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.

With the new EC appointed, its farewell time for Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad and his EC colleagues.
With the new EC appointed, it’s farewell time for Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad & Co.

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.

The new EC: KM Nurul Huda (left). Clockwise from top left: Rafiqul Islam, Mahbub Talukder, Kabita Khanam and Shahadat Hossain Chowdhury.
The new EC: KM Nurul Huda (left). Clockwise from top left: Rafiqul Islam, Mahbub Talukder, Kabita Khanam and Shahadat Hossain Chowdhury.

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.

Syed Badrul Ahsanis a bdnews24.com columnist.

7 Responses to “New Election Commission can make history . . . or repeat it”

  1. Imran Chowdhury

    So, saddened to read the avalanche of trolls against the selection of the EC. Let there be integrity and let them do the job; don’t start firing salvo before they have even taken the position.
    Give them the respite to prove themselves and their honesty and integrity.
    Forget the election – give the nation some insight as to what you would do for the 160 million people once you are in government. This abusive mentality ought to stop, I think.
    I know Brig Gen Shahadat – a gentleman of immaculate honesty and tenacity.
    Surely, the rest of the commissioners know the onus that the nation is bestowing unto them.

  2. Sabbir

    All said, the new Election Commission CAN conduct a free and fair election if there’s the will. There’s no dearth of collective competence and experience in the make up of the EC.

  3. Anwar A. Khan

    There is no smoking gun. The EC shall not do their jobs for the benefit of one candidate over the other. They shall do this for the benefit of Bangladesh’s public. The Election Commission of Bangladesh is emerging as the fourth important institutional arrangement, the other three being the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. The EC should be the most trusted of all institutions. But it needs to formulate a conscious policy towards democratisation and rule-enforcement if it has to become the means to the end of a fair and vibrant representative democracy.
    Bangladesh’s Election Commission has not been able to nourish the country’s democratic health over the years by improving the quality of election management. The path to democracy was rough, as democratic institutions in the country were not allowed to be functioned democratically.

    • Anwar A. Khan

      We have come to a stage in Bangladesh when holding a free and fair election is no more news. In fact not holding one would be an exception. This should be country’s promise to its own people and to the world. There shall be no let off in the fight against money power in elections. The other goal is to have every eligible voter on our electoral rolls and every voter to vote in the elections. The Commission has to have a simple vision that elections are to be completely free of crime and abuse of money, based on a perfect electoral roll and with full participation of voters. Our progress on this road must be made sure and steady.

  4. golam arshad

    Who is concerned on the recent appointment of CEC and its four members of the Election Commission? I believe none! The current political atmosphere is divisive and explosive. Bitterness, mistrust, revenge and vengeance has become the ‘Political Order’ of the Day! We need a National Dialogue between Political Parties including civil society. If there is not a conducive political atmosphere, what could even a neutral EC do or deliver? Let us face the truth… Election under a CARETAKER non-political government, yielded a FAIR result. In the past Former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia was not in favor of Caretaker Government, but after an effective movement led by the then Leader of the opposition honorable Sheikh Hasina forced Khaleda Zia to concede to Caretaker Government. And we know the rest of the story. If there is no consensus on the 15th Amendment, the next General Election will be ‘farce’. I think, 15th Amendment is the bone of contention with Parties outside the ambit of power. The consensus between two major Parties BNP and Awami League, in a meaningful dialogue is not only significant, but has become a National Demand to sit for negotiation leading to consensus on the 15th Amendment of our sacred Constitution.
    Is Awami League ready to take the first step? It matters little who heads the Election Commission. I believe, the Honorable President Abdul Hamid can easily initiate this dialogue. He can exert the Good Office of the Presidency, and can make this happen.

    Golam Arshad
    Former Press Minister (2004-2006)
    Bangladesh Embassy, Washington DC

  5. Sarker Javed Iqbal

    When your position is against the core values of our liberation war, then we cannot expect that you will welcome a ‘Freedom Fighter’ CEC and it has become almost customary with BNP and its allies to say ‘NO’ to any step taken by the present government. The word ‘thanks’ is totally vanished from their dictionary.

  6. M. Emad

    Freedom fighter K. M. Nurul Huda took part in 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. Naturally, 1971 War Criminal Jamaat-i-Islami and its coalition partner BNP raged to know that freedom fighter President Abdul Hamid appointed another freedom fighter K. M. Nurul Huda as the new chief election commissioner (CEC) of Bangladesh.

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