More reasons to doubt freeness, fairness of local govt polls than not

Editorial, NewAge, August 6, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The claim of the chief election commissioner and a couple of advisers to the military-controlled interim government that the elections on Monday to four city corporations and nine municipal corporations were ‘free’ and ‘fair’ and provided justification for holding the parliamentary polls under a state of emergency is only predictable. Their claim only lends credence to the suspicion that the incumbents went ahead with the local government elections to bolster their arguments that withdrawal of emergency is not a precondition for free and fair parliamentary polls. What was rather disappointing, albeit not quite surprising, was the overzealousness of a section of the so-called civil society, including some media organisations, to project the ‘freeness’ and ‘fairness’ of the city corporation and municipality polls. Such overzealousness may have been prompted by the absence of violence and the reasonable turnout of voters, but was, we are afraid, misplaced.
   

There are, we believe, more reasons than one to believe the elections were neither free nor fair. First, election and the state of emergency are mutually exclusive; while the former is a manifestation of free thinking and freedom of expression, the latter officially restricts the people’s fundamental rights to freedom of thought and expression. The state of emergency, restrictive and repressive as it is, also generates a pervasive sense of fear. In all likelihood, such fears have played on the people’s mind, at least at the subconscious level, when they exercised their right to adult franchise.
   Second, the fairness of the elections is also questionable. In the absence of one of the two major political camps, the city corporation and municipality elections degenerated into virtually a one-horse race and were hardly representative in nature. Participation by all competing political camps not only enhances the credibility of the elections but also guarantees fairness of the electoral process. Besides, the Election Commission lamented, three weeks or so prior to the elections, that its endeavours to free the elections from all sorts of irregularities and influence might go in vain because of shady activities of some field-level officials of the civil administration.
   

Third, while the commission and the government have used the ‘clean chit’ given by the elections observers to substantiate their claim that the city corporation and municipal elections were ‘free’ and ‘fair’, it has emerged that the election monitoring exercise was itself questionable. There are allegations that credible election monitors were given a cold shoulder by the field-level election officials and, in many cases, not afforded adequate access to the polling centres.
   Added to these, lengthy process of checking, flawed electoral roll and confusion over the use of national identity cards tested the voters’ patience at some places, indicating that the commission’s preparation, in terms of personnel and logistics, may not have been foolproof. 
   

Overall, there are very few reasons for the Election Commission and the government to think that Monday’s elections were ‘free’ and ‘fair’ or that the elections were conducted efficiently. There are even fewer reasons for them to think that the city corporation and municipal polls provided a justification for the general elections to be held under a state of emergency. Of course, they may try to hold the general elections with the state of emergency in force; however, such elections would be far from credible and, most importantly, may not facilitate the democratic transition the people aspire for.

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