Notes from the Field

Bangladesh’s Election Countdown

December 17, 2008

As Americans catch their breath from a marathon-long election season, the people of Bangladesh are just weeks from casting their ballots in their own historic, long-awaited election.  And just as Americans were glued to newspapers, computers, and televisions in the days preceding our polling day, Bangladeshis are similarly engrossed in local media coverage of national politics, poring over every breaking report on their candidates, issues, and events in anticipation of the December 29th election. 

In the pivotal days surrounding the U.S. election, we had the opportunity to accompany Ashraf Kaiser, a Bangladeshi journalist with his own highly-rated news program, on a visit to the U.S.  Ashraf hosts “Election Express,” a 12-part weekly television news series funded by The Asia Foundation that focuses on core themes linking the 2008 Bangladeshi and U.S. electoral processes. He was here to provide first-hand insight on election protocol, the political attitudes and perspectives of Americans and Bangladeshi-Americans in particular, and to interview key decision-makers and scholars on the U.S. election and its impact on Bangladesh.

We acted as film crew and producers for Ashraf’s entire visit, teaming up with him in San Francisco, Washington D.C., and New York City.  During our brief but eventful production, we met with influential individuals such as Congresswoman Barbara Lee in San Francisco, Bangladesh Ambassador to U.S. M Humayun Kabir in Washington D.C., and Sajeeb Wazed Joy (Former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s son) in New York City.  Ashraf also reported from several election hotspots, including McCain and Obama volunteer offices, the White House, and Times Square.

On Election Day in San Francisco, Ashraf’s assignment took him to polling stations, city hall, and that night, the local Democratic party celebration as the results came in. Throughout the day, Ashraf continued to answer long-distance phone calls from friends back home eager for news on the election. “I just got three calls in the morning to give first-hand information about the American voting system today.  People are wanting to know who is winning and who is losing…they have great interest,” Ashraf said. “Even the normal Bangladeshi rickshaw pullers are also quite keen to know whether John McCain or Barack Obama is getting the seat to rule the government in the U.S.”

This is one of the reasons Ashraf made this visit to the U.S.: to address his audience’s desire for coverage of the American elections from the Bangladeshi perspective.  To this end, one of the most important components of the production was capturing the views of Bangladeshi-Americans.  From downtown San Francisco to New York’s Jackson Heights, Ashraf visited diaspora communities to discuss their feelings on the U.S. election and their thoughts about politics in Bangladesh.

In addition to this on-the-ground perspective, Ashraf also explored some of the linkages between the Bangladesh and U.S. elections, a core thread that runs through his “Election Express” series. In between interviews, we turned the camera on Ashraf to provide commentary of some of these common themes.

He spoke of two countries undergoing historic elections, each going through some of the most profound challenges they’ve faced in recent history. In America, voters encountered the prospect of a crippling recession, controversial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the challenge of restoring America’s international image. But in the midst of this, they also faced the opportunity to make history by electing the nation’s first black president.

Similar transformative issues exist as Bangladeshis prepare to vote.  Elections have been suspended for nearly two years, and questions remain as to whether an interim government tasked with combating rampant corruption has been effective enough to have lasting change. The leaders of the two main parties were both recently released from a year each in prison on corruption charges, which they both deny. “Key questions of constructive politics and accountable politicians remain unanswered even after two years of emergency rule, drives against corruption, and attempts to bring reform to the parties,” Ashraf said. “The role of media is vital to keep the accountability issues alive, to remind [politicians] of their promises, and to make people aware of their roles as well as the basic need of a healthy political culture.”

Ashraf returned to Bangladesh having achieved his goal of producing a video segment that he broadcast two days later on “Election Express,” with the intent of continuing discussions about the democratic processes in both Bangladesh and the United States.  The material gathered from his visit was so abundant and covered such a wide-range of issues that Ashraf is currently editing a half-hour documentary that will expand on the piece that he has already aired.

We traveled with Ashraf during his entire time in the U.S., and, as American voters ourselves, the experience provided a unique perspective to draw upon as we considered developing a piece for an American audience. We produced two short films: one, Election Season ’08: Bangladesh, is intended to bring the Bangladesh elections to the American voter, and the other, Election Express U.S., to show Americans a view of the U.S. elections through the eyes of a Bangladeshi journalist.

Kathryn Bodle and Matthew Pendergast are Producers in The Asia Foundation’s Digital Media Department. You can reach them at kbodle@asiafound.org and mpendergast@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Kathryn Bodle

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