In search of clean and honest candidates

daily star
Dr. Badiul Alam Majumdar

It is now generally accepted that the breakdown of our democratic system on January 11, 2007 was due to systemic failures as well as the failures of our democratic institutions. Efforts are now underway toward instituting major reforms in our electoral system, political parties, and also rebuilding the relevant democratic institutions such as the Election Commission. Hopefully we will make significant headways on these fronts before the coming parliamentary elections. However, if dishonest, self-interested and incompetent individuals are elected to run the affairs of the state, all may be in vain and they may roll back whatever progress has been achieved. Thus, it is imperative that along with electoral and institutional reforms, serious efforts are made to ensure the election of clean, honest and competent candidates in the coming parliamentary elections.
Nominating clean candidates
In order to ensure the election of clean and honest candidates, individuals with such credentials must first be nominated by political parties or they must be encouraged to stand as independent candidates. Electorates must be given the opportunity to vote for such candidates. Unless the voters are given a choice, they will have no alternative but to cast their votes in favour of less desirable candidates. Thus, the nomination process is critically important for electing clean candidates.

At present, there are few restrictions on the nomination of candidates with questionable backgrounds. Article 66(2)(d) of the Constitution provides: “A person shall be disqualified for election as, or for being, a member of Parliament who … has been, on conviction for a criminal offence involving moral turpitude, sentenced to imprisonment for a term of not less than two years, unless a period of five years has elapsed since his release.” In addition, The Representation of People Order, 1972 (RPO) provides additional disqualifications, which includes disqualification of loan defaulters and those who or whose defendants have a direct business relationship with the government.
Unfortunately, these disqualifications do not prevent criminals, corrupt persons, black marketers, land grabbers, or black money owners from standing in elections. To be eligible for contesting elections, they will have to just avoid conviction or ensure that if convicted their sentence is for less than two years. In case of longer term sentences, they will have to wait for five years once out of jail. Thus, relatively petty criminals and even big criminals after a certain time period can contest elections there is no legal provision to permanently bar them from elected offices. There are also no barriers against those who were removed from employment, or from an association, or organization, for criminal breaches. In order to ensure the nomination of only clean candidates, these legal loopholes must be removed and individuals convicted of a crime of any length by a competent court or found guilty of committing criminal malfeasance by a committee of inquiry in the place of employment, or in an organization should be barred from contesting and holding any elected offices.
To ensure clean candidates, the nomination process of political parties must also be changed. According to the constitution of most political parties, some sort of nomination boards, consisting of senior leaders, collectively decide on nominations based on interviews of candidates and the recommendations of their local committees. However, the reality is different. Nominations are often decided on the basis of personal connections of potential candidates with party leaders. Many times the party chief unilaterally hand-pick candidates. The ability of candidates to spend large sums of money for elections and mobilize muscle power to match the capabilities of opponents, rather than the qualities and competence of candidates, are usually the considerations for nominating candidates.

Nominations are also at times bought with money, which is now popularly known as mononoyan banijya. For example, it is alleged that prior to the elections to be held on January 22, 2007, Awami League nominations in 50 seats were sold for a minimum of Tk. 50 lac to a maximum amount of Tk. 20 crore, resulting in illegal transfers of huge sums of money. (Prothom Alo, 14 January 2007) Similar allegations are also abound against BNP. Such practices must stop to facilitate the nomination of clean candidates.
In order to ensure the nomination of clean and honest candidates, the primary members of political parties must be given real say in the nomination process. A system of party primaries may be introduced or party members may formally meet to recommend a panel of candidates which the nomination board then narrows down based on a set of clear criteria. Requirements of party membership for a length of time (say three years) may also be imposed for anyone seeking nominations.
Nomination boards must be required to be transparent in their criteria for finalizing nominations. They must seek disclosures of pertinent information from candidates and make the disclosed information public. Such transparency would prevent party higher ups from making under-the-table deals and they may also be held to account for nominating undesirable candidates
Encouraging clean candidates
Attracting clean and competent candidates to run for elected office is one of the biggest challenges we as a nation face today. The widespread perception today is that politics is a dirty game and it is not for honest people. It is for people with questionable backgrounds who look at politics as business and make huge investments with the intention of recouping it after the election. Consequently our parliament has gradually become a sort of “private club” for businessmen of questionable repute. It is no wonder then that good people invariably stay away from the political arena. This situation must be remedied if we are to improve the quality of our political leadership.

