Challenges for electoral democracy in Bangladesh

by Dr Md Mostafizur Rahaman

010Election is an important milestone for democratic transitions. It provides an opportunity for examining how a range of institutions are functioning in a transitional setting and whether fundamental human rights are being protected and promoted. A critical gauge of this process is whether the people believe that they are free to exercise their rights to political expression, association, assembly and movement as part of the electoral process.
The examination whether election is genuine includes not only whether the election administration is acting impartially and effectively but also whether political contestants have the opportunity to campaign freely for popular support. The going-over must also include determining whether government resources are properly used in the electoral process, whether the military is neutral and acting as a professional body, whether the police and prosecutors are acting to maintain order and are protecting those seeking to exercise their civil and political rights, whether the judiciary is conducting itself impartially and effectively, whether the news media are free to act as conveyers of accurate information and to act as watchdogs over government and political processes as well as whether they are providing access to political contestants and objective coverage of those contestants and events of national importance.
In effect, elections must be examined in the context of a country’s broader transition towards democracy not taken out of context. A critical element in this process is building public confidence in elections. Unless the electors feel that they are free to make political choices, adequately informed to do so and their choices will be respected, an election process will not be truly meaningful. At the same time, political contestants must feel that they have a fair chance of reaching and winning support of the voters — that there is a level playing field in order to have the incentive to participate in the process and to respect the outcome of the elections. This, too, is crucial for the public to have confidence in the government that results from the elections.
011However, during the short life-span of Bangladesh, spanning about 44 years (1971–2014), the country has been ruled by the military dictators for about 15 years (1975–1990). So, theoretically, the country can be said to be ruled under democracy for 29 years. But the country did not see much success of these types of government. The prime cause of the failure of the elected government to work efficiently is stated to be that efficient people are not elected in the election. The probable answers are: there is no such efficient person in the country; the efficient people contest in elections but could not win; and there is very little scope for the efficient people to win in the present system of election. So, merely holding a periodic election does not establish democracy; election needs to systematically change and must be free, fair and meaningful.
After the 1972-75’ regime it is found that the political parties of Bangladesh does not trust and respect each other. As a result the caretaker government issue was raised. It is true that Bangladesh Awami League itself campaigned for caretaker government in 1996 and got its way credit has to be given to BNP for agreeing. But, due to the bad experience of military-backed caretaker government which had overstays its term by two years and comply with the high court verdict the Awami League government abolished it by 15thamendment of constitution. Due to Caretaker Government issue the former opposition party BNP and its alliance boycotted the 10thparliament election and still they are committed to boycott all parliamen­tary elections under these conditions.
My question is that if the Caretaker Government issue is solved and reintroduced, whether the democratic situation will be good then the country will see much more success? The answer would be obviously not. I trequired fundamental reform in election system. It is universal true that without efficient leadership it is not possible. In present system two types of problem we found and those are (i) effects of money, muscle and official influence; (ii) lake of proportional representation.
Though the election is the way to shift governmental power, however, merely holding a periodic election does not establish democracy. Election must be free, fair and meaningful. Elections will be free and fair only if they are not manipulated by money, muscle and official influence. Elections will be meaningful only if free and fair elections lead to changes in the quality of elected representatives and consequently better governance. Unfortunately, money, muscle and official influence surpassed all public expectations in elections over the years in Bangladesh and this increasingly lowered the quality of our elected leaders.
Money influence in election is a common picture in Bangladesh. It happens in several important ways. One obvious and widely prevalent use of money starts during the buying of nominations from established political parties. This seedy act is known as manonayan banijya or ‘nomination trade’. Candidates often pay huge sums of money to party leader and sometimes to several leaders of the party. Through such nomination trade many corrupted businessmen and owners undisclosed money in the past got chance to enter the parliament, making this august institution a club of unsavory characters. Buying votes is an important use of money in elections. Candidates often pay cash and sometimes material items such as saris, lungis and other things for buying votes. Voters are almost always entertained with drinks and snacks and sometimes more. Widespread poverty and lack of awareness of voters makes such vote buying possible.
Another use of money in elections is to buy official influences. Sometimes returning officers, polling officers, and law enforcement personnel etc are bribed. In the same vein, services of hooligans and musclemen are also bought and weapons leased with money to influence election results. Sometimes services of dummy candidates are bought with money. In recent elections, one or more dummy candidates run incognito in support of a major candidate and polling agents of such candidates support the major candidate’s attempts to cast false votes. These agents also support their benefactors in cases of disputes in vote counting etc. Money is often used for campaign expenses in excess of the limit, which is currently half a million takas. Money is also used for unallowable election expenses such as wall writings, colour posters, transporting voters, and motorized vehicles showdown for election campaigns.
The influence of muscle power on elections is a fact of life in many countries, including Bangladesh. Muscle power is normally used for the following ends: intimidating opposing candidates, their representatives and supporters; driving away the polling agents of opposing candidates on election day; threatening the poor and minority voters to prevent them from voting; snatching ballot boxes; stuffing ballot boxes; disrupting law and order around the polling centres to slow down voting, or to chase away voters or stop voting altogether; capturing polling centres; disrupting the counting of votes or destroying ballot papers or result sheets; altering the polling results and the broadcasting of the results; and so on.
Muscle power is exercised both before and after polls. Violence leading to death and injuries are frequently the outcome of the demonstration of raw muscle power. During the 10th parliamentary elections, terrorism and violence were realised. The ruling party was adamant for election at any cost and the opposition who boycotted the election were also adamant to stop it at any cost. As a result, the country saw strikes, bombing, houses and public places being set on fire, petrol bombs being hurled etc. More than 500 people were killed and a huge number of people were injured in election violence throughout the country. And even the post-election clashes in Dohar resulted in three deaths while at least 25 people died on Election Day violence after security forces fired shots into protesters and opposition activists burnt more than 100 voting centres. The opportunist evils attacked the Hindu community in 16 villages of different districts where two women were raped and three temples burnt, 69 people injured and their houses and shops vandalised and looted.
