Bangladesh is now on the election highway. Aside from the national election, seven city corporation elections are to be held this year. However, because of the ineptness of the Election Commission (EC), the elections of Dhaka North and South have already been postponed, in violation of the Constitution and taking away our voting rights. In the meantime, the schedules of Gazipur and Khulna city corporation elections have been declared, and they will be held on May 15. The results of these two elections would have a far-reaching significance not only for the two major parties—Awami League and BNP—but for the nation as well. The experiences of Gazipur and Khulna will also have important implications for the upcoming general election.
In the last few weeks, I have had the opportunity to interact with over 1,500 non-partisan individuals in several meetings throughout Bangladesh. I asked a common question in these meetings: if the national election is held under the present circumstances, do they expect it to be free, fair and credible? Their response, with the exception of one or two, was that they did not see, under the present circumstances, any possibility of a credible election. In addition, in two other meetings with about 40 Upazila-level political and civil society leaders, I asked the same question. Surprisingly, the participants of these meetings, including leaders belonging to the ruling party, also expressed the same view.
Clearly, such negative views of a large number of socially conscious opinion-makers about the credibility, or lack thereof, of the coming national election present serious challenges for the EC, the government, political parties, the media and the civil society—important stakeholders of all elections. Clearly, an appropriate role by these stakeholders is essential for a credible election. However, the commission's role is most important in this regard, although its neutrality and effectiveness are necessary, but not sufficient for ensuring a free and fair election. In other words, even the strongest and most neutral EC will not be able to hold credible elections unless the government—that is, the bureaucracy and the law enforcement agencies—behaves neutrally and the ruling party acts responsibly during elections.
It may be recalled that the elections of four city corporations—Khulna, Barisal, Rajshahi and Sylhet—were held on July 15, 2013. In these elections, the incumbent mayors, all of whom belonged to the ruling party and most of whom were successful as mayors, lost by big margins to their BNP rivals. In the subsequent Gazipur city corporation election also, held on July 6, 2013, the AL candidate lost by more than 100,000 votes, although Gazipur is traditionally considered an AL stronghold.
It should be noted that all the city corporation elections held in 2013 were more or less free and fair. Although the ruling party put all their efforts and energy into winning these elections, they did not try to unduly influence election results. This was because the AL tried to, in the background of enacting the 15th Amendment discarding the Caretaker Government, create an impression that they could be trusted and credible elections could be held under the party government. However, with the AL's consecutive losses in five city corporation elections, the fate of the subsequent national election became pre-determined. As a result, the EC, despite holding credible elections in those five city corporations, could not do so during the parliamentary election of January 5, 2014.
The coming Gazipur and Khulna city corporation elections again represent a challenge for the AL. If these two elections turn out to be fair and credible and the AL loses, it will send a clear message about their popularity. On the other hand, if they win through fraudulent means, it will only stoke popular concerns about the credibility of the coming elections.
The Gazipur and Khulna elections have also created a serious challenge for the EC in that although the commission gained credibility by holding the Rangpur city corporation election in a free, fair and peaceful manner last December, it lost public confidence during subsequent local elections held on December 28, 2017 and March 29, 2018. The recent Union Parishad and Paurashava elections were marred by violence, death, fake voting and ballot box snatching. According to an editorial by Prothom Alo (March 31, 2018), “These elections were just the opposite of what are considered as free and peaceful elections. Now the elections of Bangladesh have become competition between muscle powers.”
The upcoming elections pose another challenge: after the one-sided national election of 2014, many observers claimed that if the election is competitive, the media can freely report foul play, and if election observers are present in polling centres, the election is likely to be free, fair and credible. However, the post-2014 electoral experiences, particularly of the last Dhaka and Chittagong city corporation elections, have proven this to be a myth. These elections have clearly shown that credible elections depend mainly on the will of the government and the ruling party. But the commission, if it wants, can prevent rigged elections. If the environment for a free and fair election does not prevail, the EC can refrain from holding it. The commission's responsibility is not to hold election using anyone's prescription. It can even cancel the election results, subject to inquiry, if there are suspicions of unfair means during elections. According to our Supreme Court judgment, the EC has the inherent power, even to “add to statutory rules”, to ensure free and fair elections. Thus, the EC's responsibility is to use this power justly and fairly in order to gain public trust and confidence in the electoral system.
To gain public confidence in the electoral system, the undesirable elements must be kept out of the electoral arena. The affidavit, the declaring of education qualifications, criminal records, profession, income, assets and liabilities of candidates and their dependents, can be an important tool for this purpose. It may be recalled that the legal requirement for declaring the antecedents of candidates through affidavits was established and institutionalised through the incessant efforts of SHUJAN. As per law, if a candidate hides information and declares false information in the affidavit, his/her nomination is liable to be cancelled. If elected with false declaration, his/her election is to be declared void. Some important examples are already set in this regard. (See the author's Ninth Parliament Election 2008: Information about the Contestants, Prothoma Prokashoni, 2012.)
In addition, swearing a false affidavit is a criminal offence. We feel that if the information disclosed in affidavits and tax returns submitted by the candidates are scrutinised, our electoral arena could largely be cleaned up. We have been urging the commission to do so for a long time, with no success. We hope that in view of the serious accusations recently raised about submitting false affidavits by some mayoral candidates of Gazipur and Khulna city corporation elections, the commission would be convinced, in the interest of cleaning up our electoral and political arenas, to seriously scrutinise the affidavits submitted by the candidates.