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Bangladeshis Relish Milestone Election

January 7, 2009

The military has no intention of returning power to an elected government It will take five years to produce a proper voters’ list with photographs Bangladeshis will vote as they always have, with no expectation for change The election will be meaningless as a deal has already been cut with the major political actors for a government of national unity Domestic election observers cannot be trusted to observe their own election without political bias.

Throughout the day on December 29, as Bangladesh went to the polls for the long anticipated and frequently doubted Ninth Parliamentary Election, these and other articles of conventional pessimism borne of the past two years flashed through my mind.

I thought of them early in the morning, as I saw men and women voters forming orderly queues at polling centers in Dhaka while election officials completed final preparations for opening the polls.

I thought of them in the afternoon, as Bangladeshis– who previously would have hurried to vote in the first hour due to fear that their votes would otherwise be stolen through electoral fraud ” arrived leisurely at their polling centers when they found it most convenient. Once there, they stood contentedly in long lines, confident in the new national voter roll, which includes electronic photo identification of more than 80 million voters.

And I thought of them again, that evening, as constituency results from across the country streamed electronically back to a Bangladesh Election Commission (BEC) secretariat, which had been transformed into a world-class media facility and a gathering point for political party leaders, journalists, diplomats, and international election observers. Outside the BEC entrance, a large screen had been installed to broadcast election results to crowds who had gathered to experience the magic of Election Day.

The 32-member Election Working Group (EWG) coalition (whose voter education and election observation efforts were supported through funding and technical assistance by The Asia Foundation) was the first observer mission to attest to the quality of the election through a Quick Impression Survey report released on election night. Five days later, the EWG summarized the aggregated findings of more than 155,000 polling booth and mobile observers. They joined the international observer missions in affirming that the election met international standards of freedom, fairness, and transparency and that the results represented the clear will of the Bangladeshi electorate. While there were abundant reports from around the country of spontaneous incidents of violence among rival political factions and administrative irregularities, there was no evidence of any broad administrative failure, systemic fraud, or other problems that would compromise the overall quality of the election.

EWG commended the people of Bangladesh for their overwhelming participation in the first parliamentary election to be held in seven years. The voter turnout, estimated at 87 percent, was exceptionally high by international standards. There was an especially high turnout of women voters and first-time voters — and a record number of 19 women Members of Parliament elected. EWG also reported that the ethnic and religious minority communities that faced severe violence and intimidation in the 2001 parliamentary election voted in large number in this election.

All members of the BEC”from the three election commissioners to local officials working in polling centers across the country”deserve enormous credit for their collective efforts that yielded the most credible election in Bangladesh’s history. They put into place the first ever national electoral roll with photographs, which greatly reduced the risk and incidence of electoral fraud at the polling booth. The BEC also undertook electoral law reforms and voter and civic education initiatives, which contributed to greater voter knowledge and engagement in the electoral process.

What struck me most was the palpable change in the attitude and expectations of voters. While Bangladeshis have always voted in large numbers and greeted most elections with a festive spirit, historically their enthusiasm for elections has not translated into any significant sense of individual or collective political efficacy. In the past, it seemed voting had become an isolated act that marked the sum total of political participation for the majority of citizens. In contrast to high voter turnout on election days, expectations would instantly drop to near zero the following day. The five-year terms of elected governments were virtually expected to be marked by a combination of patron-client loyalties, corruption, and indifference to national law and policymaking responsibilities.

This time, however, voters seemed to have shaken this perception: the two-year term of the military-backed Caretaker Government exposed corruption among all political actors on a scale that exceeded imagination, convicted several major political leaders, and demonstrated that political elites could no longer behave with smug impunity. This environment of public scrutiny and reflection also raised “accountability” to a household term and concept”reaching communities across the country through a series of public service announcements, printed voter guides, posters, and through the voices of respected Muslim religious leaders or imams in their Friday sermons in the final two weeks prior to the election.

By all accounts, the election results reflect a national call for change, and a signal to the government-elect that its performance will be closely scrutinized. Voters handed the Bangladesh Awami League and its alliance partners a landslide victory; they claimed 262 parliamentary seats compared to the 32 seats won by the rival Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and its partners. Historical political loyalties that ensured relatively close electoral races in past elections could not stem the swing vote tide. With a milestone election behind it, the nation now pauses to catch its breath and reflect on what next.

Will the election and government-elect actually bring a fundamental change to the political culture of Bangladesh, pressing forward the governance reform agenda set by the Caretaker Government with equal resolve? Will the new government play things cautiously for some time before slowly returning to past practices? Will the temptation to treat a strong electoral mandate as justification for the winner-take-all attitudes and marginalized opposition roles of past governments prove irresistible? Will the opposition swallow the bitter pill of defeat and assume a good faith oversight role in Parliament, or follow the past precedent of abandoning Parliament and returning politics to the street? Does the marginal role of Islamic political parties in the Parliament-elect raise a specter of more worrisome expressions of political Islam or religious extremism of the kind that shook the nation, and the traditional complacent view that Bangladesh was immune to such religious currents, in 2005?

While it is too early to predict, the early identification of priority issues, conciliation gestures toward the opposition, and ministerial appointments of the government-elect are encouraging. Thoughtful opposition leaders have also indicated that a role of any kind in an elected government is preferable to a prolonged state of emergency and caretaker government rule. I believe that modest expectations of political reform are the most likely to be met in the term of the new government, but that the remarkable events of the last two years”which include the excesses revealed by the anti-corruption drive and the changing tone of public discourse and expectations for the future of politics”will help to accelerate a process of political party and governance reform that will gather momentum over the next decade.

If the reform agenda is to continue, responsibility must be assumed by a combination of stakeholders in Bangladesh. While the government-elect and opposition bear joint responsibility for parliamentary governance and administrative oversight, responsibility must likewise be borne by civil society, the private sector, and the media to monitor the performance of the new government and mobilize citizen engagement in political affairs. The international community that invested so generously in supporting a quality election must continue to invest in these combined government and stakeholder efforts, to ensure that a superb election lays the groundwork for equally successful political and governance reforms in the coming months and years.

Bangladesh saw a new day on December 29, but the real dawn came on December 30. The nation now awaits its enduring light with hope and expectation.

Kim McQuay is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Bangladesh. He can be reached at kmcquay@asiafound.org.

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