It is now obvious that there is no level-playing field for all the political parties that are taking part in the upcoming parliamentary elections, although the voting will be held in less than 40 days.
The opposition parties are facing difficulties, as against the advantages being enjoyed by the ruling party and its new and old allies.Many people are apprehensive that the government will employ more muscle power than they did to contain the opposition before the announcement of polls schedule.
The election commission (EC), however, has apparently resolved to keep mum as its best option while dealing with all those allegations.
It seems that the EC is interested in holding an election for the sake of holding one, instead of any free and fair polls. There can even be questions as to whether the commission people have any intention or preparation to hold a participatory poll.
It is not very difficult to understand that the political situation prevailing in the country for the past few months has changed and a strong opposition to the ruling party has come into being. Just a few days ago ruling Awami League and its allies thought they would organise the elections keeping the principal opposition BNP under pressure.
Many people thought the BNP will have no other option but to join the polls as the party's demands were not met with or the party will split over the decision on contesting the polls. Other alliances and parties may also fall in a quagmire about joining the polls. In that case, fighting against a pseudo-opposition would have been the evidence of participatory polls.
The emergence of Jatiya Oikya Front has ended such a situation since its leader Kamal Hossain said they will not boycott the elections.
The ruling party’s initiative to expand the alliance gives the message that the size and number of the opposition coalition must not be larger. Other alliances are also on the path of election.
In this context, the election commission’s role in carrying out its responsibilities is facing serious questions. Another question has come to the fore: is the commission applying its full authority to create a level-playing field or even intended to do so?
The ruling party’s members of parliament (MPs) will take part in the polls while staying in power. The most important machineries of holding a fair election are the civil administration and the police, that are being regulated by the government. The election commission has not taken any palpable initiative to reshuffle the civil and police administrations though 12 days have gone by since the announcement of polls schedule.
A huge number of leaders and activists of ruling party’s principal opposition, the BNP, are in the jail or not being able to stay at home for cases filed against them. Cases are still being filed against the BNP men even after the announcement of the schedule.
The BNP has given a list 2,047 cases to the EC on 18 November. It said 773 of their leaders and activists have been arrested since the announcement of schedule on 8 November. The BNP’s requests to the chief election commissioner for withdrawal of those cases and stopping arrests did not bring any result.
Any government in the past faced the allegation of politicising the civil administration and the police but the magnitude of this has increased significantly in the past 10 years. There are examples of administration, especially police, doing the same as that of ruling party men after the one-sided national elections in 2014.
In the past, the caretaker government took initiatives of reshuffling the local administration before the polls. The EC is responsible for doing the task after the announcement of the schedule since there is no caretaker government this time. In this situation deputy commissioners of 64 districts and two divisional commissioners were appointed as returning officers on 9 November.
We must keep in mind that the government appointed 36 DCs between 31 July and 15 October while 235 additional superintendents of police were made superintendents on 7 November, the day before the announcement of polls schedule.
The Jatiya Oikya Front and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party demanded to the EC twice that there should be reshuffling in the civil administration and the police but the commission said they won’t accept such sweeping proposal. Then we can ask the question: Does the commission have any willingness to create level-playing field.
A panel has been made of the officials who would conduct the elections. The police has been enquiring their political connections. The objective could be to ensure that only the ruling party’s supporters are appointed or to keep the officials under fear.
The election commission is also playing a hide and seek game about the initiative of the police. The EC claimed they did not know about that but were not seen taking initiative either after news items on this were published in the media. If the EC wants to say that the police and civil administration have taken this initiative without their knowledge, this suggests the EC has failed to assert its authority over the police and civil administration after the announcement of schedule.
Five city corporation polls were held under a controlled environment as the EC had failed to control the police and civil administration then. This raises the question, whether the 11th parliamentary elections will be hold in the same manner.
Awami League and BNP started selling nomination papers after the announcement of polls schedule. The EC secretary thought no codes of conduct were violated by the AL men though two people were killed and the public suffered huge traffic congestion everyday during the days of selling nomination forms. Rather, he said people are gathering in a restricted area in a festive mood.
But, when people started gathering centring the BNP’s nomination paper sales, the EC thought the codes were being violated and sent letter to the inspector general of police to take action. On the next day, we saw police action near the headquarters of the BNP at Naya Paltan, resulting in a clash and cases and arrests of the BNP men.
We will consider as positive two commissioners' gesture of admitting mistakes about reactions to the collection of nomination forms of probable candidates. But we will observe whether they would refrain from committing the same mistake in addition to acknowledging the mistake.
So serious is the situation that a former minister, also a nomination seeker, is scared of surrendering to the court, lest he would become a victim of enforced disappearance on the way to the court.
This election is different from any other election of the past and there is no reason to think that the voters are not paying attention to these things.
In this context, it would not be wise for the election commission to ignore the local and international apprenhensions about a free and fair election. We hope the commission members will realise if the election is not held in a free and fair manner, the reactions would be unwanted and dangerous to all.
* Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor of politics and government at the Illinois State University, US.