Clearly, there is an absence of sync in the EC, and a palpable lack of internal organisation. Firstly, it seemed unnecessarily evasive about the date of the election. On September 27 and August 7, the CEC had said that the election schedule would be announced in October, and the election was likely to be held in December. Early this month we heard him say that EC had never said the national polls would be held in December this year, and that there was no certainty of elections being held at the end of January. That after we had heard one of the EC officials suggesting in a press briefing in August that the Jatiyo Sangsad polls would be held end of October which was redacted a few days ago. Now we are told that polls would be held around end-December 2019.
Such mixed messages not only create confusion in the public mind, it also creates ground for apprehensions too. Secondly, and even more disappointingly, is the obvious rift within the EC with things coming to a head when one of the commissioners left in the midst of a commission meeting with a note of dissent. According to news reports he was not given the opportunity to say his piece about the modalities he wanted to suggest regarding how the upcoming election would be conducted.
Evidently, his views were not in conformity of the majority EC members on the matter. Hence, the uproar and call from one minister for his resignation for a breach of secrecy, according to that minister, when he made public the contents of an internal EC meeting.
Understandably, the said commissioner has become the joker in the pack, for demanding to go by the book. He was, one understands, impressing on his colleagues to go by its mandate. In doing so he managed to animate one of his colleagues enough to accuse him of unconstitutionality, for suggesting things not in accord with the constitution, and speaking to the press out of turn.
Without going into the substance or merit of the statement, would it be out of context to ask, if revealing the dissenting commissioner's "unconstitutional suggestions" to the media amounts to a similar breech of secrecy or not! As for the substance, to those who are aware of the functioning of the EC and the conduct of the members of the election commission, neither is talking to the media by different members unprecedented, nor is suggesting various ways to hold a free fair and participatory election, as mandated by the country's constitution, unconstitutional.
From what one understands, while the election commissioners do take oath of office they do not have to affirm to an oath of secrecy, like a few others holding public office. As for talking to the press, this is not the first time that an election commissioner has spoken to the media, "bypassing" the official spokesperson. And the EC does not deal with matters relating to state secrets, and what transpires in a meeting that has to do with the elections cannot be a secret to be kept out of the public knowledge. Keeping people informed about the doings of the EC cannot be unconstitutional.
As for the substance of what the dissenting member is reported to have said, even the most stringent nitpicker would find it difficult to discover anything unconstitutional in what was suggested. If one recalls, the EC under Mr Shamsul Huda had suggested to the government in 2011 to put in place such provisions as would make it incumbent upon all the ministries to refrain from any action that would appear to, or actually, influence the elections, such as postings in and out of sensitive appointments. And if required, the EC's consent should be sought. To accuse somebody of being unconstitutional in this context is being a tad unfair. Saying something not in the constitution does not make it unconstitutional. For example, constitutional amendments are made to fill the void in the laws; the provisions of the 17 constitutional amendments were new. If one were to take the accuser seriously, then all the bills bringing in the amendments were unconstitutional. And recommending innovative ideas that would help make elections free and fair is not new. One recalls that the EC in 2011 had recommended similar arrangements vis a vis the commission and ministries. The intention was not to bring the ministries directly under the EC but to accord it a supervisory role so that the ministries did not take any decision or action, or introduce new policies that might directly or indirectly influence the elections.
In this regard lessons can be drawn from India and its election commission. In India, all the ministries customarily withhold from taking actions that might influence the elections. They in no way cede their authority to the EC but accept the EC's supervisory role. Two instances would make it clear. In the last Indian election, the EC put a cap on the government's decision to announce the name of the new chief of the army. In another instance, the EC did not allow a state government to announce the increase of the government's purchase price for rice, since that might directly influence the election.
The Bangladesh Election Commission must do whatever is required, and the constitution is quite liberal in granting it every bit of power and authority, reinforced by the HC's directive, to hold a “free, fair and neutral election … to establish the true spirit of democracy.” And as much is said by the Indian Supreme Court also to the Indian EC to do whatever has to be done for free fair and credible elections. And they do not need any Divine Blessings for it.
The EC must put its house in order and prepare to serve all the three stake-holders, the political parties, the candidates and the voters. And the only stake for the government is to see that the EC is able to fulfill its mandated task by providing it all necessary help.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan ndc, psc (Retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.