Amended RPO flouts constitution, spirit of democracy

Editorial, NewAge, August 24, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh

The newly-imposed eligibility criteria under the amended Representation of the People Order 1972, both for registration of political parties with the Election Commission and for candidates to be able to contest parliamentary elections, could not have been more inconsistent with our constitution or contradictory to democratic ideals and values. As such, instead of helping to create a level electoral playing field, the conditions, we believe, will further complicate the political and electoral processes and act as further obstacles to the peaceful holding of participatory and credible elections to the ninth parliament. 
   

First, some of the eligibility criteria for political parties being able to register with the commission – which includes being able to show a certain level of support in previous elections or having active units in a minimum number of districts – are not only absurd but are in contravention of Article 152 (1) of our country’s constitution which does not require a party to have any minimum level of popularity or infrastructure in order for the state to recognise its legitimacy. Also, it is incongruous that candidates can contest independently without having to show a certain amount of support in previous elections or any minimum infrastructure but cannot do so as part of a political party unless the party satisfies the criteria. 
   

Second, under the amended RPO, a person will have to be enlisted in the electoral roll to be able to contest elections even though the country’s constitution does not make a person’s right to contest a parliamentary seat conditional upon his or her being registered as a voter. The only eligibility requirements, according to Article 66 of the constitution, are that a person is a citizen of Bangladesh and has attained the age of 25. 
In addition, there are certain conditions under Article 66 which disqualify a person from being able to run, for instance, if the person is of unsound mind or is a citizen of a foreign state, but non-registration as a voter is not included in the list of disqualifying factors either. Hence, the Election Commission has acted in further contravention of the constitution in including this additional and arbitrary condition.
   

Third, as a result of the Election Commission’s delay in amending the RPO – this was supposed to have been done much earlier and the parties were supposed to have from April to June of this year to register according to the commission’s own roadmap – even the major political parties will have great difficulty in satisfying some of the eligibility conditions for registration in the short time that is now available before elections. These conditions will necessitate the amending of party constitutions as well as the formation of elected committees from the centre to the union council level. Moreover, forcing the political parties to rush through internal reforms and to hold national council meetings under the state of emergency is not only unreasonable but contradicts the very spirit of democracy. However, the commission must not even think about delaying elections in order to allow the parties to satisfy its conditions. The Election Commission has no right to punish the political parties or hold the entire political process hostage for its own failures. 
   

Hence, we hope that common sense will prevail at the Election Commission and that it will withdraw the unconstitutional, arbitrary and restrictive conditions which are contradictory to a participatory electoral process and a pluralistic democratic system. Instead of further complicating the political process, the commission should devote all its energy towards the holding of participatory and credible parliamentary elections at the earliest.

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