Notes from the Field

From Bangladesh: South Asia Neighbors Visit to Witness Bangladesh’s Historic Election

January 7, 2009

Bangladeshis are rightly proud of their accomplishment on December 29, when huge numbers of voters participated in a historic election widely lauded as free and fair. As icing on the cake, sixteen senior election officials from neighboring South Asian countries were on hand to witness Bangladesh’s triumph.

On December 27, senior election officials from Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal arrived in Dhaka to participate in a four-day election study and observation program hosted by The Asia Foundation, on behalf of the Bangladesh Election Commission. They were joined by two Members of Parliament from the United Kingdom, and a London town councilor from a predominantly Bangladeshi neighborhood.

The first full day was a seminar-style program focused on the election environment and electoral preparations. On the eve of the election, the Bangladesh Election Commission, led by the Chief Election Commissioner, devoted several hours to briefing the visiting delegates on their work over the previous two years, including the monumental task of creating a new voter roll with photographs for 80 million voters. The visiting delegates asked, almost in disbelief, how the new voter list had such a high level of accuracy ” unheard of in their countries ” and posed hard questions as to how the Commission would keep the list up-to-date. The group also received political briefings from resident embassy staff and presentations from international and domestic observation groups, as well as civil society members. They were particularly impressed by a series of public service announcements on accountability, women, and youth developed by the Election Working Group, a domestic election observation coalition supported by The Asia Foundation, and extended invitations to coalition members to advise on similar initiatives in their home countries. The day ended with a formal dinner hosted by the Chief Election Commissioner of Bangladesh.

Early the next morning, delegates prepared themselves for the highlight of the program: election observation. Armed with observer vests, accreditation cards, maps and plenty of food, delegates divided into teams and fanned out across Dhaka and its surrounding areas, visiting as many as twelve polling stations over the course of the day. Accompanied by local Asia Foundation staff, they interviewed election officials at each station and watched the voting process with shrewd eyes. Each team observed the opening and closing procedures in different stations, impressed at the long and orderly lines that had formed as early as 5:30 am and continued into the afternoon.

At a breakfast debriefing the next morning, delegates hailed the election as “historic.” They unanimously agreed that the election, as far as they had observed, was transparent, free and fair, with minor irregularities that did not impact the overall integrity of the process. They were greatly impressed by the professionalism of the electoral process and the enthusiasm and patience of voters, including women, who turned out in large numbers. One member of the UK delegation remarked that elections in London were often far more chaotic than what she had just witnessed in Dhaka. Another, a British Bangladeshi who had left the country after the war with Pakistan in 1971, said it was “breathtaking” to watch such a peaceful, democratic transition. Several people praised the Bangladesh Election Commission’s information campaign promoting honest and accountable candidates. Others noted the festive atmosphere that had marked Election Day, likening it to festivals such as Eid or Durga Puja.

At the same time, the delegates noted some problem areas, including confusion over locating names on the voter list and in identifying the right polling booth. The involvement of political parties in providing voters with their serial number, necessary for casting a vote, was particularly singled out as undesirable. Polling station staff needed further training in the counting process and other Election Day procedures. Nonetheless, given the place that Bangladesh had come from even since the last election in 2001, the achievement was remarkable.

It was a moment for Bangladesh to be proud, and its neighbors were there not only to witness the achievement, but to learn from it. Even in India, with its long democratic tradition, the words “In Bangladesh, they did it like this ” may now be heard.

Julia Sable is a consultant with The Asia Foundation who joined the Dhaka office as an Election Program Specialist for the recent national election in Bangladesh.

View all posts by Julie Sable

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