One way to attract clean and honest individuals to elected offices is to restrict the role of MPs to law making, as required by Article 65 of our Constitution. Law making broadly involves enacting laws, policymaking and oversight roles. Such roles require different qualities and competence than are normally seen in our elected leaders. Our MPs have been allowed to indulge in local affairs and intervene in the functioning of local bodies, defying the constitutional demarcation of roles. Such interventions in the past, have made local government bodies, especially the Union Parishad, totally ineffective. In order to spread their influence, MPs, normally the ruling party MPs, created a patronage network involving their party functionaries, subverting the existing administrative structure. Such a system, with the MPs as kingpins, has come to be known as “MP sarkars” giving rise to rampant graft, corruption and defiance of
established rules, norms and law. If we to attract clean and honest individuals to run for elected offices in the future and thereby enhance the quality of our leadership, the spheres of MPs must be confined to their constitutionally mandated roles. Parliament membership may also be made a full-time position.
There are now strong pecuniary incentives for investing money and muscle to become MPs. MPs used to enjoy the privilege of importing tax free vehicles before the present caretaker government cancelled it. Media reports indicate that such privileges were widely misused in the past to bring instant riches to MPs. In addition, MPs were often given residential plots in posh areas which also made them instantly rich. There have also been rampant misuses of the MP positions to capture business deals both with and outside the government, which clearly defied legal and ethical tenets. Such financial incentives must be done away with to discourage those who want to invest in politics as a business venture, and thereby encourage honest candidates.
Creating level playing field
Nominating good candidates or encouraging honest people to enter the electoral arena are not enough, if we are to enhance the quality of our elected leaders. Good candidates must have a fair chance to be elected through competitive elections, That would require creating a level playing field for them.

Creating a level playing field for good candidates would require removing the influence of money and muscle power from elections. Such influences degrade politics into a moneymaking business from something for the public good. Unfortunately in Bangladesh we have over the years managed to create the best democracy that money and muscle can buy.
The RPO imposes an election expense limit of Tk. 5 lac for each MP candidate, but this is hardly enforced. For example, the MP candidates are now required to submit Form 17A to declare their sources of probable election expenses and Form 17C to provide the actual accounting of such expenses following elections. But on the occasion of the 8th parliamentary elections, only 1587 out of 1939 candidates filed 17A and 1473 filed 17C and no serious action was taken against offenders although these violations represent electoral offences corrupt practices and illegal practices the punishment for which is rigorous imprisonment for at least 2-7 years.
In addition, all candidates after elections invariably report actual election expenses of Tk. 5 lac or less despite exceeding the limit, thus the lawmakers in reality become law breakers from the very outset of their tenure. An indication of how much major candidates actually spend during parliamentary elections can be found from a tracking exercise that the Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) carried out prior to the ill-fated elections that were to be held on 22 January 2007. TIB report shows that 122 candidates in 40 constituencies spent an average of over Tk. 15 lac each during the three month period ending January 3rd, although one BNP candidate alone spent nearly taka two crore and a lone Awami League candidate spent one crore 67 lac taka. It must be noted that the amount does not include the potential expenses for the last 18 days of the campaign which would have been large. If we are to enable clean candidates with limited financial means and no muscle power to have a fair shot at being elected in the future, the godfathers and looters and plunderers must be made ineligible to contest elections and the statutory limits on election expenses must be strictly enforced. For instituting such ineligibility, the current drive against corruption must be brought to a successful end while ensuring fair trials to those who are accused. The enforcement would require the prompt settling of election disputes. But the reality is that none of the dozens of election petitions filed following the 2001 elections, alleging serious wrongdoings by elected MPs, were settled during the tenure of the 8th parliament. Hopefully our reconstituted Election Commission will do better in the future with regard to enforcement. We further hope that it will take the initiative to reduce election expenses by banning showdowns and arranging candidate forums. All expenses by candidates or their well wishers prior to the declaration of the election schedule must also be included in the Tk. 5 lac limit.
Clean and honest candidates can also be given fair chances of being elected if the disclosure requirements mandated by the higher judiciary are strictly and scrupulously enforced. On November 20, 2007, the Supreme Court confirmed a earlier High Court judgment requiring the disclosure of educational qualifications, income, criminal antecedents of candidates, and assets and liabilities of candidates and their dependents in the form of affidavits. These requirements along with the obligations of disclosing of candidates’ expenditures and tax returns under the existing law are now incorporated into a newly proposed RPO by the Election Commission. If the proposed RPO is promulgated as an ordinance and vigorously enforced, it will create a level playing field for honest candidates. For that to happen, disclosures must be required to be made early, preferably with the declaration of the election schedules, so that there is enough time to disseminate the disclosed information to empower voters. The information submitted must be thoroughly examined and the election of those making false and misleading declarations must be cancelled.
A sad reality in Bangladesh is that over the years a large segment of our voters have developed a sort of a blind loyalty to party symbols, which often helps dishonest candidates get elected. Citizen groups can help remedy this by enhancing the level of voter awareness. Another remedy could be to include the candidates’ pictures on ballot papers replacing or at least in addition to party symbols. The inclusion of the provision of negative voting in ballot papers, as proposed by the EC in the draft RPO, will allow voters to reject undesirable candidates in polling booths and this may be a powerful tool for the election of clean candidates.
The above measures may keep unclean candidates at bay and help create opportunities for honest candidates to be elected. However, if and when the corrupt, or criminal dons, or self-interested businessmen do get elected, there must be provisions for a system of recall to remove them. The parliament must also be willing to take action against those members who break laws or violate ethical standards. With such weeding out, along with the commitment of political parties to nominate clean and competent candidates, encouragement of honest individuals to run for office and the EC and other official entities’ effectiveness to enforce all legal and disclosure requirements to keep the looters and plunderers from running for elections, we may have a fighting chance to elect honest and competent individuals as our leaders in the future.
The author is Secretary, Shujan and Vice President and Country Director, The Hunger Project-Bangladesh
Reference by: The Daily Star, 17th Anniversary, 24 February 2009

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