Is it still possible to ensure a free and fair election?

Published : 20 Jan 2023 09:48 PM

Bangladesh is preparing for its next General Election scheduled in the last months of 2023 or in the first quarter of 2024. The 12th National election will be very crucial for the country. Perhaps, it is also the most anticipated one in the history of Bangladesh considering the debate, the speculation, and the future of the country. There are many reasons behind it is likely to be the most anticipated. Bangladesh is currently graduating from LDC to the developing country which is scheduled to be finished by 2026. The brewing geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific and the great power rivalries have also become a part of the equation. And last but not least, the country’s party politics also depend upon it as the incumbent government is aiming for its fourth consecutive term, while the main opposition is looking for a return to power through it.

However, in the country’s political arena, there is a deadlock regarding the election as the incumbent government and the largest opposition share different views regarding the process of the election. Mainstream media is keenly covering it contributing to speculations. In this context, it is worth exploring going beyond the existing narrative whether it is still possible to hold a free and fair election under the current arrangement.

Current debate

The current debate revolves around the electoral process. The constitution binds the government to conduct the election under the incumbent regime. But Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is skeptical about the transparency of the process which led it to demand an interim caretaker government. BNP is currently holding rallies and gatherings demanding it.

While BNP is demanding an interim government, Awami League (AL) wants to stick to the constitution and wants to hold the election accordingly. The horrendous experience of the infamous 1/11 caretaker regime led the party to seek an amendment of the constitution to hold the election under political government. 

As a result of such contradicting interests from two major political parties in Bangladesh, there is a deadlock in the political arena regarding the election. BNP is constantly threatening to boycott the upcoming election if their demand for a caretaker government is not met while AL-government is rejecting the demand and wants to follow the constitution.

The question of ‘free and fair’

Perhaps, the question of a ‘free and fair election has the least to do with the process considering the legal boundary and constitutional binding. The existing perception may take that only BNP wants a free and fair election and hence demands a caretaker. But it is a wrong perception politically considering that AL as a political party also echoes the same. 

The incumbent government should work diligently to 

ensure a peaceful participatory election while BNP should

 also acknowledge the legal and constitutional bindings 

regarding their demand and find 

a way to negotiate accordingly

The debate among these two parties is therefore only on the process. ‘Free and Fair Election’ takes place under incumbent governments all over the world. Even Bangladesh’s closest neighbor, India also follows it whose internal politics are similar to Bangladesh’s. 

But there is no debate about such. Hence, it has nothing to do with fairness. Unfair and irregularities can also take place under the caretaker system if the caretaker decides to side with any political party. 

The process of the next election

The constitution only permits the election to be held under the current government. It is binding for the government to hold the election. Other arrangements such as a caretaker government will require amending the constitution in National Assembly. But BNP and other political parties demanding it doesn’t have enough representation to do so in the current parliament.

As result from legal perspective, BNP’s demands do not have legal ground. Yet from a civil movement perspective, its rallies and gatherings are political activities to raise its position. 

BNP is one of the largest political parties in history. It is also guided by many professional politicians. On the other hand, Awami League is also the oldest political party in Bangladesh that led the nation to its Independence. Apart from these two, other political parties such as Jatiya Party or Gonoforum are also professional political parties that understand reality very well.

At this moment, politicians and their parties know very well that the only path towards breaking the deadlock is through negotiation that benefits the nation and the common people. The demands and capabilities regarding elections are bargaining chips in this negotiation.

Scope for negotiation

Contradicting demands will only drift the political parties away from a peaceful solution. Such a scenario will only bring detriment to the country and its common citizen. However, it will also be detrimental for the political parties as their sole aim is to participate in elections and take part in the political process.

Even though the mainstream narrative may present the scenario as a ‘tough nut to crack’, it may not be the same in the political aspect. The scope for negotiation and a peaceful solution is still open to conduct the election according to the constitution. Both parties are mature and prudent political parties who just need to prioritize national interest, and the stability of the country, and practice democratic values. Therefore, the deadlock is not as hard as the mainstream narrative is it to present us. 

For any political party under a liberal-democratic system, participating in the election is the ultimate goal to ascend to power and introduce its desired change with the people’s mandate. Raising demand and going forward to make it happen is the beauty of democracy but it should acknowledge the reality. The major political parties in Bangladesh should not forget it. 

The incumbent government should work diligently to ensure a peaceful participatory election while BNP should also acknowledge the legal and constitutional bindings regarding their demand and find a way to negotiate accordingly. There is still plenty of hope for Bangladesh to celebrate a peaceful and participatory election in the coming days; of course, ensuring ‘Free and Fairness’.

Doreen Chowdhury is a doctoral researcher at the University 

of Groningen