Monday, November 17, 2008

Will banning of media and cell phone lead to rigged election?

Dr. ABDUL MOMEN

THE BANGLADESH Election Commission (EC) the military-controlled care-taker government (CTG) have assured the nation that they plan to hold a ‘free, fair, non-violent, transparent and credible election on December 18, 2008’. However, how will they achieve such goal is still raises doubts as the procedures set up so far is still non-transparent and questionable. They said, ‘Don’t worry about the process--- just trust us’. Unfortunately, such promise doesn’t work more so in Bangladesh. In the history of Bangladesh, elections that were conducted by otherwise ‘able civil and military bureaucrats and judges’ in 1978, 1981, 1986, 1988 or February 15, 1996 and 2001 were mostly questionable and most of those elections were partly or wholly ‘rigged or doctored’. For example, in 1978, one of the most able Home Secretaries, an erstwhile CSP, Salahuddin Ahmed Chowdury delivered Gen Ziaur Rahman an overwhelming 98% votes by manipulating the ballots. When foreign media started questioning such result, General was shaken. Therefore, in his next election, he told his top bureaucrats not to make the result ‘unbelievable’. They followed his advice and he received 88% votes in his next election. The nation witnessed time and again similar election results delivered by our top bureaucrats. Each government assured the nation of a fair and transparent election but the end result was always ‘questionable’. Therefore, they instituted through mass movement a unique system in the world known as CTG, presumably a non-partisan non-political interim government whose only function is to deliver a ‘free, fair, non-violent, transparent and credible election’. Current Chief Election Commissioner and head of the CTG are both former CSPs like that of Salahuddin Ahmed and they are both non-political and non-partisan top notch bureaucrats. Let us hope that they would be different from their esteemed CSP colleague.

The officers of Bangladesh civil and military bureaucrats are the ‘cream of the society’ and they get all the privileges or cream of the government. Nevertheless their record of election delivery is very poor. None of them are wholly ‘fair, non-violent, transparent and credible’. Is it because their system is evil designed and mindset is corrupt? In 2001 election a privileged group of bureaucrats both civil and military headed by a judge secretly decided to deliver election victory to a specific party and in order to achieve it, among many others, the EC recruited a highly partisan group of Returning Officers (ROs or DCs), Presiding Officers (PrOs), Polling Officers (POs), Assistant Polling Officers (APOs), Police Officers (DIGs, SPs, OCs), etc. They were instructed to give victory to a certain party as Secretary Salahuddin did in 1978 and they delivered. However, in some pockets where they failed to manipulate or/and where voters ignored their threats and exercised their free will, they were butchered and massacred. For example, minority voters in Barisal and Faridpur were murdered and their homes were ransacked. Their women were raped. What a price to pay for exercising voting franchise!!! Recently nearly 123 million people voted in the U. S. President-elect Barack Obama got 65 million (53%) and his rival Senator John McCain received 57 million (46%) votes. It is said to have record voting, nearly 62% (in Bangladesh voting exceeds over 75% to 90% depending on bureaucrats). But none was butchered unlike Bangladesh. Not a single polling booth was taken over by goons or security forces, and no ballot stuffing occurred occupying the voting center unlike Bangladesh.

In Bangladesh election of 2001 in many areas, partisan group of security personnel went out and intimidated supporters of the party that they dislike. They arrested and paraded their leaders and in many cases, asked their supporters to pull down their campaign posters, flyers and also to close down their campaign offices. Being afraid, the party supporters and activists followed their orders. In addition, at times, both civil and military officials would take over certain polling centers for an hour or two and stuff ballot papers denying the actual voters to cast their votes. Such incidents could be reduced if there is full transparency. Unfortunately, the EC declared that ‘no media can report vote counting or election results directly from the voting centers prior to their manipulation’ and ‘no cell phones, no private or public automobiles’ will be allowed to operate on the Election Day. Third, political party activists are discouraged to transport voters to the polling booths. On the contrary, in USA, on Election Day, volunteers are especially encouraged to drive down voters to the polling booths and the media was free to report results on a continuing basis without soliciting approval of results from election officials. Therefore, critics argue that voting in USA is designed to solicit public opinion but voting in Bangladesh is designed to reinforce pre-determined goals.

Since Bangladesh infrastructure is primitive, road and river communication network is poor, even land phones are hardly reachable, in such environment, cell phones or mobiles are the best medium of communication. Secondly, since Bangladesh government officials generally suffer from a mindset of secrecy and dominance, and since many of them are highly corrupt, have poor ethical and moral values and easily get sold, denying media to broadcast the results or banning cell phones will surely open up scope for ‘rigging election result’. If there is any ‘takeover or seizure of polling centers by goons or military, Para-military or other security forces’, the public can report the incident right away through cell phones to superior authority for corrective actions or to the media and the election monitoring observers. Such facility can immensely help reduce the likelihood of ‘takeovers’ of polling centers, stuffing ballots and rigging the election. Unfortunately, the EC has banned its operation. The argument that they put up is very naïve and self defeating. They argue that the availability of Cell phone would assist the goons to coordinate takeover of polling centers and media reporting may not be accurate. They are partisan, not professional. The events of 2001 Election is still fresh in our minds. Bangladesh media reported the massacre of especially minority voters in Barisal and other districts. The government and its ‘cream of the society’ civil servants vehemently denied such looting and killing. It claimed that the media reports were false. Eventually as the international pressure mounted sanity prevailed and accepted the reality and the media was vindicated. In early 1990s when the U. S. Labor Dept was debating banning imports of garments and apparel from those countries that encourage or use child labor, the Bangladesh Foreign Secretary in a letter claimed that ‘there is no child labor in Bangladesh’. No one believed him and in fact, it earned poor image for Bangladesh. Similar government denial was observed when media reported the terrorist executions of Bangla Bhai and Sheikh Abdur Rahman, the jehadi terrorists. Not only that, whenever government is replaced these bureaucrats play the piper and often falsely develop stories and cases accusing people’s representatives.

