Published by the Daily Star on 26 Dec 2008.
HAS Bangladesh ever institutionalised a comprehensive vetting process, either in terms of war criminals or in terms of eligibility of political candidates for elections? No, and the absence of a sustained policy has ramifications in the 2008 elections.
Let’s begin with the issue of war criminals. It must be noted that while governments did not take the responsibility of weeding them out from the process, particularly post-1975, several key initiatives from private individuals and institutions tried to keep individuals out of the political process.
First, in the context of 1971, the 1972 Collaborators Act identified individuals guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity and outlined 11 tribunals that would be held against them. However, a general amnesty released 26,000 of the 37,000, and the remaining approximately 11,000 were freed following the repeal of the Collaborators Act on December 31, 1975.
In the 1990s, Jahanara Imam launched “Gono Adalot” which had widespread public support and which tried Golam Azam, but the initiative did not translate to any subsequent government policy. The People’s Inquiry Commission led by Sufia Kamal was yet another effort to identify the complicity of the members of Jamaat-e-Islaam in anti-liberation activities, although this effort too did not translate into a comprehensive government initiative.
Today, growing public outcry demanding that war criminals of 1971 should not participate and garner votes for the 2008 elections highlights continued public demand for accountability. Simultaneously it underscores that despite institutional and bureaucratic reluctance to vet political aspirants, people’s voices, if organized in a sustained and strategic manner, can contribute to barring such individuals from entering the political process.
The absence of political will to vet candidates for culpability in large-scale atrocities effectively is not unfortunately limited to the inadequate government measures of the past, but also current decisions which have determined the participation of individuals with murky records in the upcoming elections.
Consider, for example, the recent decision by special chamber judge Joynal Abedin in the Supreme Court which allows former ministers Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir and Lutfuzzaman Babar to run for political office even after being convicted for corruption.
It may be noted that it was the same judge who back in 1996 gave a precedent-setting verdict stating that while the election process is going on, the judgment of the of the Election Commission returning officer is final and the higher court cannot interfere in any way.
In the murky political realities of Bangladesh where large-scale human rights abusers can still exercise their decision to participate in politics without sanction and where the legal process can be subverted and easily politicised, how can vetting processes continue and most, importantly, how can they be effective? A few points need to be made given the context of the current elections.
First, what must be recognised is that there is a notable effort for the upcoming elections to collect the records, assets and background information of political candidates; the Election Commission has been primarily responsible for vetting the most questionable of candidates. A few local organisations too have taken up some of the responsibility of collecting information about candidates’ backgrounds and assets for public record.
Less, however, is being done to ensure the information collected is readily and easily accessible to the public. Here, the responsibility is three-pronged. First, the Election Commission and local organisations working on clean candidates need to ensure that the information is easily available to the public. Second, media outlets are responsible for creating the venue for the information to be readily accessible. Third, of course, is the responsibility of the electorate in actually reviewing the information and making informed choices.
The 2008 election is special because it marks a critical transition and highlights efforts to make the public more informed and engaged in the political process. It is also critical in that communities are working together to emphatically declare that people with blood on their hands do not have the legitimate right to govern, let alone run for political office.
Finally, the initiative to demand information about aspiring candidates by the EC should be lauded. In the end, an institutional demand for records of finances and connections can go a long way to ensure that only qualified and “clean” candidates can participate in the political process.
Outside of muscle-flexing by political candidates and the problems of politicisation of the judiciary, the obstacles remain in terms of candidates themselves providing complete and true accounts of their records; the information collected is disseminated timely among the electorate; and the rationale of why war criminals should not be voted in resounds with the public.
Lest we forget, in elections, the electorate comprises the final and most important leg of the vetting process. Whether seeking alternatives or exercising the right to the “no” vote in a strategic fashion, in the absence of a comprehensive vetting process, and given the peculiarities of the election process itself, we get to underscore that the final call on who gets to govern is made by us, the voters.