EC’s big nothing: From a crowning moment to a humbling experience
Now that the Cumilla City Corporation (CCC) election is over and everything there was to see and hear has been seen and heard, we need to address the elephant in the room. No, it's not the dramatic turnabout that saw the ruling Awami League's candidate win by a razor-thin margin of 343 votes. Or his rival's rejection of the result and subsequent explanations offered by election officials. Or the chaos into which the meeting of rivals descended over the announcement of the result. Or the slow voting caused by EVMs. These problems notwithstanding, the election served up some good moments too, notable among them the absence of violence.
But election memories are notoriously fickle. Recency bias can get the better of us all, and all these moments from one election may soon be forgotten as more elections are held and all eventually shoehorned into mere statistics. The only thing that will probably last, at least in the public mind, is the impression we're left with ahead of the final test in December 2023. Will we feel confident going into the general election? Will we feel concerned? Or will we feel scared?
It is in this context that we have to address the elephant in the room. No, it's not the CCC election but the Election Commission itself, or more specifically, its shocking retreat in the face of opposition from a ruling lawmaker who defied its order to leave the city after violating the "code of conduct". His subsequent tutorial on how the EC should conduct its business only solidified any sense of helplessness the EC may have had, which it seemed to project in two phases: First by expressing its inability to make him leave, and then, on Monday, by further softening its tone through a U-turn on earlier claims of breach of code.
This remarkable turn of events is significant on several levels. First, when the directive was issued, many thought it would be the EC's crowning moment, staking its claim to the full range of its power as given by the constitution. In any turf war, you don't establish your superiority by scaring the odd mastan off but by making a statement move against the biggest/baddest of them. Election, in our part of the world, is but a turf war fought on the electoral space. Over the years, absent a strong opposition, the battle has been fought, silently and rather one-sidedly, between the ruling party and the EC – the real power vs the "perceived" real power, the partisan side vs the people's side. And the last two commissions, frankly, lost their fight as much as their dignity because they didn't have the courage to stand tall in front of it.
The EC directive thus signalled a shift in attitude, a willingness to finally fight back. The picture that emerged from this was of a team that was not afraid to be tough and to do whatever necessary to uphold the sanctity of their office. Fond parallels were drawn with an incident during the first election in Cumilla in 2012, when a minister was forced to leave the city after the then EC threatened to postpone the election if he didn't comply within an hour. If that commission could do it, we told ourselves, this one can too. After all, as experts say, sections 31 and 32 of the code of conduct empower it to mete out penalties for any violations, including the imposition of fines, jail sentence and even cancellation of the candidature of any candidate. Yes, it can even postpone an election too.
But in the end, the EC's big moment turned into a big bag of nothing. Worse, it ended up being a humbling experience for it as it was forced to retract its allegations. The EC even appeared to be apologetic for the inconvenience caused to the lawmaker. You don't see this level of effort or concession when the pride of an opposition leader is hurt. This, in the coming days, will be used as an example of defeat in the EC's first real negotiation with power, and a reference point for any such defeat from here on. And the memory of how powerless it made citizens feel will stay with them.
This is the kind of events that set narratives, or rather, override them. If the EC wanted to establish a narrative that it can deliver a "peaceful, fair and transparent" election – to quote the CEC – it has been overshadowed by the more powerful image of its surrender when faced with real power. When the two images are put side by side, what we have is cause at once for short-term relief and long-term horror.
Relief, because of the experience of an election without violence, if not without hassles. Horror, because of its dire implications for the future of the Election Commission and the electoral system in general.
When the present commission was installed in late February, there was no doubt in anyone's mind about what should be expected of it: to restore public confidence after two highly controversial general elections that tainted Bangladesh's image globally and caused indescribable suffering. The EC, thus, has a very clear role to play: Undo the damage. Damage done to the electoral system. Damage to the voters' trust. Damage to how other stakeholders, including the administration and political parties, approach elections. And damage to the idea of EC itself.
No one said it would be an easy task. But having clarity of purpose can be a source of comfort. And we were led to believe that it can be a source of strength too. All the newly appointed commissioners including the CEC spoke in unison as they vowed to bring opposition parties back to the campaign trail and citizens back to the voting booths, with their trust restored. Perhaps the EC should remember those vows now. It should understand that undertaking real change requires courage. It requires doing away with the old, bureaucratic ways of doing things. It requires challenging the status quo.
Badiuzzaman Bay is an assistant editor at The Daily Star.