2) Ensuring that the ruling party will not interfere in its activities or the electoral process; and 3) Ensuring that the whole administration, not just election officials, remain impartial in discharging their duties.
But it's the EC's approach to these challenges that matters more now. As Albert Einstein famously said, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."
So, what does it mean for the new commissioners to reject their predecessors' laissez-faire approach? For one, not allowing bureaucratic deadweight to drive them off their path. Most of the new commissioners are former bureaucrats. They have been used to working in a milieu that demands adherence to orders from upstairs (their political masters)—which needs to change now, as they are accountable only to the public now. A conscious decoupling from that long-held habit would also mean breaking from the bureaucratic tradition of preferring norms to results.
For example, in engaging with the opposition parties, the bureaucratic way would be to invite them for dialogue. "The BNP has already said they will not join elections," the new CEC commented. "But can't we still sit with them? Invite them over for tea?" Good point. But this merely ensures the continuation of the formality of dialogue; it doesn't promise results. The opposition parties will need more than verbal assurance to be convinced of this commission's sincerity. With all the laws, rules and constitutional provisions at their disposal, it may be tempting to hide behind legal mumbo jumbo to avoid difficult questions of representation and fairness. This is where a revolutionary or result-oriented commissioner would make the difference.
What does it mean to set individual examples of honesty and integrity? For a commissioner, it means upholding the highest ethical and professional standards in all their conducts. It means taking a lesson from the distasteful allegations of financial anomalies raised against the last EC, or the allegations of lies, inaction, party favouritism and not doing the bare minimum to uphold the sanctity of their office.
As for undertaking changes within their institutional mandates, there can be any number of them, and the commissioners will have to decide what best serves the democratic process. Among some of the unresolved issues that come to mind are the concerns over using Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs). Or the demand for reforming the Representation of the People Order (RPO) to give EC field officials magisterial power to promptly deal with irregularities during national elections. (Traditionally, the roles of returning officers with magisterial power are given to deputy commissioners.) Or the debate about deploying the army to maintain law and order during elections. The EC can, with the help of independent experts, undertake some decisive changes that will help restore public confidence and combat election-related irregularities. The question, in the end, is not "if they have the power," but "if they have the will."
Unfortunately, the EC culture is built around following the letter, not the spirit, of the EC rules and laws. This, as we know from previous experience, rarely adds up to a spirit of reform and moving forward. Only a revolutionary mind, accountable to the people, can rise to the occasion, change how things are done at the EC, and get us out of the present deadlock.
Badiuzzaman Bay is an Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.