The story of a withering tree
What is at stake in the current conflict over election reform? Sharmeen Murshid puts a human face on the struggle over voting rights
I have a story to tell if you have a moment to listen.
"Apnara elekshoner kame aisen? Achha, apnarai kon shadharon mausher ki laabh ei elekshan diya. Eikhane elekshon maney to aat doshta manusher nishchit moron. Elekshon manay kichhu oshohai meyer ijjot haani, shoto manusher gram chharon. Manusher lasher upor diya khomotay jaoner jonno ei elekshaner kono darker nai. Apnara doya koira bando koren ei elekshon."
["Have you come for the elections? Alright, please tell me, how do elections help the ordinary people? Elections means that eight or ten people will die for sure, some helpless girls will be dishonoured, hundreds of people will have to leave their homes. I see no need for elections, coming to power by climbing over corpses. Please put an end to these elections."]
Thus spoke a shopkeeper in an angry outburst during one of my visits to Bhola to monitor local elections in 2003. Facts show that every election seems to cast a dark shadow over the skies of Bhola, and the people live in dread. In 2003, Bhola experienced every kind of electoral violence and irregularity that could be imagined. This is business as usual in Bhola.
In Bhola, when we found that 50% of the centres were empty of voters by 12 noon we wondered who, then, had cast the 81% and 79% votes in Borhanuddin and Tojumuddin. When we found that one centre had collected votes at the rate of two per minute, and another at the rate of one per six minutes, it was not difficult to discern the politics behind this.
I learnt that if you can slow down the collection of votes of a popular leader (and speed up the collection of a not-so-popular leader in another centre), you can make a popular leader lose even without casting false votes! Of course, you have to do your homework so that you know which centres can be simply time-controlled, which centres require a few hundred false votes, and who in the electoral system could help you with this. If you are not prepared with this information, then you are not prepared for elections at all!
We know that a tree is known by its fruit. Bhola is the dying fruit -- turning yellow. Our tree is withering.
Much has happened since, and before, Bhola. I, as a sociologist interested in the electoral process, have tried to sample-study every major electoral event over the past five years. I see a pattern in the way elections are held in Bangladesh. In the best of conditions, and the worst, the pattern seems to persist, only at times it is more pronounced than at others.
Walking through time and space, and taking time to watch the clouds over the elections of 2001, 2003, 2004, and 2005, it was clear that instead of hopping, skipping, and jumping from one event to another, as observers normally seem to do, a continuous scrutiny of the electoral process is absolutely essential if meaningful inputs are to be made, and if observations are to contribute meaningfully to improve the health of the system.
Now we are gearing up for the 2007 national elections. The clouds over the sky of 2006 have already grown dark, announcing the coming of a terrible storm. Preparations are on. The caretaker government has taken over, and it is already evident that this political strategy, so welcome in 1991, has received its first death blow in 2006.
The first nail in the coffin of the CTG form of government has been fixed, after it had successfully enabled three acceptable regime changes relatively peacefully in the past, leaving the people of Bangladesh feeling betrayed.
Today, Bangladesh is at another political crossroads. And I have no doubt that the creative Bengali will find a new "coping strategy" that will take the system to the next level -- a step nearer to excellence. The only worry is, at what cost will it have arrived?
Let's go back to the matter of patterns in the system. Let me share what I, as an election monitor, have so far seen and learnt.
The challenge of monitoring elections
Every election monitor needs to set an analytical and definitional framework of the themes, indicators, and concepts it comments on after every election it watches, setting points of reference and standards. There is no scope for absolute and general statements such as: "Except for a few incidences of violence the elections were free and fair."
But this is a very common statement made quickly by observers immediately after elections (it is important to beat the others in the rush to get to the media), without deeper reflection, and without defining their terms of reference. This makes observations politically controversial and scientifically questionable -- giving the opportunity to an already divided society to accuse the observers of being politically driven.
The only way election observers can protect themselves, and the need for election watch in Bangladesh, is by being scientific in their study and transparent in their activities. It is now their moral responsibility to preserve this activity by presenting themselves before society as non-partisan and scientific groups that work objectively to strengthen democracy in the country, without fear or favour.
Defining the premise
Defining terms is crucial. The analytical framework for monitoring is premised on definitions. The term "free and fair" is political rhetoric and not a scientific definition of electoral standards. It merely describes the credibility of an election.
Our premise, therefore, is to start with the fact that elections in Bangladesh are largely "not free" and "not fair." Evaluations, therefore, must be relative and comparative, and can be considered positive (acceptable) if the curve is heading downwards. Free choice of the electorate is at the core of democracy. It is the responsibility of the state to protect this right of citizens, and not allow it to be obstructed by any means.
