Chronicle of Mahfuz Anam: The task of the search committee is as moral as it is legal
Don’t let a few weeks of your job be a curse on the nation
Illustration: Biplob Chakroborty
Illustration: Biplob Chakroborty
(I thank the search committee for inviting me and apologize for not being present due to Covid-related complications.)
From the start, the government said that there was not enough time to make a law for the formation of an Electoral Commission (EC), which has been mandated by the Constitution of Bangladesh since its adoption in 1972. Then suddenly the government said it had enough time to make such a law. Although it is a law relating to the “Appointment of the Chief Election Commissioner and other Election Commissioners” (the original name is in Bengali, the abbreviated translation is ours), what it does in effect, it is to set out the formation of a “search committee”, which will select and recommend to the president who, in turn, will form the EC in consultation with the prime minister (the president is constitutionally required to do so ). How and why the idea of the “search committee” arose when a law was needed to form the electoral commission itself has never been satisfactorily explained.
At first glance, the search committee is trying to find the right team to form the CE. But the underlying importance of their task is that they lay the groundwork for free and fair parliamentary elections to be held in less than two years, by December 2023.
However strongly supporters of the ruling party attempt to whitewash the events surrounding the last general election, serious doubts persist as to its authenticity. Due to flawed elections, the prestige of elected members of parliament (MPs) has taken a nosedive – and with it the prestige of parliament itself. It has also made our democracy questionable – for us and outside – and clouded our otherwise stunning success in other areas.
Here, it can be recalled that under the Electoral Commission headed by Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmed (February 2012 to February 2017), in the 2014 legislative elections, 153 deputies out of 300 were elected without opposition. This means that no elections were held in more than half of Bangladesh’s constituencies as the majority of voters were unable to vote. Equally important is the fact that the undisputed seats formed the majority in the House and formed the new government, without obtaining a single vote. Thus, former Chief Electoral Commissioner (CEC) Rakibuddin holds the dubious honor of presiding over perhaps the only election ever held in the world where the majority of voters were unable to vote, and yet the election was certified totally free and fair.
Over the years, the ability of political parties to manipulate elections has grown. With the work of companies like Cambridge Analytica on the election of Donald Trump in 2016 (there must be many more operating in the shadows and yet to be exposed. We have no idea of Israeli-produced surveillance software like Pegasus – which is said to have been purchased – can do this), with their data-processing algorithms powerful enough to discern the deepest biases in the subconscious minds of voters and bring them into play to determining how a voter should vote, elections have become increasingly subtle. to the gross manipulation of the masses, not to the fabrication of an electoral mandate as was the case in the past.
This situation is further exacerbated by the fact that the ruling parties in most countries enjoy a far greater advantage in manipulating elections than the opposition. Given their control over state media and their intimate relationship with “friendly media”, the ability of ruling parties to sway public opinion is a thousand times greater than that of their rivals. They do this in several ways: for example by inaugurating development projects or granting extraordinary grants in electorally vulnerable areas before elections or by instilling divisive ideologies and exploiting ethnic, religious and racial fault lines at their advantage. With all major state institutions – bureaucracy, police, intelligence, local government – mostly under their total control, and with a huge source of funds, ruling parties everywhere have reduced to a mockery what was supposed to be the expression of “the will of the people.”
Professor Ali Riaz, professor emeritus at Illinois State University in the United States, in his very readable column published in this daily newspaper on February 16, 2022, talks about hybrid political regimes – that is, political regimes that combine democratic and authoritarian traits – and how they conduct elections. He points out that these regimes are of two distinct types: competitive electoral authoritarianism and hegemonic electoral authoritarianism. The main difference between them, he says, is the way they organize elections. In the first type, while the whole political process is highly repressive and the media is muzzled, the election engenders a kind of “uncertainty” through some form, however rudimentary, of competition. But in the latter type, this “uncertainty” is removed. He cites an essay by Steven Levitsky and Lucan A Way titled “The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism”, which states that in the hegemonic variety of hybrid regimes, “electoral manipulation is institutionalized in such a way that competition is rendered useless and removes the The removal of uncertainty is achieved through various measures, including constitutional changes and electoral changes, but this requires that the electoral commission become a tool that works in unison with other state apparatuses in favor of the incumbent.”
Apart from the authoritarian nature and tendencies of the current ruling party, the status of our elections has been further affected by the utter inability of the main opposition party to reorganize and regain a prominent place in the hearts and minds of our voters. The BNP’s leadership crisis in the form of Khaleda Zia’s illness and Vice President Tareque Rahman’s incompetence have further reduced the prospect of any serious challenges for the incumbent.
It is against this backdrop of global shrinking democratic space, a growing tendency for ruling parties to manipulate elections, and Bangladesh’s own prospect of transitioning to developing country status by 2026 (Covid has pushed back two years from 2024), that the search committee select potential candidates for an election commission that will conduct the next election within 22 months.
The last factor is important to remember. Attaining developing country status will certainly lead to higher standards of governance and an insistence by the global community on increasingly democratic practices in the years to come.
We hope that the search committee perceives the totality of its task and does not treat it as a technical task of fulfilling certain legal criteria and technicalities. To be correct only in procedures and not in substance will amount to missing the forest for a few trees. Far greater than the law, there is an enormous moral task awaiting the learned and experienced search committee. We hope they won’t forget for a moment that their few weeks of work will be either a boon or a curse to our nation and our democracy for the next five important years.
Mahfouz Anam is the editor and publisher of the Daily Star.