Sunday, November 16, 2008

Create Level Playing Field for Candidates for Change in Bangladesh

GOPAL SEN GUPTA

WHEN WE talk about electoral democracy we would be talking about democratic practices involved in a democratic election. Included within the framework are the fundamental political values, i.e. democracy, democratic practices & democratic Institutions, the rule of law, fundamental human rights and a just & honest electoral organisation. Like other organisations established in a democracy, the electoral organisation entrusted with the power to conduct elections should completely be committed to democracy and have the will to actively promote democratic ethics.

What we see from our present political scenario? The Awami League president had alleged a conspiracy was being hatched against the December 18 parliamentary polls and said the national elections must be held on the day for transition to democracy. National elections must be held on December 18 for transition to democracy and her party want acceptable elections in a free and fair manner which will be contested by all political parties. The Awami League president stressed the need for the establishment of an effective post-election parliament through which both the elected government and the opposition will play a positive role in running the country. On the other side, the Chairperson of the Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP) expressed her concerns that the government has failed to create a promised level-playing field for all parties to contest the election, while the election commission seems favouring a certain group to clinch power. Analysts have said the participation of both major parties is crucial to ensure peaceful voting and a smooth return to democracy after nearly two years of rule by an army-backed interim government.

It is very important that the elections should be held in keeping with the schedule on December 18 for a democratically elected government which will, in fact, reflect the wishes of the people, a foreign diplomat said. He thinks that is a vision for the future that my sense is shared by everybody in this country. Asked about the BNP’s unwillingness to contest the elections, he said the BNP must make the decision on the matter. But from his perspective as a high commissioner of a country, he has very much hope that they will have the widest possible participation in this election. Other foreign diplomats hoped that all political parties will be able to participate in the election to compete in a free and fair manner to democratically elect a government. About the BNP’s allegation of absence of a level playing field for fair polls, one foreign diplomat said it is the matter of the caretaker government to discuss with all political parties and expressed that of course, everyone in this country wants to see free and fair elections and all political parties have equal opportunities to participate and campaign for the elections

Democratic ethics have ideally been outlined by the various international conventions. The adoptions of some of the fundamental elements found in the guidelines would help to establish some kind of electoral standard which enjoys not only the broad support of the people but also most importantly the attainment of a standard that is internationally recognised. To determine where exactly we are with international standard, we would have to examine the legal framework governing democratic elections in the country. There is no ‘best’ electoral system suitable to all and no universally recognised standard attached to any one of them. The choice of electoral system needs to be made with desired goals in mind. It must be understood by all that the effect which different kinds of electoral system can promote are ultimately contextual and depend on the specific cleavages and divisions within any given society.

Choosing an electoral system is one of the most important institutional decisions for any democracy. An electoral system can help to “engineer” specific outcomes such as encouraging co-operation and accommodation in a divided society, a point very much relevant to independent Bangladesh in its infant stage by which cleavages and divisions are reduced significantly through co-operation and accommodation among the society divided with race, religion, culture as well as geopolitical environment at that particular point of time. The International Handbook on electoral system specifically mentioned that in the choice of an electoral system an important consideration is whether a country is sharply divided along political, religious, ethnic or other lines and whether minorities are, in the process, going to be properly and equitably represented in the political system.

The choice of the electoral system within the context of a particular country can make a significant positive or negative impact on the electoral fortunes of the various political contenders. As far as we are concerned the simple system chosen had seen the negative impact on parties which failed to gain popularity (in term of seats obtained) and had even disappeared from the political scene. On the other hand there are parties whose leaders have been far sighted enough to undertake policy of accommodation and co-operation and had continued to gain seats (and power) devoid of any prospect of being wiped out of the political scene at all. In spite of these difficulties the EC has been in complete control and has done very well in vital areas pertaining to the actual electoral conduct and process, e.g. Nomination, Poll, the Count and the pronouncement of results. Complete transparency has been achieved in those areas even though in carrying out those functions the EC has to rely on the honesty and impartiality of government officials. In general government officials, in terms of accountability, owe their loyalty to the government of the day.