Free participation is determined by the way the process is administered, and whether the voters are able to freely choose their representatives without coercion, manipulation, intimidation, or violence. A free-fair analysis is an analysis of free participation of candidates, political parties, and, of course,
voters, especially women and ethnic and religious minorities, who seem to be easy victims of violence and exclusion.
Disenfranchisement of voters can be a political objective in an unhealthy democracy, and the process begins way before elections and acts on all pre-through-post electoral phases. For example, there may be political reasons for having some persons on the voter roll while not having others. A badly prepared voter roll, or a manipulated voter roll, will put the total electoral process in jeopardy, as the 2006 voter list is perceived to be doing.
Therefore, to assess quality of (free) participation, observation of the process must be long term. Any short-term, or election day, view of the electoral process will be partial and myopic.
Findings from studying various national and local level elections show a common pattern in terms of the challenges to voter participation. Every election so far monitored confirmed that nine challenges must be overcome for voters to become true voters, and turnout to become true participation.
- Being registered in the voter roll.
- Being able to come out of the house to vote.
- Overcoming threats on the way to the polling centre (being able to reach the polling centre).
- Being able to stand in the queue leading to the polling booth.
- Being able to stamp the ballot paper, drop it into the box, and receive an indelible ink mark.
- Ballot being accepted by the presiding officer.
- Ability to cast vote within a reasonable time.
- Counting in presence of election observers and all polling agents of contending candidates.
- Declaration of the result.
In short, findings show that being a registered voter does not necessarily mean that a voter can go to the polling centre; a voter turning out does not necessarily mean that he or she entered the booth; a voter entering the booth does not necessarily mean that he or she voted by free choice; a vote cast is not necessarily a (genuine) vote counted. Hence, voter turnout is not voter participation, and the officially declared number of votes cast is not the real number of votes cast. Observers must not be elated by a huge turnout, and call it participation.
Setting a time and standard
Findings show that facilities used during past elections were inadequate (another cause of disenfranchisement). In fact, booth-to-time ratio does not allow for even 80% of the votes to be cast in eight hours. This needs restructuring immediately. Usually, national elections should take one minute per vote, which can go up to two minutes given our efficiency level, in which case the number of booths must be increased to accommodate the voters. For national elections, one booth should be able to accommodate 450 to 500 voters, and for local level elections one booth should accommodate 250 to 300 voters to achieve 80% casting in eight hours.
The following electoral events were studied and monitored. It was found that officially declared results do not take into account the number of fake votes cast. Therefore, there is usually a large margin of error in the results. Compare the following:
Real vote cast is, therefore, the official votes minus proxy votes. It may be said quite confidently that in Bangladesh real voter participation is lower than the stated official rate of voter participation.
Out of the four electoral events, three experienced violence on vulnerable/minority communities, thereby obstructing their free participation. The voter population of Parbotipur pouroshova decreased by 52% as a result of violence. Gazipur had the best environment for candidate participation, while Dhaka-10 had the worst.
Status of voter roll
Studying the quality of the voter roll is, for me, a part of the election monitoring objective, and from 2004 we shared our surprising findings in public discourses organized by Brotee.
The importance of the voter roll, and the politics of the voter roll, had never been felt as acutely as they are being today. While it is probably true that the voter roll always had errors, and little was done to improve this in the past, public perception did not perceive this as a problem. That has changed. With deeper understanding of the electoral process and the nuances of electoral corruption, the status of the voter roll is no longer just of academic interest, but also of national public interest.
Margin of error in voter roll
The scale of error in the voter list is large compared to stronger democracies such as India (which in the last four years has brought the rate down from 40% to 4% only through ID cards alone). This large margin of error gives scope for a large input of fake votes.
Number of incidences we observed and counted:
We recorded violence on minorities in the 2001 national and the 2003 union elections. In these cases, too, we see that under the best of conditions there is violence. Dhaka-10 had quiet violence with no major physical impact, but will go down in history as one of the most manipulated elections ever held. It is not the number of incidences of violence that is important, but the number of people who are disenfranchised by one event of violence. In 2001, a large number of organizations observed only 3% anomaly, but did not analyse how many people were disenfranchised because of this 3%. Three percent anomaly is not a 97% successfully held election. Do we know how many incidences of violence it takes to discredit an election?
