Newspaper reports say that the Election Commission (EC) is going to start 'drawing' or 'redrawing' boundaries of parliamentary constituencies in the country. Delimitation of boundaries is one of the most fundamental pre-election activities; it is a complicated and technical job that sometimes creates controversy. If the process does not ensure a level playing field for all candidates and parties, and if voters and other stakeholders suspect that the electoral boundaries have been unfairly manipulated to produce a particular political outcome, this affects the credibility of the whole electoral process. Hence, electoral boundaries must be drawn in a manner that promotes credible and fair elections.
When electoral boundaries are manipulated to favour one party or class it is called gerrymandering. In order to avoid gerrymandering as well as ensure fairness and proper representation in delimitation, there are a few recommended guiding principles given by Commonwealth Secretariat, Venice Commission, International Foundation for Electoral System and few other international organisations.
'Impartiality' is one of the most fundamental principles for delimitation; it means that the delimitation process should be managed by an independent and impartial professional body, comprising persons with the appropriate skills. This guiding principle suggests the EC should not conduct delimitation. In India, there is a separate Delimitation Commission led by a judge of the Supreme Court, to be appointed by the central government. While in the UK, delimitation is done by Boundary Commission, an independent and impartial non-departmental advisory public body consists of (i) a chairman; (ii) a deputy chairman; and (iii) two members. The speaker generally plays no part in the substantive work of the commission; hence the deputy chair leads the commission in the conduct of the review. He must be a serving judge of the High Court, and is selected and appointed by the Lord Chancellor. The members are appointed following an open appointment selection process. In order to involve technical expertise, India has the provision to include Registrar-General and Census Commissioner, Surveyor General and an expert in geographical information system, while in the UK, the commission must include the Statistics Board and the Director General of Ordnance Survey as assessors.
'Representativeness' is another guiding principle for conducting delimitation. Electoral constituencies should be drawn such that constituents have an opportunity to elect candidates they feel truly represent them; this means that the electoral constituencies should be drawn taking into account cohesive communities, defined by such factors as administrative boundaries, geographic features, and communities of interest. In the UK, except the protected constituencies, a constituency shall not have an area of more than 13,000 square kilometres. Geographical considerations, including in particular the size, shape and accessibility of a constituency, local government boundaries, boundaries of existing constituencies and any local ties are also considered.
'Equality of voting strength' is the most fundamental principle for delimitation. The population of constituencies should be as equal as possible to provide voters with equality of voting strength. The establishment of a population deviation tolerance limit helps guarantee equality. In 2002, Venice Commission identified that the permissible departure from the norm should not be more than 10 percent, and should certainly not exceed 15 percent except in special circumstances. In the UK, the law clearly says that the number of voters of any constituency must be no less than 95 percent of the UK electoral quota and no more than 105 percent of that quota. Except few exceptions, the UK followed this legal provision in all the recent elections including the last election held on June 8, 2017. For delimiting boundaries for the next election, the UK calculated a range that has roughly the same number of electors: no fewer than 71,031 and no more than 78,507. India also follows the range '- or + 10 percent' except few exceptions.
'Non-discrimination' is also an important guiding principle for delimitation; it means that the delimitation process should be devoid of electoral boundary manipulation that discriminates against voters on account of race, colour, language, religion, or related status. Many countries such as India, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand have the legal provisions to ensure non-discrimination in boundary delimitation. In India, the number of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes is taken into consideration in every district.
'Transparency' is the other key principle to be followed for conducting delimitation; it means that the process should be as transparent and accessible to the public as possible. A delimitation process that is transparent and provides stakeholders with the information necessary to assess the process and even affect its outcome is more likely to receive public support. Consultations and public hearings at every stage of the process are critical to address the grievance of the stakeholders. In the UK, the Boundary Commission, as per law, organises consultation at two stages. At the first stage, the commission prepares a draft proposal which is made open to inspection at a specified place within the proposed constituency as well as on the website; this is called 'initial consultation' and written feedback with respect to the proposals may be made to the commission during a specified period of 12 weeks. The commission reviews the feedback received through initial consultation and goes for the second round of consultation. The consultation organises at the constituency level.
Despite the significance of delimitation of constituencies in conducting credible elections, Bangladesh is lagging behind to ensure international guiding principles on delimitation. As per the Constitution, the EC is the responsible authority for the job, which means that the country does not have any separate professional body to conduct delimitation. In 1976, the Delimitation of Constituencies Ordinance, 1976 was promulgated which was later revised in 1978, 1990 and 1991. The law is outdated and does not follow most of the guiding principles recommended by the international organisations. Although, the 'representativeness' is followed in hill districts, 'the size of the constituency', 'transparency', 'non-discrimination' and 'equality of voting strength' have not at all been followed in the country since 1973. For example, the 2014 delimitation observed 40 percent or more deviation in voting strength in more than 60 percent of constituencies; however, the biggest gap was found between Dhaka-19 (voters: 678,549) and Jhaklokathi-1 (voters: 154,334).
Due to the lack of legal framework as well as the traditional method inherited from colonial regimes, all the ECs in Bangladesh mainly follow geographic features and administrative boundaries. Although the 1976 Act falls short of international guiding principles, Article 3 authorises the EC to “regulate its own procedure”. But it is unfortunate that none of the ECs in the history of Bangladesh prepared any regulations on delimitation — instead, most of the times, they prepared very brief ad-hoc “working procedures” and drew or redrew electoral boundaries in an impetuous, non-transparent and unprofessional manner, mostly without involving technical experts.
But the voters and other electoral stakeholders are now more aware about delimitation, its impact and gerrymandering; therefore, the EC led by KM Nurul Huda is expected to address the issues to ensure the credibility of the upcoming parliamentary elections. The EC could move ahead with any of the following options.
It could revise the 1976 Act in line with international guiding principles and request the government to pass it in parliament. But, this is a time-consuming issue as it needs expert opinion including international experts and consultation experts as well as modern technology on delimitation.
Or, as per the legal framework, the EC could promulgate detailed regulations to conduct delimitation. The regulations should include a professional technical committee led by the CEC or other EC. The other members of the committee could be geographers, statisticians or representatives from the BBS, surveyor general/representative, and representatives from the local government ministry. The regulations must also include detailed terms of reference for the committee including (a) meetings of the committee; (b) methodology that addresses international guiding principles as well as possible; (c) timeframe for the preparation of draft and final proposal; and (d) provisions of consultations at the constituency level.
No doubt, conducting delimitation in Bangladesh is a big challenge mainly due to population density. But, if the EC follows the second option, we might see a professional and fair delimitation for the first time in Bangladesh which would build stakeholders' confidence on the electoral process and certainly help the EC conduct credible parliamentary elections.
The writer is the Director, Election Working Group.