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Monday, November 17, 2008

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


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

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Create Level Playing Field for Candidates for Change in Bangladesh


WHEN WE talk about electoral democracy we would be talking about democratic practices involved in a democratic election. Included within the framework are the fundamental political values, i.e. democracy, democratic practices & democratic Institutions, the rule of law, fundamental human rights and a just & honest electoral organisation. Like other organisations established in a democracy, the electoral organisation entrusted with the power to conduct elections should completely be committed to democracy and have the will to actively promote democratic ethics.

What we see from our present political scenario? The Awami League president had alleged a conspiracy was being hatched against the December 18 parliamentary polls and said the national elections must be held on the day for transition to democracy. National elections must be held on December 18 for transition to democracy and her party want acceptable elections in a free and fair manner which will be contested by all political parties. The Awami League president stressed the need for the establishment of an effective post-election parliament through which both the elected government and the opposition will play a positive role in running the country. On the other side, the Chairperson of the Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP) expressed her concerns that the government has failed to create a promised level-playing field for all parties to contest the election, while the election commission seems favouring a certain group to clinch power. Analysts have said the participation of both major parties is crucial to ensure peaceful voting and a smooth return to democracy after nearly two years of rule by an army-backed interim government.

It is very important that the elections should be held in keeping with the schedule on December 18 for a democratically elected government which will, in fact, reflect the wishes of the people, a foreign diplomat said. He thinks that is a vision for the future that my sense is shared by everybody in this country. Asked about the BNP’s unwillingness to contest the elections, he said the BNP must make the decision on the matter. But from his perspective as a high commissioner of a country, he has very much hope that they will have the widest possible participation in this election. Other foreign diplomats hoped that all political parties will be able to participate in the election to compete in a free and fair manner to democratically elect a government. About the BNP’s allegation of absence of a level playing field for fair polls, one foreign diplomat said it is the matter of the caretaker government to discuss with all political parties and expressed that of course, everyone in this country wants to see free and fair elections and all political parties have equal opportunities to participate and campaign for the elections

Democratic ethics have ideally been outlined by the various international conventions. The adoptions of some of the fundamental elements found in the guidelines would help to establish some kind of electoral standard which enjoys not only the broad support of the people but also most importantly the attainment of a standard that is internationally recognised. To determine where exactly we are with international standard, we would have to examine the legal framework governing democratic elections in the country. There is no ‘best’ electoral system suitable to all and no universally recognised standard attached to any one of them. The choice of electoral system needs to be made with desired goals in mind. It must be understood by all that the effect which different kinds of electoral system can promote are ultimately contextual and depend on the specific cleavages and divisions within any given society.

Choosing an electoral system is one of the most important institutional decisions for any democracy. An electoral system can help to “engineer” specific outcomes such as encouraging co-operation and accommodation in a divided society, a point very much relevant to independent Bangladesh in its infant stage by which cleavages and divisions are reduced significantly through co-operation and accommodation among the society divided with race, religion, culture as well as geopolitical environment at that particular point of time. The International Handbook on electoral system specifically mentioned that in the choice of an electoral system an important consideration is whether a country is sharply divided along political, religious, ethnic or other lines and whether minorities are, in the process, going to be properly and equitably represented in the political system.

The choice of the electoral system within the context of a particular country can make a significant positive or negative impact on the electoral fortunes of the various political contenders. As far as we are concerned the simple system chosen had seen the negative impact on parties which failed to gain popularity (in term of seats obtained) and had even disappeared from the political scene. On the other hand there are parties whose leaders have been far sighted enough to undertake policy of accommodation and co-operation and had continued to gain seats (and power) devoid of any prospect of being wiped out of the political scene at all. In spite of these difficulties the EC has been in complete control and has done very well in vital areas pertaining to the actual electoral conduct and process, e.g. Nomination, Poll, the Count and the pronouncement of results. Complete transparency has been achieved in those areas even though in carrying out those functions the EC has to rely on the honesty and impartiality of government officials. In general government officials, in terms of accountability, owe their loyalty to the government of the day.

Earning the confidence of the people is considered the most challenging task for the Commission. So far so good. For the past general elections we have managed to earn that credit. On the other hand it is also a completely challenging task for the Commission to earn and maintain the confidence of the opposition parties especially when all the time they harbour a sense of complete distrust for the government and collaterally for the Commission. Ironically what ever the Commission does has always’ been quaintly seen as working towards maintaining favourable conditions for the government and of course for the present caretaker government in power. What is considered completely fair sometimes are pronounced as unfair and the built-in advantages enjoyed by the party in power and a complete manipulation of those advantages would during critical time completely wipe out any shred of confidence they may have over the whole system and the agency in charge.

