The EC must play a decisive role to strengthen democracy
Published : Tuesday, 16 January, 2018 at 12:00 AM Count : 11852
The Election Commission (EC) is one of the most vital entities of a democracy to ensure free, fair and credible election. In Bangladesh the EC has gone through numerous challenges and faced heavy criticisms while performing its duty. It endures tremendous pressure from government, opposition and even from the people as holding a free and fair election is not easy in Bangladesh due to the enmity among political parties.
After liberation in 1971, 12 Chief Election Commissioners took office and 10 national elections under 10 of them had been held in this country -- and in most cases, the Chief Elections Commissioners (CEC) along with Election Commissioners were accused of not performing their roles in an unbiased manner. They failed to do their job efficiently despite having sweeping powers granted by the Constitution for conducting a credible election. Only if the EC can operate independently, the elections will be acceptable to the political parties and the people.
EC's formation is guided by the article 118 (1) of the constitution which categorically says, "The appointment of the Chief Election Commissioner and other election commissioners shall, subject to the provisions of any law made in that behalf, be made by the President." But Article 118 (1) cannot be read in isolation from the constitution's article 48 (3) that clearly says, "In the exercise of all his functions, save only that of appointing the Prime Minister pursuant to clause (3) of Article 56 and the Chief Justice pursuant to clause (1) of Article 95, the President shall act in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister."
The political parties manipulated EC formation laws in their favour to place members to serve their interest best. Hence, we had election commissioners from different backgrounds with certain question mark on their becoming loyal to certain parties.
We must consider if the potential member understands the concept of independent Election Commission, a power bestowed upon by the Constitution, when we consider him for the Election Commission of Bangladesh.
The Election Commission holds a separate secretariat. Members of the EC need to act to maintain principles of the institution identified as independence, unbiased, integrity, transparency, efficiency, professionalism, accountability and commitment to relevant stakeholders. Without maintaining these qualities, EC cannot develop a strong base which has already been evident several times in Bangladesh.
With Election Commission consisting of more than one person, the CEC acts as its Chairman and the term of an Election Commissioner is five years. A person who has held office as CEC is not eligible for appointment in the service of the Republic.
Other Election Commissioners, on ceasing to hold such office, are eligible for appointment as CEC, but not eligible for appointment in the service of the Republic.
Article 118(4) and 126 of the Constitution along with Article 4 of the Representation of the People Order, 1972, defines the power of the Election Commission which declares it to be an independent constitutional body in exercising its functions and subjected only to the Constitution and any other law.
Article 126 of the Constitution and Articles 4 and 5 of the Representation of the People Order, 1972 provide that all executive authorities to assist the Election Commission in the discharge of its functions assuming that as their duties. The Commission has the power to require any person or authority to perform such functions or render such assistance for the purpose of election as it may direct.
The role of Election Commission is simultaneously highly diverse as well as focused as its only priority is to hold free, fair and credible elections. It oversees parliamentary national elections, local elections as well as referendums throughout Bangladesh. It has extensive powers to manage, oversee, and regulate the electoral process.
The Election Commission has to register the political parties. A law regarding this registration process was enacted in 2008 and around 42 parties have got registered with the Election Commission till now enabling them to practice democracy inside and outside the party. The commission can also investigate the finances and donors list of all registered political parties.
The EC performs an important role by prohibiting the publication of results of opinion polls or exit polls preventing influence on the voting trends. They also have the quasi-legal powers as a law enforcement agency to investigate and indict someone for compromising election laws through bribery, corruption, vote buying or blackmail.
Modern election commission's role is no more election administration but electoral governance including reform of rules, rule for implementation and adjudication including adjudication of complaints and validation of results. Additionally, the commission is involved in maintaining and updating the electoral database and national identity card (NID).
Another major responsibility of the EC is to look into the background of the party nominated candidates in an election and finding out their eligibility to participate in election fulfilling all legal requirements.
With so many laws and massive power, the election commissions in Bangladesh terribly failed several times to meet the expectations of the people and the political parties.
Justice M Idris was the first CEC of independent Bangladesh who held the 1973 national election, a successful one under democratic governance. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman led Awami League to win and earn landslide majority in that.
Justice A K M Nurul Islam as the CEC conducted the national election of 1979, failing to create level playing field for all political parties under the autocratic regime of President Zia. Justice Chowdhury A T M Masud as the CEC held two national elections, far away from democratic norms, in 1986 and 1988 under former President H M Ershad's autocratic regime. Next CEC Justice Sultan Hossain Khan could not hold any national election in his short office.
Justice Md Abdur Rouf was the CEC in the most democratic and competitive election of 1991 that restored democracy after 15 years. After that Justice A K M Sadeq was highly criticized for holding the one-party election of Begum Khaleda Zia in February 1996, which failed to keep her in power even for few months.
A new EC was formed with former Secretary of Ministry of LGED, Ministry of Jute, Senior Member of Planning Commission and former ambassador of Bangladesh in Japan and Philippines Mohammad Abu Hena as the CEC, which held another national election in June, 1996, leading Sheikh Hasina to form the government.
Former Secretary of Ministry of Home Affairs, Education, Agriculture, Fisheries and Livestock, former Director of World Bank in Washington and former Chairman of Securities Exchange Commission M A Sayed, 8th CEC of Bangladesh, held the national election of 2001. Later Justice M A Aziz as CEC failed to hold the scheduled election in January 2007 for chaotic political situation.
A T M Shamsul Huda, former secretary of Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Finance and former Managing Director of Bangladesh Agricultural Development Bank, became the 10th CEC of Bangladesh and held the national election in 2008. He is commended for providing few excellent suggestions for the reform of the election commission though not implemented.
Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmed, former secretary of Ministry of Primary and Mass Education, Ministry of Information, Ministry of Education and former Secretary to the Bangladesh Parliament, became CEC in February, 2012.
He was controversial in holding the national election in 2014, boycotted by BNP in an attempt to create a favourable field only for them failing to gain people's support. Hence, Awami League came into power for consecutive second term.
Currently K M Nurul Huda, former Chief Executive of Dhaka City Corporation and former Joint Secretary of Ministry of Environment and Forests, is the CEC of Bangladesh. The President sat with 31 political parties and received the proposed names for CEC and ECs from them.
A search committee consisting 16 prominent citizens scrutinized and proposed candidates to the President. Later President Abdul Hamid appointed K M Nurul Huda as CEC. Hopefully, his office will hold the next national election at end of this year or in early 2019.
Despite having sufficient laws ensuring the independence and power of the Election Commission in Bangladesh, the CEC and ECs had been criticized mostly for having failed to hold free, fair and credible election due to their loyalty to the ruling parties. But we have never seen any CEC to resign willingly accepting their failures, instead they remained unaccountable and unmoved.
Manipulation in forming EC occurs as we lack a set rule to form EC like our neighbours India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and most others countries. No debate arose over the EC in the past 6 decades in India. But we had debate almost every time, especially after restoration of democracy in 1991.
If the election commission is not formed properly with the CEC and ECs acceptable to all parties and the people and cannot perform their duties independently, efficiently and effectively, then it will contradict and fail the concept of democratic governance.
Democracy cannot sustain if the free, fair and credible elections are absent and for that, the role of election commission is decisive. So, we hope the Election Commission works independently and successfully to hold the next parliamentary election, and the whole country is eagerly looking forward to that.
The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA) and Vice-Chairman at Democracy Research Center (DRC)