Holding a general election is undoubtedly a herculean task and it involves a complicated legal process. Individuals with high integrity and leadership skills require supervising, controlling and directing each and every step of this process to ensure that the job is done freely and fairly.
Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad and his team were empowered by the constitution to do the job. By their oath of office, they were also bound to work towards making the January 5 parliamentary election acceptable.
But the incidents unfolding in the name of the polls have not left any hope of holding a free and fair election, a fundamental of democracy.
Candidates in more than half of the 300 constituencies are set to be elected uncontested, thus creating an unprecedented record. All of them, however, did not walk away from their rivals despite a boycott by the BNP-led opposition parties.
Allegations of ruling Awami League nominees forcing rival candidates to withdraw their candidatures in many constituencies have marred the election process. There were also complaints that the returning officers in some districts pressed many candidates to withdraw their nomination papers on instructions from government high-ups to make sure that certain candidates win unopposed.
Many candidates of HM Ershad’s Jatiya Party were kept forcibly in the electoral race. Returning officers rejected their applications for quitting the polls. Even after all these occurrences, Rakibuddin and his team remained silent. They might not have received any information from the EC officials. But national dailies ran many reports on the anomalies. It seems that the CEC and his colleagues have either not gone through any of the reports or could not trust those.
The EC even did not take into consideration the Jatiya Party chief’s letter asking the commission not to allocate the party’s electoral symbol “plough” to any candidate. During registration with the EC in 2008, the JP was allocated this electoral symbol.
CEC Rakibuddin and his team might have been unlucky as they had to confront some difficult questions from journalists. But their responses were shocking.
On the record of a huge number of candidates winning seats uncontested, Rakibuddin on December 15 said: “The candidates have withdrawn their nominations on their own. We’ve noting to do here. The election will be held for the contenders who are still in the race.”
He did not make any comment on the allegations of forcing nominees to withdraw candidatures.
On the JP letter regarding the allocation of its electoral symbol “plough”, the CEC on December 13 said, “We’ve directed all the returning officers. They will take decision on this matter as per law.”
Who are the returning officers? They are divisional and deputy commissioners who run the government administration at the field level. They did exactly what the government wanted them to do.
Meantime, the government continued negotiations with the JP to bring it back in the election. It did not allow the JP ministers quitting the “election-time cabinet” despite the fact that they handed in their resignations since they had decided to boycott the election.
JP Chairman Ershad is still a valid candidate in two constituencies because he was not allowed to withdraw his nomination papers. As he sticks to his decision to boycott the polls, has been forcibly kept “confined” to a hospital in the name of treatment. He and some of his party leaders have repeatedly been claiming that he is not ill. But the EC keeps mum on the matter.
Asked, Election Commissioner Abu Hafiz said he was unaware of the incident.
The record number of uncontested winners has already raised questions over the acceptability of the January 5 election. Many AL leaders, in private conversations, have also expressed their concern about it.
But the EC takes a cavalier attitude to it. Abu Hafiz on December 14 said the time to question the credibility of the election was yet to come. “Once the election is over, we can understand whether it is credible or not.”
The election, said Rakibuddin, is a legal process and it will be continued as per law. The remark sounds ridiculous. The CEC and his team forgot their constitutional responsibility and mandate to hold a free and fair election.
Though holding the polls is a huge responsibility, the constitution gave the EC huge authority to have the job done. It also empowered the EC with adequate protection to maintain their independence and freedom from political and executive influence. But nothing has worked effectively with the incumbent EC. They are going to present the country with a maligned election.
Rakibuddin was a fortunate man when he assumed the office of CEC in February last year. He took charge of an EC then resting on a record of many encouraging successes. The more important thing was that he could see people’s overwhelming confidence restored in the EC.
His predecessor ATM Shamsul Huda was the man under whose leadership the EC had scaled new heights, through setting new standards.
Rakibuddin and his team were required to work hard to live up to people’s high expectations and accomplish many tough tasks. But they miserably failed to deliver the goods. The EC now look all set to be accused of destroying people’s confidence in it. His name will be remembered along with those of Justice Sadek and Justice Aziz. Sadek led the commission in conducting the February 15, 1996 maligned election amid a boycott by opposition parties.
Under the leadership of Aziz, the EC was desperately moving towards holding another controversial election slated for January 22, 2007. Their leaderships were a curse for the EC.