In The News

Reflections on the Bangladeshi National and Local Elections

February 11, 2009

On December 29, 2008, Bangladesh held its most credible and most peaceful elections to date. They were free, fair, and without the usual violence and disruption that has accompanied most elections in Bangladesh. Voter turnout hit 88 percent, a remarkable figure for a country with a history, albeit interrupted, of regular elections.

These elections differed from years past. Both the orderly management of the elections and a belief that a new style of politics was being ushered-in in Bangladesh, gave the public a renewed sense of confidence in government. The run-up to the cancelled January 2007 elections was marred by street violence and accusations of manipulation of the voter list. In February 2007, the new members of the Bangladesh Election Commission (BEC) worked tirelessly to ensure that the December 2008 elections would be a success, and faced few of the criticisms and complaints brought against its predecessors.

In a remarkable display of organizational mobilization and determination, the BEC worked with the military to gather data from every household in the country to produce a new electoral roll. When finished, it contained photographic identification of all 81 million registered voters. It also had 12 million voters less than the dubious electoral roll the previous BEC had planned to use in January 2007.

While the BEC spent 18 months preparing for the election, the Caretaker Government attempted to clean up Bangladesh’s political system. Joining several prominent members of parliament in prison, former Prime Ministers Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, alternating in power since 1991, were detained and held while awaiting trial on corruption charges. With the exception of the two leaders, most high profile arrests were greeted with the public’s enthusiasm. However, the Caretaker Government and courts ultimately floundered in their efforts to marshal sufficient evidence to support most corruption charges.

The drive to clean up Bangladeshi politics created popular pressure for the political parties to pick candidates untainted by allegations of a criminal nature to run for the 300 parliamentary constituencies up for election. The BEC created new laws and regulations to tighten who was qualified to stand for election. Many nominated potential candidates who were rejected by the BEC, however, went on to appeal their candidacy to the courts, which – much to the dismay of the BEC – were granted the opportunity to run. Still, the Bangladeshi tradition of violence during elections was absent. The new election laws banned subversive campaign tactics, including mass rallies and road blocks, and the government was clear that it would enforce these regulations firmly.

The Bangladeshi media and civil society drove a nationwide voter education effort to ensure that citizens knew their rights. Women faced particularly strong pressure to vote according to the wishes of their husbands or fathers. Organizations such as the Election Working Group (EWG), a coalition of 32 organizations, produced publications and a series of four televised public service announcements that clearly explained and promoted issues such as: a woman’s right to vote according to her own choice, why the elections are important, and the meaning of the new buzz word “accountability.”

In a survey conducted by the EWG, over 86 percent of respondents thought that the prevailing law and order situation in their area was conducive to a free and fair election. In a similar survey conducted prior to the cancelled 2007 elections, just 56 percent of respondents were confident the upcoming Parliamentary election would be free and fair.

Surprisingly, however, the euphoria and unity shown during the December 2008 parliamentary elections was not evident one month later during the January 22 upazila (mid-level local government) elections. These elections were marked by much higher levels of violence, which led to the closing of several polling centers. Also, violations including ballot snatching and intimidation of polling officials ensured that the quality of the elections fell far short of the new standard set by the parliamentary election three weeks earlier. There are many possible reasons why voter turnout was low. The upazila elections were to elect a newly re-instated tier of government – upazila councils having been previously abolished in 1991. Few Bangladeshis seemed to understand the upazila elections’ importance.

After the election, the BEC accused the newly installed political government of not paying enough attention to upazila elections, and other state bodies such as the police and military for a lack of willingness to coordinate their activities for the elections.

Now that Bangladesh has shown it can hold fair elections, it is the duty of the current government to work towards creating an environment conducive for future elections. Expectations should remain high that elections can continue to be held in a safe environment; one in which the electorate has confidence that the results reflect the will of the people.

Similarly, Bangladesh’s public and civil society has a great challenge ahead to continue to engage the public to promote accountability amongst elected officials and to make sure that knowledge, awareness, and enthusiasm for democratic politics does not diminish. If this does not happen, the efforts of the current BEC will have been sacrificed to political opportunism and disinterest.

Jeremy Gross is The Asia Foundation’s Elections Program Manager in Indonesia. He provided technical assistance to the Foundation’s Bangladesh office to support their elections program. He can be reached at jeremy@tafindo.org.

View all posts by Jeremy Gross

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