When we talk about election management with international standards, it is important that the legal framework on election should be so structured as to be unambiguous, understandable, transparent and should address all components of an electoral system necessary to ensure democratic election. What is really important to our nation is the necessary components in the law which will enhance the credibility of and public confidence in the elections. The legitimacy of the government established under the system should not at all be subject to any form of post election outcry and examinations.How does a member of the public view somebody's’ statement which says that determining the mode of campaign as none of the EC’s business. What exactly are we expected to do during the time when with the conduct of a democratic election, democratic rules appear to indicate that freedom to campaign can be considered the most important element in the election process. Which other ways can EC earn the confidence of the people other than being judged on our performance in the conduct of a free and fair election.

I believe that all aspects of the electoral Commissions’ establishment, composition, status and functions are relevant to the question of transparency in the electoral process. In term of the International standards and guideline, the legal framework should require that the Commission be established and should operate in a manner that ensures the independent and impartial administration of elections.As for the electoral management system we are quite close to the internationally recognised electoral standards. In Bangladesh the legal framework on election will provide the important elements for the establishment a strong electoral management process and mechanism but yet the overall framework clearly does not provide sufficient rooms for the Commission to manoeuvre and place itself completely in a commanding position to set up a completely level playing field during the election period.

When we talk about election management with international standards, it is important that the legal framework on election should be so structured as to be unambiguous, understandable, transparent and should address all components of an electoral system necessary to ensure democratic election. How does a member of the public view somebody's’ statement which says that determining the mode of campaign as none of the EC’s business. What exactly are we expected to do during the time when in terms of the conduct of a democratic election, democratic rules appear to indicate that freedom to campaign can be considered the most important element in the election process. Which other ways can we earn the confidence of the people other than being judged on our performance in the conduct of a free and fair election.

When we talk about democratic electoral process, we always hear people mentioning about the need for a level playing field. The expression “level playing field, according to electoral guidelines required the fair application of the following to all political parties.

• All rules and regulations
• Freedom to campaign by all means available (Democratic electoral campaign)
• Access to the state owned media to explain program to electorate
• Free to consult the election management team (Access to Electoral Commission)
• Can participate, where necessary, in election preparatory process, or
• Can participate in observing that all procedures are being properly applied.

Level playing field is a necessary ingredient of a free and fair election although no one with enough experience in the conduct of election will ever subscribe to the view that an absolute equality can be achieved between the contending parties.

Built in advantages enjoyed by the party in power in Bangladesh are many, including the right to call the shots, publicity over policy announcements and most of other public related exposures, including the support the ruling party may enjoy from a large number of privately owned media bodies which consider as being the major obstacles to the establishment of a playing field considered level in our election

Election is a festival of democracy. It fosters an inclusive state, democracy rooted in popular sovereignty and sustainable peace and tests the competitive strength of political parties and leaders through program and ideologies. In this context, it is important for the Nepalese press to keep the hope of citizens alive and kicking by serving key roles in democratic initiatives, democratic consolidation, democratic expansion and democratic deepening. Truly independent press spreads democratic ideology and plays an important role in the maintenance of the democratic system. It signifies a program of public rationality and a voice of the voiceless.

Since print and electronic media are the prime channels of transmitting electoral messages, politics in Bangladesh will be played out increasingly in communicative space. Press can contribute to ease the nation's transition process by creating election-friendly environment, democratising the public sphere and legitimising political initiatives. In Bangladesh, politicians talk more to the press than among themselves. It is the press that shapes their overall cognitive understanding about politics. A strong identification of citizens with political parties steered by the press provides greater motivation to vote and engage in politics. But, party is only a part of society, not the whole. Press can play an important role to make democracy for everybody by reaching to even the passive and alienated populace and sensitising them on public questions. By providing critical information responsible press nurtures an informed society capable of making vital choices in the election process and contributing towards the emancipatory potential of rationality embodied in participatory democracy. #

Gopal Sengupta is a freelance writer based in Canada who can be reached at:

Monday, November 03, 2008

Bangladeshi Voting Fever in the Boroughs

Bangladesh Society of New York puts your election obsession to shame


An election was about to be committed on American soil—no, not the one happening next week, the one that should result in a huge turnout by American standards, but will, inevitably, only rouse a minority of adult Americans to polling places. No, this was another kind of election entirely, one that involved people whose passion for politics is completely alien to the native-born of this country.

IN THE dead silence of a Sunday morning, hours before the crowds arrived, Chad Mia, a former manager at a Sbarro franchise, rode his truck full of milky sweet tea, stewed chickpeas, and lentil cakes through an industrial section of Queens. It was 2 a.m. He curled up in the front seat to catch a few hours of sleep. He wanted to guard both his spot from the other vendors that would arrive later on that day and something that was perhaps even more important: a large hanging banner that bore the face of a man named Mohammed Aziz, his favorite candidate. He feared the banner might be taken down during the night.

