Guest Column by Bhaskar Roy
Talking to the press on September 12, the first day of dialogues with political parties, the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) of Bangladesh, ATM Shamshul Huda said the electoral reform proposals aim at ‘freeing the electoral process from the vice (like) grip of Pakistan muscle and black money’. This would create an atmosphere encouraging to honest and dedicated political leaders to take part in the elections.
The Election Commission (EC) has proposed a new option of ‘no’ vote to allow voters to express their view that a certain candidate has zero support from a particular voter. There is, however, no space in the ballot paper to state why the candidate is not acceptable. The proposed ballot paper will also have the option for voting ‘none of the candidates listed’.
Another proposal of the EC is if the winning candidate is disqualified for some reason, the next highest vote getter gets the seat if he does not have any thing against him discovered which would disqualify him, too. In case the second best candidate is also disqualified, re-election from that constituency will be called.
The EC has other proposals like registration of political parties, a certain minimum votes in the last elections to be eligible to participate in the current elections, certain restrictions on retired military officers and civil servants, loan defaulters and others. It is, however, not yet clear what would be the rights of a candidate who has either served a criminal sentence, or serving one, or under trial.
It is yet unclear how some of these proposals would work out and impact the democratic political system of the country. The EC believes that statistics of ‘no-vote’ candidates would be of interest to academic and political science research. Eventually, such statistics could be manipulated by opponents of a candidate for future political activities in the constituency and even in the next election.
Like most developing countries Bangladesh elections are highly susceptible to sabotage by election agents of candidates by manipulating voters and Returning Officers (RO). A particular party with influence, money and muscle power in a constituency can destroy the credibility of an opposition candidate. Such developments, it can be said with certainty, would lead to street protest and violence. No candidate with a black mark on him or her would take it without protest. It would be a serious mistake to pretend that Bangladeshi politician are middle-school children who will go home and cry in their mother’s lap. There will be serious retaliations, and the country’s political diaspora will continue to limp.
Besides these, several other proposals are under consideration which, the EC claims, would make for an ideal situation for conducting elections.
Bangladesh’s first unique election process was the enactment of the Caretaker Government Act. This provided for a neutral Caretaker Government to administer the country for a maximum of 90 days after a government’s tenure during which the elections were to be held, and then the power was to be handed over to the party or coalition which made the number to form a government.
In a very short time, however, the system was manipulated by the political parties to make the Caretaker Government partisan. It was about to happen in January with disastrous consequences had the army not stepped in to stabilise the situation, but without martial law.
If there is wide scale vote rigging including casting of false votes during every election, how will the authorities ensure that false ‘no’ votes are not cast against targeted candidates. In the 2001 elections when the BNP returned to power with a four party alliance including the Jamaat-e-Islami, the armed forces were directed to prevent Hindu voters from exercising their franchise. Known Awami-League supporters were also similarly kept away from polling stations in many places by the army on polling duty. The Hindu community is generally known as the Awami League’s vote bank.
Incidentally, the GOC, Chittagong area was also advised to extend all assistance to the Jamaat parliamentary candidate in the area, Shahjahan Choudhury. The assistance to Choudhury included providing him two Motorola communication sets from the Army inventory to communicate with his people on the last two days before the polling day, when all cell phone connections were officially blocked.
Very little has changed between 2001 and 2007. The same people are around, though somewhat subdued. Many of those pro-BNP and Jamaat actors remain well ensconced within the system awaiting the opportunity to come out to play their defined roles as before.
The decision of the Caretaker Government and the EC to reform political parties hardly inspires confidence and the direction Bangladesh’s democracy may be taking. The CEC can set rules and guidelines outside the parties to lay down the process. But they cannot, with any imagination, get involved in formulating the internal structure and formulation of a political party. For example, the EC cannot dictate how many central committee members should be there, or sit on inner party elections etc. If one can decipher some of the EC and government moves, efforts are being made to influence positioning of leaders against posts, especially in the two main parties, the Awami League and the BNP. Top-level vacancies are apparently being created with the anti-corruption drive. This does not mean the anti-corruption drive is being criticised in this article. Far from it, the drive was sorely needed. But from the developments reported in the mainstream Bangladeshi media, the conclusion appears obvious –leaders acceptable to the Caretaker Government and top brass of the armed forces.
This may be an unfortunate observation, but generally true. Politicians in most third world countries are corrupt. The Transparency Internationalisation, a non-government international watchdog on corruption, has been placing Bangladesh almost at the very bottom of the corruption ladder in recent years. Of course, corruption does not end at the doorsteps of politicians. It is a vicious nexus between the politicians, the businessmen, bureaucrats, law enforcers and the armed forces. All have to take part together for a perfect crime!
If the current disposition is trying to use the instruments of the EC to bring in political leaders who, in spite of corruption, remain within limits and work constructively at the same time, no one can blame them. Nothing else is available, and this is a reality that has to be accepted.
In the five years of BNP-Jamaat rule from 2001, the country was put through a terrible twister. It was not only financial skinning of the country, but the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism was abetted from ministerial level, allowed Pakistan sponsored unending terrorist attacks against India from Bangladesh’s soil and, basically, sought all opportunities to down grade relations with India.
Tareq Rahman Zia, the elder son of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, and Senior Joint Secretary General of the BNP, emerged as the power centre. Tareq gathered around himself a group of politicians, businessmen, bureaucrats and armed forces officers who consciously took the country to the situation briefly mentioned about the BNP-Jamaat rule. Most astounding was the contact he established with Dawood Ibrahim in Dubai in 2005.
Bangladesh was on the verge of being declared a state sponsor of terrorism during this period. Its human rights record especially with regard to journalists, Hindu minorities and secularists were abysmal as recorded by Human Rights, the European Parliament and others.
Tareq Rehman, who is in jail now with a long list of charges against him, is reported to be the most hated person in Bangladesh. So is the case for his immediate inner circle.
If the Election Commission is of the view that its contemplated changes will bring a new sunrise to the country, it has a difficult job ahead. Its proposals and applications have, however, yet to look at the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI). The Advisor for Law, Moinul Hossain, recently quipped to the press that the Jamaat is not corrupt. Law-breaking and corruption charges have, of course, been registered against some top Jamaat leaders, but they are generally being kept under the carpet.
This is a matter of serious concern. How will the EC account for the Jamaat, or bring the Jamaat to account. There is enough evidence with the Bangladesh authorities to suspect foreign funds coming to the Jamaat. Sources of some of these funds are Al Qaida front organisations like the RIHS of Kuwait. Is there a divine power looking over the Jamaat in Bangladesh, or more earthly devious intrigues?
The election regulations under consideration and those on the way to implementation would have to be weighed very carefully. It must be all inclusive, which does not seem to be at the moment. If this effort is messed up, since there are important players waiting to do just that, one may forget a clean election at the end of 2008.
(The author is an eminent China analyst with many years of experience of study on the developments in China. The views expressed by the author are his own. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)