Election is an irreducible feature of democratic governance. Its main goal is peaceful resolution of societal differences, while building citizen trust in the capacity of collective decisions and institutions to govern. But, violence undercuts the entire investment. When poisoned by violence, the voting process is fatally flawed and the outcome is suspect; trust, therefore, is diminished or lost. Electoral violence is one of the greatest obstacles to democratic consolidation. It not only affects the credibility of the electoral system, but also destroys the democratic system and the rule of law.
The risk of violence is present in nearly every election around the world, even in established democracies. According to the Electoral Integrity Project (EIP), violence was observed in the recent elections in Germany and Spain.
On the voting day of the first phase of the UP elections held on March 22, violence left 11 people dead and around a thousand others wounded; while during the campaign period, 10 others died and more than 2,000 were wounded (Prothom Alo, March 23, 2016). Two more people wounded on Election Day succumbed to their injuries the following day. So, the first phase of the UP elections left 23 people dead and around 3,000 wounded in total.
There are five more phases of the UP elections that will be held till June 4, 2016. Now, the question is: will such violence also be witnessed in the rest of the phases? Do we need such 'electoral democracy' at such a high price? Will the perpetrators of violence not be brought under legal procedure? The answer to all these questions must be “no” and all the electoral stakeholders must take a “zero-tolerance” approach to election violence immediately.
The first and foremost reason for election violence is the holding of partisan election for the chairman position. In many upazilas, there were two to three candidates from a single political party, one of them was officially nominated by the party while two others were known as 'rebel' candidates supported by a MP and/or local party leaders. All these candidates tried to “win at any cost” and all of them had strong political support, which resulted in a significant number of incidents of violence.
Secondly, the use of illegal money can function as both a cause of and a tool for electoral violence. In the first case, money is the cause of electoral violence, either relating to the state of the voters in general or affecting the incentive structures of political actors. In the second case, some political actors may use money as a tool to trigger electoral violence, as they believe this can serve their goals. Various newspaper reports state that illegal money is often used to buy nominations and votes. When political parties and candidates spend huge amounts of money, they cannot afford to lose elections, which ultimately leads to the triggering of violence.
Thirdly, violence erupted due to EC's lack of control over the election administration, especially at the local levels. The Chief Election Commissioner “blamed government officials for not cooperating with the EC in holding the elections in a fair and peaceful manner”. He also exacerbated that they don't have much control over them. So [we] don't get cooperation from them as per our expectations. That's why these incidents [violence and irregularities] have been happening.” To address the security concerns, on March 2, the EC ordered the formation of two types of coordination cells at the district and upazila levels led by the DC/ADC and Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO), respectively. The local police are also the part of these committees. In Bangladesh, officials of the local administration have to maintain good relations with the local MPs as well as the local leaders of the party in power. Their postings are also often influenced by those leaders. In these circumstances, the committees led by the DC/ADC and UNO do not work properly. An independent EC must not simply delegate conflict management and mitigation responsibility to security forces and the judiciary; it must be in the driving role. It is imperative to establish EC's full authority over the entire election administration, including the security forces.
Finally, the most valuable asset to control election violence is the credibility of the Election Commission and the electoral process, which leads to increased legitimacy of the government and, thereby, less chances of political turmoil. According to Norma Kriger (2011), “If the electoral process is not managed professionally and impartially by a trusted institution, the risks associated with organising elections increase drastically. Unfortunately, history has shown discredited election commissions are incapable of managing a competitive electoral environment, and often find themselves at the core of controversy”. Evidence from many countries of the world shows that true credibility works as an antidote to electoral violence. Achieving this objective is neither easy nor cheap, but it is the most effective tool to prevent electoral violence from materialising in the first place.
It is the responsibility of the election organisers to protect the electoral process from conflict and violence through security planning and putting security instruments in place. It is good news that the EC has decided to ask the ROs to file cases against those involved at all 65 polling stations where voting was suspended. Besides, the EC asked the police authorities to suspend the cops for failing to discharge their duties. Along with this, the EC has to assess the security planning undertaken for the first phase of elections through a holistic approach, which includes identification, deterrence, detection and mitigation. And all of this must be done immediately so that the EC can implement this in the second phase of the UP elections and beyond.
Research shows that “when conflict or violence occurs, it is not a result of an electoral process; it is the breakdown of an electoral process.” Hence, all the electoral stakeholders should bear in mind that the nature, extent and magnitude of violence and rigging associated with elections in this country pose a serious threat to the national quest for a stable democratic transition, as well as the attainment of the long term goal of consolidated democracy.
The Writer is the Director of Election Working Group.