Yet another acid test for the nation

daily star

Lining up in hope for true democracy. Photo: Amirul Rajiv

BY-elections of the seven vacant parliamentary seats are scheduled for April 2. It is very important that these elections are free, fair, and peaceful. In fact, we feel that these elections are yet another acid test for the nation, and passing this test will largely determine the success of our democratic transition.
It is generally believed that our elected governments are incapable of holding free and fair elections. In fact, the system of caretaker government was created to redress this situation, though in reality it swept under the rug the misconduct on the political parties, which was really the problem.
More seriously, we have once again recently demonstrated that our political culture does not allow fair elections to be held under an elected government. According to all domestic and foreign observers, the interim government headed by Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed was able to give the nation a free, fair and peaceful national election on December 29, 2008. But, unfortunately, serious accusations of hooliganism and undue influences were raised about the upazila elections held under the elected government.
Complaints have been made against some government functionaries of partisan behaviour and against some MPs and ministers of exerting undue influence. As a result, the elections of six upazilas were postponed by the EC on the election-day, and later the election results of another 16 upazilas were either fully or partially postponed and judicial enquiry initiated. In addition, administrative enquiry was launched in several other upazilas. By contrast, no election results were suspended or elections postponed in any constituency during the parliament elections.
Elections are pre-requisites for a democratic system. However, elections, as stated in our constitution, must be “peaceful, fair and neutral.” Thus if the elected governments continue to fail to hold fair elections in the future, our democratic system will be at risk again. Like nature, where species must regenerate themselves to survive, political systems must also revitalise themselves to sustain. Thus, in the interests of sustaining and institutionalising our democratic system, it must be demonstrated beyond doubt, through the coming by-elections, that free and neutral elections are possible under an elected government.
Unfortunately, we have been hearing from some of the constituencies that already the hooligans have begun to flex their muscles — they have been harassing some voters, especially the minorities. Moneyed men have also started spreading their wealth. These illegal activities will intensify as the elections come nearer. Thus the government must begin to take stern actions immediately.
Coming by-elections are also an acid test for the EC. The commissioners themselves expressed unhappiness about the upazila elections. Now using the experiences of these two elections and also the previous local elections, the commission must take appropriate actions to make the by-elections free and fair.
It must ensure that candidates disclose information fully, debar the candidates for providing wrong and misleading information, and take severe punitive actions against those who violate the law and the code of conduct. It must also ensure that ineligible candidates cannot become elected using the legal loopholes and legal manipulations. It must not hesitate, if necessary, to debar candidates and cancel elections.
Influence of money is one of the biggest hindrances to fair elections, and thus to our democratic system itself. The commission must pay special attention to ensure that money does not unduly influence the by-elections. We believe that our EC should appoint monitors to scrutinise on a daily basis the election expenses of the candidates in the seven by-elections. In addition, the commission may arrange projection meetings in each constituency. Shujan has vast experiences in these activities and we can help the commission.
Despite all out efforts by the commission, fair elections are not possible unless the political parties behave. If the political parties and their candidates are committed to win elections at any cost, then the EC, despite its utmost sincerity, will not be able to deliver fair elections.
Political parities should have nominated candidates who are honest, competent and committed to people’s welfare rather than controversial candidates. However, one cannot help but be disappointed by the nominations of the two major parties. More importantly, none of the political parties followed the law, which required them to nominate candidates based on the recommendations of their local committees. This is a violation of the law, which is clearly inconsistent with rule of law. Compliance with only selective laws and ignoring others got our democratic system into trouble in the past, and the same consequence will follow with similar behaviour. Thus the EC and the relevant parliamentary committee must urgently look into the matter.
Responsible behaviour of the candidates and the parties must also be ensured for the sake of fair elections. Considering the seriousness of the matter, we hope the political parties will take urgent steps to clean up their act. At the same time EC will also ensure full compliance with the law, rules, and the code of conduct.
The coming by-elections are also important acid test for the media and the citizen groups. Media’s responsibility is to create voter awareness. If they disseminate information disclosed by candidates and do further investigative reporting then the voters will have a chance to be informed. At the same time they must report the violation of the laws and the code of conduct.
Citizen groups also have very important roles in creating voter awareness. They can highlight the salient issues, analyse the information disclosed by the candidates for use by the media and thereby help voters make informed choice. At the same time, they can mobilize and generate voter activism and arrange candidate-voter face-to-face meetings. Shujan did similar things during the national elections,
Winners and losers in elections will ultimately by determined by the voters. Thus the voters will have to decide what kind of representatives they want to elect. If they are influenced by money or threats, the consequence is likely to be disastrous. If the tainted candidates get elected, they will feel validated and will feel encouraged to continue their misdeeds. Thus, the EC, media and the citizen group must be vigilant so that such a scenario does not unfold.
To conclude, the success of our democratic transition largely depends on free and fair elections. However, our political system has so far failed to ensure that. And this failure, in a larger sense, belongs to us all. Thus, we all have the responsibility to come forward to redress the situation. The government, EC, media and the citizen groups will have to work together — then only can we expect to turn the failures of the past into successes of the future.

Dr. Badiul Alam Majumdar is Secretary, Shujan (Citizens for Good Governance).

Reference by: The Daily Star, 30 March 2009

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