By 8 a.m., the sidewalks were bustling with people and television cameras from eight different stations; bejeweled women in brightly colored saris and men in suits were locked in noisy debate. Campaign staffers lined the block with tables and folding chairs. To get to the polling precinct—a warehouse called the "Queens Palace"—voters pushed through a narrow aisle of people who shoved flyers in their faces and shouted all at once.

So much clamor, and the actual voting wasn't set to begin for another two hours—for all the politicking and arguing and debate, these people were only casting ballots for the officers of a nonprofit organization.

The election of the Bangladesh Society of New York is one of the most festive days of the year for local immigrants. Voters, most of whom are noncitizens, are obsessed with the electoral process. "It's like Diwali!" one man said, referring to the Hindu festival of light that's happening in Jackson Heights this week. As in the presidential election, the same issues had come up: economic insecurity, voting fraud, and the charisma of the candidates.

An election commissioner, Sayed Tipu Sultan, wearing a ribbon with the words "Commissioner of Elections" pinned to his blazer, buzzed about confidently, maintaining order. "This is going to be a very hard-fought election," he announced. "Both parties are very strong."

He barked into a BlackBerry and took a moment to talk to the television cameras. Nearly 13,000 people were registered to vote. They would make their way to four other precincts—in nearby Jamaica and Ozone Park, in the Bronx, and in Brooklyn.

Everything was running smoothly, he said, but that hasn't always been the case. "Whenever a party lost an election, he would file a petition to the court," Sultan said. "You know, just to play around a little bit."

One man, who called himself a campaign manager, was manning a table on the sidewalk. "Our panel is the very best panel!" he yelled, pushing a flyer with his slate of candidates—all on the Aziz team—into people's faces as they walked by.

People seemed to be in high spirits, and they had reason to be happy. Just two days earlier, a district court judge had dismissed a lawsuit against the popular Aziz, a wealthy contractor who was seeking a three-year term as president of the Society. The plaintiffs in the suit—from his political opposition—had alleged that Aziz paid the registration fees, at $20 each, for hundreds of people. That allegation did turn out to be partially true (Aziz insists that he paid for only a handful of people)—but, the court found, it was well within the rules set out by the society's official election commission.

The rules required no financial disclosures, but it was rumored that Aziz had spent half a million dollars of his own money on his campaign (Aziz later said it was only $300,000), and he was heavily favored to win.

"When we have a candidate, we support him with our heart and soul," said Mia. "We support him with money, plus energy. We support this guy because he will bring us into mainstream American politics. He will be our voice!"

Just weeks before, Mia had lost his job as a manager at a Sbarro restaurant on Canal Street. Business was down 40 percent. The job market in New York is very bad, he explained. Since he lost his job, he's been working as a street vendor in Jackson Heights. The election, he pointed out, is itself an economic engine for the struggling community (Sultan says it costs about $100,000 to run). Mia was hoping the charitable Aziz would set up job-training programs if he was elected president.

Aziz, who is based in Bed-Stuy, builds affordable housing in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. He was running on a platform of building a community center, fixing immigration problems, and finding jobs for Bangladeshis.

People lined up to enter the precinct, showing IDs at the door. The machines were the same ones used by the city. Poll workers checked people's last names and sent them to the proper booth to vote, each of which was guarded by a beefy African-American man wearing a black SECURITY T-shirt. The security men checked the levers on the machines to ensure that nobody voted twice.

Most people had no trouble using the machines—Aziz had sponsored training workshops a few weeks earlier.

Outside, the security guards ushered people off the sidewalk, appearing more like bouncers at a nightclub than supervisors of an election. (At one point, even the election commissioner himself was told to clear the area.) Armed plainclothes NYPD officers were also standing by.

"We are born into politics," said Mia, adding that Bangladeshis love Barack Obama. "It's the way we grow up—politics, politics," he said. "Americans don't seem to care that much."

Few people, however, could name the Bangladesh Society's accomplishments during the previous year.

"For hundreds of years, we were suppressed by the Dutch. And then by the British. And we fought them! But nobody could rule us forever. We really like to get involved to change our fate," said commissioner Sultan. He paused a moment, and then noted that in Bangladesh itself, the political system is woefully corrupt. "But it never changes that much."

After the votes were counted, Aziz had won by a 75 percent margin.

"I never thought I was actually that popular," he said a few days after the raucous day of voting. "It's unbelievable. I just couldn't believe how much people like me." #

First published in Village Voice, October 29, 2008