The neutrality of the government in power, and of other relevant institutions including the Election Commission, is a prerequisite for free, fair and acceptable elections. Undue official influence can, in fact, cause havoc with election outcomes. Bangladesh’s experience shows that such influence can work at every step of the election process and distort election results. In Bangladesh, the Election Commission is not fully independent. Though it was set up as an independent constitutional body, it was brought under the president’s secretariat during the Ershad regime. The establishment ministry is under the Prime Minister’s Office; so, the Election Commission has no power to taken action against the politically identified government officers involved in elections.
Besides, the recruitment process of the chief and other election commissioners is also not fair. In most In most cases, they are recruited on their political bias. For example during the Awami League regime, a former government official, who took a public position against the first BNP government, was appointed election commissioner. All the appointments of the BNP-led alliance government were more or less partisan and some were nakedly so. In fact, the appointment of the chief election commissioner MA Aziz, was made on partisan considerations and was found to be unconstitutional by the High Court.
Based on the above discussion, it is very clear that influence of money and muscle are always visible in Bangladesh and it does not make any difference in elections under the caretaker government or elected partisan government. Political parties of Bangladesh are debating among themselves whether the caretaker government thought correct or not. But it is true that without systematic changes in election process, it is not possible for efficient candidates to win to take the leadership of a new Bangladesh. The caretaker government may play some neutral roles that can minimise the possibility of government officials influencing the election, but it is no guarantee for efficient candidates to win.
To ensure the win of efficient candidates, we need to reform our traditional election process and consider the proportional voting system. National government bodies of any country work best where such ‘proportional voting’ system is in practice. Democracy is also better practised under proportional voting system (or proportional representation system) where one vote for a party rather than an individual. Among the advanced western democracies (except the United States and the United Kingdom), it is also the predominant voting system. The basic approach of proportional voting system is simple; legislators are elected in multi-member districts, instead of single-member districts, and the number of seats that a party wins in an election is proportional to the amount of its support among voters. So if you have a 10-member district and a party wins 51 per cent of the vote, it receives 51 per cent of the seats. If another party wins 25 per cent of the vote, it gets 25 per cent of the seats; and if a third party gets 15 per cent of the vote, it wins 15 per cent of the  seats and so on. This system eliminates the ‘mushroom’ growth of political parties by making it obligatory for a party to obtain a minimum percentage of popular votes in the election.
The proportional voting system has been devised to solve many of the ills caused by the majority voting system. As a rule, proportional voting system provides and guarantees more accurate representation of parties as well, better representation for minorities, fewer waste of votes, a higher level of voter turnout, better representation of women, greater likelihood of a real majority rule, and little opportunity for vote buying and using muscle power. Competent and qualified persons are attracted to politics through this system because they do not need to spend money or to run after voters to be elected. The political parties list their candidates sequentially under this system and voters know in advance who would win the election if a party is expected to get a certain percentage of total votes. A party which nominates thieves and thugs would be rejected by decent voters and thus, there would be more ‘decency’ in the election process. Under this system, the government of the so called ‘Jack of all trades’, to some extent, could also be eliminated.
For democracy and development, we need to establish a governance system through election and that election should be on the basis of proportional representation system where the judiciary would be fully independent, administration totally overhauled and local government bodies effective, strong and also independent. A strong local government means that all power should effectively lie with this tier of the local government structure for local administration. This local administration will be fully responsible for education, justice, health care and the policing of the small unit under its jurisdiction.
In traditional voting system, minor parties have no representation in the parliament. Minor parties, by definition, begin with minority support, which wins nothing in ‘winner-take-all’ elections. But the proportional voting system allows represented minorities to have a say in the parliament. In short, governance is more likely to take place at the centre of the political spectrum with proportional representation since the electorate is fully represented and voters are able to express a wider range of preferences. Opposition voices will be heard and their ideas will be far more likely to be debated. If those ideas win a growing support, major parties will have to adjust accordingly in order to hold onto their supporters.
The proportional representation system is not beyond criticism as well. Critics tend to argue that proportional representation often may lead to coalition governments. Since representatives of so many parties are elected, it is very unlikely that just one will gain sufficient seats to form a government. However, it is noted that in India, there have been successive coalition governments. In modern-day politics, the emergence of various interest groups representing political parties, including the environmentally-friendly parties, is a new phenomenon, and indicates plurality of views among the electorate. Besides, India and many European countries are compelled to form coalition governments even under the first-past-the-post system.
One political party majority rule still continues even in the parliamentary democracy in Bangladesh. Already we have enough experience of it. We observed that the opposition in most cases did not take part in development process in the parliament. It went to the parliament either to protect their seats or for its benefits.
Ramifications of our current, fundamentally flawed voting system are being ignored. The real culprit responsible for the deficit of genuine democracy in our country is ‘winner-takes-all’ election. Voters across the spectrum can support greater democracy, or feel poorly represented in ‘winner-takes-all’ elections. In South Asia, Nepal is reportedly considering adopting proportional voting system for elections to the parliament. It is argued that Bangladesh has the opportunity to join the vast majority of mature democracies (such as Italy, Germany and New Zealand) that have already adopted proportional voting system.
Dr Md Mostafizur Rahaman is a development expert.

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