Now that the President has appointed a new Election Commission, the next move will be one of seeing how the team led by Chief Election Commissioner-designate KM Nurul Huda performs. By any measure and through the years, Bangladesh’s Election Commission has remained under pressure, with that taint, real or otherwise, of partisanship regularly undermining it or threatening to make it irrelevant.
There are too the tales of the past, when Election Commissions headed by certain individuals quite failed to live up to the expectations of the nation and swiftly helped raise all the unsavoury questions about the qualifications or abilities of those in charge of it. The Magura by-election of 1994, when severe irregularities marred the result and therefore left the Justice Rouf-led EC in the soup, has never been forgotten. Had the Chief Election Commissioner and his team played their roles objectively and adroitly, the clamour for a fresh caretaker system which subsequently arose would not have been there. The Magura incident was to lead to a fresh new crisis for democracy in that it only helped widen the already gaping divide between the two major political parties in the country.
If the Rouf-led EC was a needless embarrassment, the one headed by Justice Aziz was a scandal. It went into the sordid partisan business of inventing voters when there were not any; it added names to the voters’ list when the owners of the names either did not exist or were in their graves. The Election Commission headed by Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad was miles ahead of the Rouf and Aziz outfits, in that positive sense of the meaning. Its problem was fundamentally an absence of assertiveness. Where it faltered, owing to an inability on its part to come down hard on those violating the electoral code of conduct, it left citizens wondering if it could at all do a good job. But, then again, there were the occasions, such as the recent mayoral elections in Narayanganj, where it was able to claw back to something of self-dignity. The Rakibuddin EC, it is fair to suggest, spent a good deal of its time trying to fight its way out of the woods. Public perceptions of its performance will remain a mixed bag.
That takes one to the question of what the future holds for the Nurul Huda-headed Election Commission. The good news coming out of the search and subsequent selection of the new EC is that so far it has not raised any worrying dust of discontent, apart from the predictable kind from equally predictable quarters. The better news is that the search committee and then the President paid little attention to thoughts of roping some of our many television talk show guests — individuals whose names may have been toyed with — into the Election Commission. Judging by public perceptions of the performance of the chattering classes on the ubiquitous television channels in the country, the need to keep them at bay in the search for a new EC is understandable. And, yes, welcome as well.
To the future, then, for the new EC. That will of course depend on whether or how soon (the ‘soon’ ought to be right at the beginning of its term in office) and how strongly the new team can make it clear to the country that it means business. That, of course, is easier said than done, owing to history. But there is at least one instance of EC performance Nurul Huda and his colleagues can look back at as they chart their course to the future. We speak of the Election Commission headed by ATM Shamsul Huda, which successfully supervised the general election of December 2008 and thereby helped in the restoration of democratic government in the country.
The record of the Shamsul Huda-headed Election Commission has so far not been matched. Nurul Huda will be doing himself and the country a huge favour if his team takes the Shamsul Huda EC as the benchmark to be equalled or bettered. The fact cannot be overlooked, though, of Shamsul Huda and his EC working at a time when no political government was in office. The country was under a state of emergency, with a putatively civilian caretaker government, led by Fakhruddin Ahmed, in charge and which owed its assertive nature to the presence and support of the military. That EC, it then follows, was sure of itself — because it had the imprimatur of the caretaker regime to go ahead with the business it needed to do.
KM Nurul Huda will be performing with a political government in office. Judging by the record of earlier ECs operating in the shadow of political or party dispensations, it is quite possible that the political classes will attempt to browbeat the new team into intimidation. It is a condition the new EC should, in its own interest as well as that of the country, have control over. The first step toward reassuring the country that it is in a position to assert its authority is to begin demonstrating its independence early on. Nothing should or must be done which will raise questions, particularly in the political region, about the impartiality or competence of the Election Commission in the matter of supervising upcoming elections. The general election scheduled for January 2019 is a case in point.
The road ahead for the new Election Commission promises to be rocky. The BNP has already made it known that the EC is a reflection of the Prime Minister’s desire and that no fair or credible election can therefore be expected under KM Nurul Huda. The new CEC, in the eyes of the BNP, is controversial. None of this should be accepted at face value, but for such suspicions to be dispelled is to have CEC Huda and his team hit the ground running on Day One. Along the way and on the days that follow, the new EC team should have a paramount objective before it — that of convincing people that it means business and that those who pursue politics in Bangladesh will necessarily defer to it.
The new Election Commission can make new history through strengthening the argument for democracy. Or it can repeat the history which has laid many of its preceding ECs low.
We the people will wait and watch — before we can deliver judgement.