The EC claims that if cell phones are allowed then goons can coordinate and take over polling centers. Who are those goons? No goon can sustain in Bangladesh without some support either from the Law Enforcing Authority or political power house. Arms combing operation by the CTG if done correctly prior to election, no private goon can sustain.

Thousands of highly well armed police, BDR, RAB, Para-military and smart military forces of Bangladesh are capable of maintaining law and order and they can also ensure safety and security of polling centers and ballots. It’s notorious Rapid Armed Battalions (RABs) well known for extra-judicial killing is capable of discharging their responsibilities or rushing to the troubled centers quickly. In the last Mayor election in Barisal under the current administration, when a group of partisan RABs were found involved in seizure of polling centers and stuffing of ballots, as the Cell phones were not banned, general public reported the incidents right away to the media and as the media rushed to the spots, that group of partisan RABs hurriedly left the venue. Thus they failed to stuff the ballot boxes. If illegal seizure or capturing of polling centers is not guaranteed, stuffing of ballot boxes is easy and likely. In such case, voter list with photo ID or not is irrelevant because those who will seize a center they can stamp the ballots and stuff them at ease. Such will not guarantee ‘credible election’. Therefore, cell phones and media must not be banned on the Election Day.

In 2001 election, when I reported to the local Military Chief about the incident that a group of partisan military personnel ransacked the election campaign offices of a candidate and intimidated his supporters plus put up nasty posters against a party leader, the Commanding Officer looked at his ledger and said ‘ military vehicles went out to that area’. However, he asked me to get the number plates of each vehicle and the badges of each personnel and officers. He stated, ‘they must have impersonated military personnel’. Unfortunately, people of Bangladesh who are always afraid of military or police or anyone with killer weapons hardly record those numbers. In another incident, when a polling center was taken over by a group of goons, it take me over 20 minutes just to get hold of a workable land phone since neither automobile nor rickshaws were available. When I could finally speak to a military Captain, the young duty officer, he immediately dispatched the forces but by the time they reached the spot, the goons stuff sufficient ballots and left the venue. If cell phones would have been allowed, both reporting and dispatch could be efficient and quick. It is sad that a small group of partisan and greedy security officials and bureaucrats deprive the public of a fair, free and transparent election for their personal gain and in the process they bring disgrace and bad name to the entire police, Para-military and armed forces of the country.

Secondly, if cell phones are allowed, the media can report the ballot counts of each center right away across the country and thus possibility of manipulation or doctoring of results which is common in Bangladesh could be minimized. In the last elections, in many areas people voted freely but when the ROs (DCs) and PrOs sent the ballot counts, they manipulated the results. The major vehicle of ‘rigging of election results’ in Bangladesh are not political parties or their supporters as the government often claims but actually a small group of greedy and partisan civil and military bureaucrats that conduct the elections in utmost secrecy both at the local level as well in the Center. Without active connivance of bureaucracy both military and civil, it is nearly impossible to rig an election. Therefore, it should be made ‘transparent’ at every level. Secondly, transparent procedure must be correctly set, debated and publicly discussed to achieve goals.

Bangladesh earned poor image of being the ‘number one corrupt country in the world’ consecutively for 5 years. The military controlled caretaker government and its all powerful Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) headed by a general tried to punish mostly political leaders selectively instead of aiming at rooting out corruption from the body politic and therefore, it did not work much. More importantly, neither people like Justice Abdul Aziz, the former Chief Election Commissioner nor his associates that defrauded the Voter List were punished for their ‘unethical and immoral corruption’. Neither government officials that were responsible for rigging past elections were charge-shitted for their poor performance. Therefore, it is not unlikely that the current election officials may follow their past tradition of doctoring the elections without public awareness and transparency.

Under the circumstances how can we ‘trust’ the current the EC of a fair election? In quality control, ‘trust me, my quality is number 1’ is not enough. Instead, experts have set up verifiable, tested and transparent ‘quality control mechanism and processes’ to achieve quality products or services. Edward Deming and Jurand, the gurus of quality control therefore set up a complete process of TQM, total quality management. Their process worked well. Following their prescriptions, U. S. Secretary of Commerce, Malcolm Baldridge created a Baldridge Award of Excellence. It has 1,000 points and these points are divided into various critical areas of quality assurance. Any company that meets those criteria is awarded Baldridge awards each year. Here process is more important. Such improved process assist in guaranteeing ‘quality product or service’ provided it is fully enforced and implemented. Neither the Election Commission nor the CTG could set up a ‘verifiable and transparent process of guaranteeing a free, fair, non-violent, transparent and credible election system yet in Bangladesh. Rather, their process is marred with secrecy, doubts and questionable set ups such as (1) non-withdrawal of state of emergency regulations, (2) banning of media reporting and (3) banning of cell phones. This is very sad indeed and such may deprive the nation of a ‘free, fair, non-violent, transparent and credible election’ in 2008. Therefore, if the EC and the CTG are sincere to hold a free, fair and credible election, they must withdraw their bans from cell phones, media coverage and emergency regulations. #

Dr Abdul Moment is Professor of Economics and Management, Boston, USA