Earning the confidence of the people is considered the most challenging task for the Commission. So far so good. For the past general elections we have managed to earn that credit. On the other hand it is also a completely challenging task for the Commission to earn and maintain the confidence of the opposition parties especially when all the time they harbour a sense of complete distrust for the government and collaterally for the Commission. Ironically what ever the Commission does has always’ been quaintly seen as working towards maintaining favourable conditions for the government and of course for the present caretaker government in power. What is considered completely fair sometimes are pronounced as unfair and the built-in advantages enjoyed by the party in power and a complete manipulation of those advantages would during critical time completely wipe out any shred of confidence they may have over the whole system and the agency in charge.

When we talk about election management with international standards, it is important that the legal framework on election should be so structured as to be unambiguous, understandable, transparent and should address all components of an electoral system necessary to ensure democratic election. What is really important to our nation is the necessary components in the law which will enhance the credibility of and public confidence in the elections. The legitimacy of the government established under the system should not at all be subject to any form of post election outcry and examinations.How does a member of the public view somebody's’ statement which says that determining the mode of campaign as none of the EC’s business. What exactly are we expected to do during the time when with the conduct of a democratic election, democratic rules appear to indicate that freedom to campaign can be considered the most important element in the election process. Which other ways can EC earn the confidence of the people other than being judged on our performance in the conduct of a free and fair election.

I believe that all aspects of the electoral Commissions’ establishment, composition, status and functions are relevant to the question of transparency in the electoral process. In term of the International standards and guideline, the legal framework should require that the Commission be established and should operate in a manner that ensures the independent and impartial administration of elections.As for the electoral management system we are quite close to the internationally recognised electoral standards. In Bangladesh the legal framework on election will provide the important elements for the establishment a strong electoral management process and mechanism but yet the overall framework clearly does not provide sufficient rooms for the Commission to manoeuvre and place itself completely in a commanding position to set up a completely level playing field during the election period.

When we talk about election management with international standards, it is important that the legal framework on election should be so structured as to be unambiguous, understandable, transparent and should address all components of an electoral system necessary to ensure democratic election. How does a member of the public view somebody's’ statement which says that determining the mode of campaign as none of the EC’s business. What exactly are we expected to do during the time when in terms of the conduct of a democratic election, democratic rules appear to indicate that freedom to campaign can be considered the most important element in the election process. Which other ways can we earn the confidence of the people other than being judged on our performance in the conduct of a free and fair election.

When we talk about democratic electoral process, we always hear people mentioning about the need for a level playing field. The expression “level playing field, according to electoral guidelines required the fair application of the following to all political parties.

• All rules and regulations
• Freedom to campaign by all means available (Democratic electoral campaign)
• Access to the state owned media to explain program to electorate
• Free to consult the election management team (Access to Electoral Commission)
• Can participate, where necessary, in election preparatory process, or
• Can participate in observing that all procedures are being properly applied.

Level playing field is a necessary ingredient of a free and fair election although no one with enough experience in the conduct of election will ever subscribe to the view that an absolute equality can be achieved between the contending parties.

Built in advantages enjoyed by the party in power in Bangladesh are many, including the right to call the shots, publicity over policy announcements and most of other public related exposures, including the support the ruling party may enjoy from a large number of privately owned media bodies which consider as being the major obstacles to the establishment of a playing field considered level in our election

Election is a festival of democracy. It fosters an inclusive state, democracy rooted in popular sovereignty and sustainable peace and tests the competitive strength of political parties and leaders through program and ideologies. In this context, it is important for the Nepalese press to keep the hope of citizens alive and kicking by serving key roles in democratic initiatives, democratic consolidation, democratic expansion and democratic deepening. Truly independent press spreads democratic ideology and plays an important role in the maintenance of the democratic system. It signifies a program of public rationality and a voice of the voiceless.

Since print and electronic media are the prime channels of transmitting electoral messages, politics in Bangladesh will be played out increasingly in communicative space. Press can contribute to ease the nation's transition process by creating election-friendly environment, democratising the public sphere and legitimising political initiatives. In Bangladesh, politicians talk more to the press than among themselves. It is the press that shapes their overall cognitive understanding about politics. A strong identification of citizens with political parties steered by the press provides greater motivation to vote and engage in politics. But, party is only a part of society, not the whole. Press can play an important role to make democracy for everybody by reaching to even the passive and alienated populace and sensitising them on public questions. By providing critical information responsible press nurtures an informed society capable of making vital choices in the election process and contributing towards the emancipatory potential of rationality embodied in participatory democracy. #

Gopal Sengupta is a freelance writer based in Canada who can be reached at: gopalsengupta@aol.com