In The News

In Bangladesh: Unprecedented Cooperation in Registering Citizens to Vote

October 10, 2007

Lack of public confidence in the integrity of the national electoral roll (voters list) was one of many factors contributing to Bangladesh’s recent political crisis. The crisis resulted in the declaration of a state of emergency on January 11, 2007, the appointment of a new Caretaker Government, the cancellation of the national parliamentary election (scheduled for January 22, 2007), and the reorganization of the Bangladesh Election Commission (BEC). A significant number of names on earlier electoral rolls were either in error or reflected duplicate registration. The errors affected 13% of the estimated population of eligible voters, exceeding the internationally acceptable standard of 5%.

In the weeks following the appointment of three new election commissioners, the reorganized BEC announced a series of actions to ensure that a free, fair, and credible parliamentary election is held by the end of 2008. One of the first actions to which the BEC committed was to prepare a first-ever electoral roll with photographs, to be implemented with the support of the Joint Forces, civil administrative agencies, and the international community.

In August 2007, the new registration system was pilot-tested and refined in a select community, and then launched in Rajshahi City Corporation (the fourth largest metropolitan city in Bangladesh) later that month. The new registration procedure involves enumerators visiting individual households to record the particulars of eligible voters on handwritten forms and instruct them to visit a central registration center in their area on a designated date to have their fingerprints scanned and their digital photograph taken. Registered voters receive a national ID card a few weeks later.

In a recent survey conducted by the Election Working Group (EWG) on the efficacy of the Rajshahi City Corporation voter registration effort, virtually all eligible voters in slum and non-slum areas of the city successfully completed the two-step registration process. According to the survey, reluctance to be photographed for religious reasons was not an issue, and neither cultural nor religious norms affected women’s ability to register. Survey respondents were overwhelmingly satisfied with the process compared to previous registrations, suggesting that lack of confidence in the electoral roll with photographs will not be an issue if these trends continue as the registration process is extended to all parts of the country.

The success to date reflects the cooperative efforts of the BEC, Joint Forces, and civil administration, as well as several supporting players. In June 2007 the BEC invited civil society to assist in raising awareness of the new registration process and to help motivate voters to register. In response to this call for support from the BEC, the 33-member EWG, the National Youth Forum of Bangladesh, and other civil society groups have signed individual memoranda of understanding with the BEC to cooperate. The EWG is committed to conducting awareness campaigns to educate voters on the new process and how to obtain their national ID card. The work of the EWG coalition focuses on assisting the BEC, civil administration, and Joint Forces in identifying and conveying information to communities whose members proved difficult to reach in earlier voter registration initiatives, including ethnic and religious minorities, disabled persons, and residents of slum communities and geographically isolated areas.

Cooperation between the BEC, civil administrative agencies, and the joint forces in support of the new electoral roll with the safeguard feature of individual photographs is an unprecedented example of public-private partnership in Bangladesh’s election history. While the BEC and civil society organizations have enjoyed productive information-sharing relationships in the past, this is the first time BEC has called on civil society for support with a large-scale, national electoral initiative.

The trust and confidence involved in this newfound cooperation are new to all those involved, but they are collectively working to establish efficient communication and decision-making procedures, while identifying remote and marginalized communities and developing strategies to support them. The registration process that commenced in select urban and rural areas in August 2007 will significantly increase in November 2007. According to the survey, the effort’s success has raised citizen confidence that the next parliamentary election will be free, fair, and credible and usher in a new era of successful public-private partnership in Bangladesh.

Kim McQuay is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Bangladesh.

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