Making the reforms stick

Jyoti Rahman
Rahman, J. (2007, May 7). Making the reforms stick. The Daily Star, 5 (1041)

As the roar of reforms gets stronger, the Election Commission is about to make some sweeping changes in the electoral laws that can have far reaching positive impact in our country. But this is only possible if the reform proposals are actually implemented on the ground rather than just being on paper.In order for us to do that, we need to get the grass-roots on board with this reform proposal. The Election Commission needs to conduct grass-roots consultation on the proposed reform package it published in its website on April 5, and to this end we need a concerted mass awareness campaign on the necessities of the reforms.

Influential members of the government have noted that if elections are held without major reforms to the process, there is no guarantee that the political impasse of late 2006 will not return.

According to the EC, it is likely to take about 18 months to implement these reforms. Against this, there are already calls for elections as soon as possible. Are these reforms necessary? Could we do without them? Or, to argue the other side, are these reforms sufficient to avoid another political impasse in the future? Are 18 months necessary, or are they sufficient? Or are the reforms and the proposed time to implement about right?

These questions are already being debated. Suppose the proposed reforms are indeed justified, and suppose that they will really take about 18 months to implement. If this is the case, then the EC needs to communicate it clearly.

This calls for consultation with stakeholders. Such consultation can also improve the reform package, both in terms of its content and implementation.

The EC appears to be aware of this. It started discussions with 60 eminent citizens on April 26. It has also announced that as soon as the ban on indoor politics is lifted, there will be talks with major political parties — no reforms will be enacted against the wishes of major parties.

All this is very well, but there is a glaring gap in the EC consultation process: it does not seem to be consulting various grass-roots stakeholders. And these stakeholders are absolutely vital if the reforms are to stick. With their support, the reforms will be successful otherwise they will fail.

These grass-roots stakeholders include teachers, bank workers and clerical and support staff of various government and semi-government agencies at the union, upazila and zila levels. These people are usually appointed as the polling officers during elections.

They, and the law enforcement officers at those levels, are the people who will have to implement the reforms. Surely their views on the proposed reforms need to be taken into account. If they view a particular reform as impractical then that reform will have to be reconsidered.

If the local public servants act as umpires during the election process, then activists and workers of the political parties are the players. These are the people who organise meetings and rallies, knock on voters’ doors and generally campaign for the candidates at the constituency level. If the proposed reforms are to succeed, then these political foot soldiers will have to be convinced of their merits. And this can only happen if they are consulted.

In addition to the field-level public servants and political activists, the EC should consult the rural and semi-rural “eminent citizens.” In the social context of rural and mofussil Bangladesh, the views of such non-partisan but politically aware citizens carry a lot of weight. Reforms will be much easier to implement if these citizens are fully on board.

It’s important to stress that the election process does not include casting of the votes only. The process runs from the voter list preparation through the campaigning to possible post-election arbitration and conflict resolution.

The grass-roots stakeholders can play a vital part in ensuring that these parts of the process run smoothly. For example, involving both the local parishad member and their political opponents in the voter list preparation will result in a more accurate voter list. Similarly post election issues can be settled in local polling centre level involving local elders, political activists and government officers.

The mountain did not come to the Prophet; the Prophet went to the mountain. Similarly, the EC should seek out the stakeholders. The EC should hold a series of workshops and seminars at district towns, inviting all administration and law enforcement officers, teachers, bank employees, members of local government bodies, and representatives of local NGOs, media and trade bodies and other interested parties.

Yes, this will be a major logistical exercise. But it is not entirely unprecedented. Firstly, administration and law enforcement officials usually need to attend election training anyway. Secondly, the newly constituted Anti-Corruption Commission has already started similar meetings at the district level, albeit at a smaller scale.

And who are the intended beneficiaries of these reforms? The answer obviously is, the voters. But how many of the millions of voters can access the proposed reforms at the EC website? Surely there is a need for a concerted awareness campaign.

One possibility is to arrange regular prime time radio and TV broadcasts of the contents and details of the proposed reforms. Public awareness campaigns on family planning by successive governments since the Pakistan days can serve as an example in this regard.

The print media should also play a major role in this campaign. The proposed reforms should be vigorously debated by the opinion makers. But the Commission should begin the process with elaborate special supplements outlining the reforms and their justifications.

Proper grass-roots consultations will mean that the stakeholders and the larger population will be able form their own “informed opinion” on the reforms. As a result, there will be a sense of participation and ownership among the stakeholders. This sense of ownership is very important for the success of the reforms.

As is widely noted, unless political parties reform themselves, it will be very difficult to move beyond the confrontational politics of the past 15 years. If the election reforms are “owned” by the grass-roots stakeholders, reform-minded politicians will have stronger support bases within the parties.

Indeed, a genuine national consensus for reforms is more likely to come from convincing the grass root stakeholders of their merits than through parleys with national politicians whose track record of agreeing on issues are not all that bright or through essentially anti democratic strong arm tactics.

If the reforms do indeed take as long as 18 months to implement, then there is an even larger imperative to explain to ordinary voters the benefits of and the difficulties in implementing these reforms. Nothing is of more paramount interest than holding a credible election with long-term reforms in place.

In this national interest, it is a responsibility of all to come forward and work in tandem so that we can put a system in place that is practical, acceptable and meaningful towards the long-term health of our democracy. If we want the reform to stick, it is important that we reach out outside our conference rooms towards the people who will directly be impacted by these changes.

Jyoti Rahman is an Australia-based macroeconomist and a contributor for Drishtipat Writers’ Collective.

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