Public interest in the search committee is an excellent indicator that many voters still retain hope in the system, whether justified or not. The search committee actually may not have any constitutional or legal entity but there is a great deal of hope and even faith perhaps that the job will be done well by them. In the end, their work has been largely welcomed by people. It’s not because of the names that have been finally selected by the President. It’s because a formal process has been at work and completed its task without interference. The names are not any big deal but the process is. Will the Election Commission now selected be able to act up to the expectations created by the search committee ?
Chances are that the next EC will do better because the past EC has inflicted such damage on the constitutional body that almost anyone will do better. The qualitative composition of the present EC is not much different from the previous one but people are hoping for a performance that is respectable if not excellent. In that matter, the political government may well assist the next EC just as it didn’t help the last EC.
The help may come because if the EC functioning drops below present levels, holding elections will cease to have any political meaning let alone legal/constitutional ones. So it’s in the interest of all the political parties in the field, including the AL, to make sure to ensure performance. Otherwise elected governments may start looking like elected club officials. It’s nice to have them but nobody really cares.
The birth of the mess
The fault of the last EC’s spectacularly poor performance was not due to any inherent inability to function but lack of interest in upholding its status by the political governments and parties. Elections killed its reputation. The ill-fated 2014 elections, the Dhaka City Corporation election and subsequent elections at the local government level all took their toll. For the 2014 election, the EC is not largely to blame as it had no control over participation. Whatever happened was the result of a political crisis. Whether the EC should have or could have done anything is another matter but it was a collectively produced mess, not the EC’s baby.
But the failure of the EC in subsequent elections is what finished it off particularly as it kept on insisting that it was doing a good job. The Dhaka Municipal elections mess was a major mistake as in full show of everyone, boxes were stuffed. After that came the deluge of bad elections at every level, way down to the villages; and the process turned into a farce and the system into a morass which damaged the system as a whole.
But what could the EC have done?
The EC can do very little if the political government in power decides to let things happen as it did. The government had a lot of political baskets at stake after 2014 and in the absence of the BNP opposition was intent on decimating the party’s structure. The BNP handed over the keys to this by rejecting the polls and hoping for a mass movement in a post-movement politics era. People make movements when their life and livelihood are at stake due to politics. It’s not now so the chances of one are remote for any cause. This includes elections.
So if the power exertion of the government is so high, what options are there for the EC to live up to its role? It’s in understanding this role that is important for the new members; it’s going to avoid a dismal report card.
There are some posts and jobs which are in the convergent space between the government and society where both the authorities and the people make a claim. The EC is one and that is why like the Supreme Judiciary, expectations and perhaps the claim of the people on it are direct. The EC is responsible for facilitating transfer or continuity of political power so to measure it as one would the performance of a ministry is all wrong.
Nobody expects the bureaucracy to serve the people but everyone expects the politicians to do so. The EC is responsible for ensuring that the most popular politicians make it past the post hence its job is both administrative and public, which happens in the constitutional space. That is why it’s the most difficult task of them all and the EC should recognize it.
The last EC was dominated by its government servant mentality and servility. Public relief at its departure is open and embarrassing for everyone. It’s a major error to think being in the EC is just a big job like any other and following orders is what makes the best EC.
Sadly, the last one did think so and everyone is now paying the price. It’s the most difficult job of them all and the risks that come with it are many. It includes, if needed, taking a stand against a government in power if it does something wrong on polls issues, insist on its independence and accountability to the constitution and not the PM — even it means the sack.
Our administrative and constitutional tradition doesn’t allow that sort of independence, which is why our expectations should be realistic. At the same time the new EC has a more historic burden on its head than any other EC ever because it has to deliver a lot more than just management of the office of electoral conducting. It has to manage the restoration of confidence in the EC. And that is a huge task which only the future can reveal. Let’s hope the EC understands the enormity of that task before it takes the oath of office.