Bangladesh next Parliamentary Elections: An Analysis.

Bangladesh next Parliamentary Elections: An Analysis.

By Barrister Harun ur Rashid

Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has the prerogative to call parliamentary elections any time between 24th October and 25th January. In New York she reportedly announced that elections should be any day before 25th January.

It is an interesting phenomenon in the county that no government could win two terms one after the other during the last 22 years in the four parliamentary elections-1991, 1996, 2001 and 2008 (2006 February election has not been counted as it was boycotted by major mainstream party Awami League).Another interesting fact is that no defeated ruling party accepted their loss gracefully and accused vote-rigging and other irregularities in the results. It means no party had confidence on the Election Commission which conducted the elections.

The politics of confrontation between the ruling party and the opposition party in the parliament including the boycotting the sessions of the parliament has become “the culture of politics” to their detrimental effect. It has retarded the development of healthy democratic policy in the country. There is a saying that “tyrannical majority and recalcitrant minority destroy democracy”. Although all the major parties cry hoarse for establishing democratic principles and practices in the country, there exists no democracy within the party itself and the leader of the party decides everything including all important office-bearers of the party.

Many suggest that the chairperson the party should not be either the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition in parliament. In the late 50s of the Awami League government led by Ataur Rahman Khan in East Pakistan, the constitution of AL required that ministers could not be the office bearers of the party. When the option was given to Ataur Rahman Khan, he resigned from the party and continued to be the chief minister but Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib resigned as a minister and returned to the party.

Why no two consecutive terms?

There are several reasons as to why the ruling governments could not consecutively serve two terms and a few of them deserve mention.The incumbency factor weighs against the ruling party. People somehow get tired with a five year rule of a government and they want a change because in their perception earlier days were better than the existing ones. Although their incomes may have increased during the rule but they want the price of consumer goods should remain as it was in the past which is impossible given the yearly inflation. The past days were always perceived “golden” which may not be necessarily true.

Short memory of people leads to forget the past misdeeds and corruptive conduct of the past government. They compare with what the ruling government promised to do during the election campaign and what the people got from the government. Despite good work in many sectors, there would be big gaps in some sectors between the expectations of people and the actual progress made by the incumbent government.

Another factor is the candidates for MPs come with big promises to develop the constituency but once elected, they are perceived to have become disconnected with people. Furthermore many MPs failed to get funds from the agencies of the government due to bureaucratic tangle. Only Ministers are able to deliver some of their promises to the electorate but often it might not be enough to secure votes for the second time.

In national elections, macro issues loom large and any scandals or failure to implement national projects and undesirable activities of the party’s allied organizations often weigh heavily against the incumbent government. What is important is not reality but the perception of voters.

Election without dissolution of current parliament:

The constitution provides parliament needs not to be dissolved before the next parliamentary election. It it is not dissolved and if MPs contest the elections, it will not create a level-playing field for other candidates. The inequality among contestants may also contravene Article 19 read with Article 27 of the constitution which affirms equality of all citizens as one of the fundamental rights.

Current electoral system:

The current electoral system –the first-past-the post –inherited from Britain awards 100 per cent of the representation to a 50.1 per cent majority and the 49.9% votes for the other defeated candidates were wasted. Under this system, a particular party may not get a single seat in the country although it might get 35% per cent votes in the whole country. For example, in 2008 December election, BNP reportedly received 33% of the popular vote but secured 32 seats under the existing system, while AL-grand coalition secured 49% of the popular vote but secured 262 seats in the parliament of 300-seat in the country. Therefore, many suggest that a combination of the current system with proportional representation could be introduced to reflect the representation of respective parties that will broadly signify people’s choices as Nepal has already adopted the mixed electoral system.

Nominations for candidates:

At the last December 2008 elections, it is reported by NGO Sujon that BNP nominated 4 convicts, 16 accused, 12 loan defaulters,7 relatives of top party leaders and one corruption suspect, while AL nominated 10 accused, 1 convict, 8 loan defaulters, two relatives of top party leaders and one corruption suspect. JP nominated 1 convict, and 4 loan defaulters, while Jamaat-e-Islami nominated 3 accused and one corruption suspect and other parties nominated 10 loan defaulters (The Daily Star: 4th December 2008).

Voting pattern:

The voting pattern shows that the mainstream parties have committed voters who would not change their votes under any circumstances. During the last four elections, it is estimated roughly on an average, 33% of the poplar vote is for the BNP, while the AL has about 37% and leaving 11% to the rest of parties. The most important is 19% of the floating or uncommitted voters. It is the floating voters who determine the result of the election.

It’s perhaps a sad truth of politics that people prefer to vote for the most likable candidates over the ones that are more experienced or honest that offer better policies for their constituency. Many great candidates are discarded at an election. There is a saying the people get the government they deserve.

Election -running involves huge costs. To get a nomination from a major party is the first hurdle because candidates are reportedly required to donate huge sums to the party and thereafter there is the cost of running the election campaign. Therefore only the businesspersons can afford to run the election and professionals and other section of civil society do not come forward because they cannot spend such big amount of money.

As a result, the proportion of businesspersons as MPs has increased in the parliament year after year. At the ninth parliament after 2008 election, according to TIB 56% of the MPs are businesspersons and lawyers are only 20% and teachers 17%, although only 8% voters want MPs from the business community. Furthermore 55% MPs in the current parliament have no parliamentary experience (Survey by TIB).

Role of the Returning officers:

The Election Commission is an independent constitutional body. However the Constitution is silent about the independence of the secretariat that provides logistical and operational functions to the Election Commission.In 2008 elections, Deputy Commissioners are appointed as Returning Officers (RO) in 64 districts, for 300 constituencies and 35,263 were appointed as presiding officers, one each for each polling centre. To assist the presiding officers, 1,77, 277 assistant presiding officers and 3,54,554 polling officers were appointed ( See Sakhawat Hussain: Electoral Reforms in Bangladesh: 2012).

According to the former Election Commissioner Brig. Gen. Sakhawat Hussain almost all of these officials were government servants who “are the kingpin in any given election”. He writes in his book: “the most important is that RO at the constituency or administrative district level and ARO at the Upazilla level who under the law given with enormous power in the conduct of the election”. He recorded allegations of manipulation of election results at RO’s level to alter the results of polling centres. He cited: “one such case was in Sadar Munshiganj constituency in 2001. The result was manipulated by then RO in favour of a BNP candidate against rival AL candidate.” (page 69 of the book).

Government servants should be impartial and non-political persons. They are paid by tax payers and should serve people. However regrettably in Bangladesh since 1991 government servants remain highly politicised by their political masters whoever in power.

Concluding remarks:

Given the circumstances, many suggest that the Election Commission should appoint all 64 Returning Officers to conduct the elections and therefore the manpower of the Commission needs to be strengthened. It cannot be denied that there is a pressure from within and outside to hold free, credible and inclusive parliamentary election and in politics nothing is impossible and in that context, major political parties will hopefully come to an understanding in holding a credible, fair and inclusive next parliamentary election to fulfill the wishes and aspirations of the people in the country. I am confident that our political leaders will not and must not fail the people. After all, the constitution in Article 7 asserts that all powers belong to people.

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