Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Election Reforms in Bangladesh

Commentary: Election reforms aim to weaken political parties
SYLHET, October 1, 2007
Source: UPI Asia Online

Column: Humanity or Humor?
The Election Commission of Bangladesh, which has reportedly recently been made "independent" by the military-backed government, is now the talk of the country for its recent decision to "reform the political system." In a forced-feeding approach to reform, the first change is that political parties are now obliged to register with the commission.

Since the country's independence in 1971 the commission has been under the office of the prime minister. It is one of most criticized institutions in Bangladesh for its dysfunctional system. For instance, the EC has exercised no authority over local government elections, allowing local administrators and ruling party politicians to manipulate elections, resulting in the establishment of musclemen in positions of public representatives.

The commission has no skilled or committed staff to monitor electoral malpractice or manipulation, although everybody, including EC officials from the top down, knows how and by whom the elections are manipulated. For decades the commission did nothing to improve the system.

The EC remained silent and apparently blind when candidates spent a hundred or a thousand times more money than they were legally allowed to spend on campaigns. It ignored the intimidation of minority communities at gunpoint, preventing them from casting votes; abuses of administrative power in favor of certain candidates or political groups; and the use of influence by the armed forces for or against certain political groups. There have been many allegations of the removal of certain populations or groups of people from the voters lists, and the inclusion of imaginary persons on the lists, under pressure from powerful political groups seeking to manipulate election results.

In the case of general elections there have been numerous allegations of vote rigging, intimidation of voters belonging to minority communities, manipulation of the vote count by officials, and even the destruction of ballots believed to have been cast for less powerful candidates. The EC often declared its "verdict" in such cases only after the government's term in office was over. Meanwhile the candidates who won elections by devious means had already enjoyed the benefits of their offices, while the losing candidate could do nothing but wait for the next election.

The present EC -- comprising two civil bureaucrats and a retired army brigadier general in the three top positions -- appeared as soothsayers in the local media that announced they had become an independent commission. They claimed the government would not intervene in their work at all.

The nation has already had a taste of this type of independence, however. The commission has begun compiling a new electoral role of voters with a photograph of each citizen aged 18 years or above, to ensure that each will be issued a voter identity card as demanded by the major political parties. Interestingly, the armed forces were given the contract for making the electoral role across the country, as the commission found them the most "eligible" institution for the job from among a number of national and international groups that were interested in undertaking the responsibility. The "independent" commission trusted the armed forces to prove that they are not dependent on others.

On July 15 the Election Commission declared its "roadmap" for the upcoming general election, which is supposed to take place by December 2008, although it has been overdue since January this year according to the Constitution of Bangladesh. The roadmap declares that the EC will finish making the voters lists, complete with photographs, and will first hold elections for local governments, to be followed by a general election by December next year.

Now the EC is being unmasked with its declaration of further "reforms," which reveal its intention to control the political parties on behalf of the military-backed government. This is likely to bring chaos within the parties, which will benefit the generals who dream of heading the government in the future through further farcical elections.

This forced approach to reform will make the political situation more chaotic if the political parties do not agree with it. The EC would be wiser to explain its reforms to the public in order to pressure the parties to change their culture, instead of pushing the parties to abide by their commands. The current approach will confuse the people about the role of the EC rather than establishing its credibility.

The political culture in Bangladesh is unarguably feudal by nature. However, the EC's approach will only create another military-backed feudal group, supplementing the destruction of political institutions which is already on track. This will bring further chaos.

The EC will likely fail to implement its roadmap on time if it meets resistance in the planned disbandment of existing political parties. The groundwork has already been done with the arrests of several top leaders, including those in charge of corruption, while pro-government leaders remain free from charges no matter how corrupt.

To suggest that this policy adopted by the EC, aimed at restructuring the political situation, is the result of instructions by the government is far too simplistic. This is what happens when the guardians of the country turn into its guards, with their guns at the ready in case of resistance.
(Rater Zonaki is the pseudonym of a human rights defender living in Sylhet in Bangladesh, who has been working on human rights issues in the country for more than a decade and who was a journalist in Bangladesh in the 1990s.)

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