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Misplaced allegiance, misplaced priorities PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 07 February 2008

Shameran Abed

THE reasons for the Election Commission’s obsession with holding local government polls before conducting the stalled general elections to the ninth parliament remain shrouded in mystery. Having dropped hints in recent months of its intention to conduct elections to the union parishads and ward commissions before the parliamentary elections which this regime has promised to hold by the end of 2008, the commission on Monday formally informed the military-controlled interim government of its plan to hold elections to four city corporations and eight municipalities in April. The commission also urged the government to create an atmosphere congenial for electioneering ahead of the polls.

The chief election commissioner, ATM Shamsul Huda, stated prior to a meeting with the chief adviser, Fakhruddin Ahmed, on Monday that the state of emergency was a barrier to campaigning and electioneering and suggested that the elections cannot be held unless emergency was lifted. However, after the meeting, another election commissioner and a retired brigadier general, M Sakhawat Hussain, said the commission had asked the government neither for the lifting nor the easing of the state of emergency. According to him, the commission merely wants the government to create an atmosphere conducive to the holding of city corporation elections and that it is up to the government to decide how it wishes to do so. How an election commissioner can even envisage that meaningful elections can be held while a state of emergency that suspends the people’s political rights is in effect is anyone’s guess.

Before considering the possible reasons for the commission wanting to conduct local government elections in general and city corporation elections in particular prior to the holding of the stalled parliamentary elections, it is worth pointing out that there are several things amiss in the way that the commission is going about fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities. According to Article 119 our country’s constitution, the Election Commission has four primary responsibilities: ‘a) hold elections to the office of President; b) hold elections of members of Parliament; c) delimit constituencies for the purpose of elections to Parliament; and d) prepare electoral rolls for the purpose of elections to the office of President and to Parliament.’ Also, Article 23 (3) of the constitution mandates that a ‘general election of members of Parliaments shall be held within ninety days after Parliament is dissolved, whether by reason of the expiration of its term or otherwise than by reason of such expiration.’ The eighth parliament was dissolved in late October of 2006, over fifteen months ago, and the Election Commission was reconstituted in early February of 2007, almost exactly one year ago. In that time, not only has the commission failed to fulfil its constitutional duty to hold parliamentary elections, it is becoming increasingly certain that the commission it is not even bothered about the holding of parliamentary elections and is busy preparing for local government elections instead.

Yet, the holding local government elections are not a responsibility of the Election Commission as far as our constitution is concerned, even though the commission always plays the critical role in the holding of local government elections at the request of the local government ministry.

However, in the current scenario, it is the Election Commission that is taking the lead in holding local government elections, in particular the city corporation elections that it has planned for April, without any apparent urgency on the part of the local government ministry or any official request from the ministry to the commission to conduct the elections on its behalf. This is unusual to say the least. Also, the commission’s justification for the holding of local government elections at this time is simply that the elections are overdue. While that is undoubtedly true, why is the commission more concerned about the fact that local government elections are overdue, but not that the far more important general elections are also long overdue and that every day of delay in holding the parliamentary elections constitutes a violation of the country’s constitution on the part of the commission?

What this reconstituted Election Commission ought to have done was to prepare for general elections as expeditiously as possible and set a date for elections independent of the perceived political agenda of our so-called non-political interim government. Instead, it seemingly decided to become an extension of the current regime and bought into its agenda, putting forward a ‘roadmap’ more than five months into its tenure that envisaged parliamentary elections before the end of 2008, thereby giving the regime enough time to carry out its political engineering. In that, this commission is very similar to the one that preceded it, which was an extension of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led alliance government. Trying to justify holding off elections till the end of this year would require, even on the part of a commission that is incredibly tardy, an immense amount of foot-dragging. That is currently what this commission is doing, prioritising everything above that which is its primary constitutional duty: holding elections to parliament!

However, foot-dragging may not be the only reason why the Election Commission is so intent upon holding local government elections before parliamentary elections. Given that the current regime has tried, unsuccessfully so far, to implement its ‘minus-two’ scheme of liquidating the political careers of BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia and Awami League president Sheikh Hasina, it is not inconceivable that the commission is aiding and abetting the plans of the ruling coterie to create a political base at the grassroots in order to challenge the political hold of the two matriarchs of our politics. The last time a military dictator was in power in our country, he did just that – holding local government elections to place his people at the grassroots only to build a platform for him to float a political party of his own. Although HM Ershad was able to prolong his stay in power thus, through the civilianisation of his government thanks to the Jatiya Party, the present regime should learn a lesson or two from the current position of that party in our national politics if it does have any intentions whatsoever of replicating that model to extend its hold on power.

If not, there is no plausible reason for this government or the Election Commission to want to waste its time on local government elections when the country has not had a parliament in over fifteen months. There has been no public demand for local government elections, at city corporations or the union parishads. The local government ministry has not expressed any desire or shown any urgency in having local government elections conducted prior to parliamentary elections. And also, the effectiveness of local governments at a time when parliament is absent and the country is being ruled by a military-controlled regime without any effective opposition is likely to be nominal anyway.

Hence, the Election Commission should gear its activities towards getting the electoral train back on track. A full year has passed since the commission was reconstituted and yet we are not even close to having the general elections to the ninth parliament. That is pitiful and pathetic on the part of the commission, a record that they will not be able to hide by bringing local government elections to the fore, whether for the simple reason of foot-dragging or for reasons more sinister.

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