Comprehensive solution needed

 

The president has initiated a dialogue with political parties to ensure that the appointments of the next batch of election commissioners are acceptable to all concerned. We are pleased that the opposition BNP has decided to join the dialogue. We thank the president for the initiative.

Some political parties recommended the formation of a search committee to identify eligible persons for appointment to the EC. A few months ago the EC also made a similar proposal, to which the ruling Awami League paid no heed. Our experience shows that partisan individuals often get appointed to constitutional and statutory bodies despite the use of search committees.

Past experiences also show that search committees sometimes recommend undesirable persons for appointment. For example, the search committee for filling the vacancies in the Human Rights Commission recommended the appointment of a university professor accused of sexual harassment of students — a story which was well-known because of published newspaper stories about the accusation. To the embarrassment of all concerned, the person, after appointment, had to be removed in a hurry following a public outcry. Thus, forming a search committee is not sufficient for appointment of right persons to the right positions, although it is necessary.

The search committee for picking election commissioners, we recommend, should also have representation from citizen groups. For, there are accusations of partisan leaning against many present heads of constitutional and statutory bodies.

The committee must also function in a transparent manner. It should make public the names of the persons under consideration so that any skeletons they may have in their closet can become public. The committee should also recommend the same number of names as there are vacancies and the president should be required to explain in writing any name rejected by him.

A rumour is now afoot that the government is seriously considering the reappointment of the present CEC and the two commissioners. While the trio had done an admirable job, the reappointment would, in our judgment, violate the constitution. According to Article 118 (3), the CEC is not eligible for reappointment and only one of the other two commissioners could be elevated to the position of CEC.

While it is imperative that the EC is strengthened by appointing honest, competent and non-partisan individuals as commissioners, it is a myth that a strong EC alone can deliver free and fair elections. Free and fair elections also require the neutrality of the bureaucracy and the law enforcement agencies. In our political system, only a non-party government can ensure the neutrality of the functionaries. This was precisely the argument used by Awami League and its allies in the mid-1990s for a neutral caretaker government (CTG). Ironically, the present government, led by Awami League, abolished the CTG through the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, and with it, according to many, the prospect of fair parliament elections in the future.

Our past experiences show that in elections held under party governments, incumbents always retuned to power. On the contrary, in elections held under the CTG, opposition parties always won with increasingly bigger margins, indicating that the caretaker system by and large ensures free and fair elections. The same conclusions were also drawn by both domestic and international observers. Part of the reason is that the EC can count on full and unconditional support and assistance from the CTG in conducting elections. Thus, although the CTG is not consistent with the democratic system, in the interest of fair elections, we recommend a reformed system of CTG for the next two parliament elections. It may be remembered that the Supreme Court in its short order last May gave a similar observation.

Nevertheless, the president took the position that the CTG issue would be off the agenda of the dialogue. We feel that such a position is a non-starter as the opposition BNP and its allies have declared that they would boycott the next parliament elections unless CTG is reinstituted. It may be recalled that the representatives of the citizens group and the media almost in unison recommended the continuation of the CTG in their meeting with the Special Parliamentary Committee for drafting constitutional reform last May. We, therefore, respectfully ask the president to reconsider his position and include the CTG issue in his agenda for dialogue. We must not also forget that in absence of a constitutional system of CTG, we would most likely have had martial law imposed on January 11, 2007.

While a strong and independent EC, with honest, competent and neutral individuals manning it and a caretaker system is an important precondition for free and fair elections, such quality elections would also require good behaviour on the part of political parties and the candidates they nominate. Even a casual observer knows that the parties and their nominees are the ones who indulge in nomination trade, buy votes with money, intimidate opponents, use violence etc., which are the biggest hindrance to free and fair elections. Thus, fair elections would also require reform of political parties, which, unfortunately, is not at all part of the current discourse.

Although we feel that the dialogue the president has initiated is a good starting point and he deserves praise for the initiative, it is not enough. He will have to ultimately play a catalytic role to bring about a negotiated settlement of all outstanding issues that make our politics confrontational and democracy unsustainable. Without such a comprehensive settlement, we feel that our next parliament election would become uncertain, again derailing our democratic system. We also recommend that the president include representatives of citizen groups and the media in this negotiation.

Our past experiences with dialogue and negotiations are not pleasant and positive. The Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan-Abdul Jalil dialogue in 2006 was a flop. The negotiation by Sir Ninian Stephan in 1995 produced no tangible outcome other than bitterness. The results of such failures, needless to say, are the army-backed government of 2007-08 and the painful events of those two years. Thus, in this negotiating endeavour initiated by the president, there is no room for playing games or sweeping problems under the rug.

The writer is Secretary, SHUJAN — Citizens for Good Governance.

Reference by: The Daily Star, 4 January 2012

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