In all cases, the major perpetrators of violence have been ruling party supporters/cadres, and major victims have been supporters of the parties in opposition. In the Dhaka-10 case, there were 233 election day incidents in 103 centres involving presiding officers (26), ruling party cadres (115), "utthi maastans" of ruling party (46), magistrate (1), local leader of ruling party (23), central leader of ruling party, (3) and security personnel (5). Dhaka-10 shows involvement of the administration and electoral officials in irregular behaviour and violence.
Wherever the code of conduct was broken, the electoral administration was found ineffective and inadequate. There is a direct correlation between violence and administrative irregularity in the electoral system. Findings show that 100% of the centres in Dhaka-10 were corrupted by irregularity, while in Munshiganj it was 26%.
All major watchdog groups condemned the Dhaka-10 by-election, yet the Election Commission maintained that no formal complaints were brought to it. The abuse of power of the election officials, the ruling political party, and their cadres led to the worst electoral manipulation yet seen in Bangladesh. Yet, the EC could do nothing, and the candidate was declared a winner and was sworn into the parliament in record time.
National elections are around the corner. What precautions are we taking to protect ourselves against another Dhaka-10? The possibility of a nationwide Dhaka-10 cannot be ruled out. If it was possible once, it can be made possible again. The EC must have a clear mandate to receive, and deal with, electoral complaints, with jurisdiction to investigate and cancel elections if necessary.
The case studies further show that all the by-elections were characterized by dummy agents forcefully replacing genuine agents in polling booths, and representing "ghost" parties. Ministers misused their position and campaigned in 20 unions in Munshiganj alone, breaking every code of conduct.
Knowing all this has not helped us to contain politicians or violence in elections. It has not strengthened the EC, nor has it made the political parties responsible and democratic. They continue to resist registration and transparency. Presently, the nation faces its worst pre-election scenario, with the president taking over as chief adviser of CTG, and an EC that is perceived to be partisan and incompetent. In popular perception the voter roll is, at best, controversial. As monitors, we must immediately undertake a citizens' assessment of the voter roll and, based on sound diagnosis, prescribe quick remedy and action.
Pouroshova elections were relatively well held, and the generally accepted negative indicators were at the lower end in Gazipur-2. Then why does Bhola remain one of the most volatile and high-risk areas in terms of elections? If the Election Commission can conduct relatively well-held elections, then why does Dhaka-10 occur? The role of political parties, biased electoral officials, politicized administration, and "ghost" party agents crowding the booths all put together equal an unclean and unhealthy electoral system. This will happen again in 2007 if the EC does not act robustly and independently.
The problem that now remains is that if an election officer stamps a ballot paper, or a non-voter votes, or a political leader intimidates the voters, it may all be viewed as a minor irregularity in Bangladesh. This condition may not qualify the election as "un-free" or "unfair" -- just as the Pouroshova and the Gazipur elections were not.
What qualifies as an "unfair" election? How many incidents of electoral irregularities will make for an unfair and un-free election? How many attacks on vulnerable communities will it take for us to say that too many have been disenfranchised? Who sets the standards? How many fake votes make a fake election? How many errors in a voter list make for a bad voter roll? How many times must the MPs, ministers, and election officers breach the code of conduct before we can say that the system has collapsed? Can the Election Commission tell us?
Time for zero tolerance
The country is increasingly heading towards political confrontation on the eve of election 2007. The EC has lost credibility but refuses to see that. The CTG is struggling in the face of a president-cum-chief adviser who even, at one point, mistakenly declared the state to be under presidential system -- introducing new dimensions of confusion that are only further destabilizing the nation. Foreign diplomats and representatives are seen and heard commenting much more than is politically comfortable or desirable.
I say let us correct the voter list and give every voter the right to vote. This is the first step on the road to democracy and it has not yet been paved. Reform or review -- it does not matter -- what matters is an all-inclusive voter roll prepared in a transparent manner.
The CTG is a necessary condition for smooth transfer of power, but it is not a sufficient condition to strengthen the total electoral system (there were violence and irregularities in elections in 2001 even under the CTG, despite the good job it did). Thus, the focus on the Election Commission: a strong and independent Election Commission is a necessary and sufficient condition to administer and protect all electoral processes at all times throughout the year.
Let us campaign for it, press for it, and demand it again and again -- until it happens.
Let us, all citizens, not just watchdog groups, wherever possible, come together to closely monitor the 2007 elections. Let us share information and work with the media and keep people informed so that there is constant pressure on the EC to address the wrongs that occur.
Let us move public interest litigations, where possible, to protect the people's right to information, and right to free choice and vote.
For the tree to bloom, we must all water it, nurture it, and not let it wither -- for with it will wither our very existence.
1. Union Parishad Elections 2003, How Much Do We Know? Murshid, Sharmeen et al, Brotee 2004.
2. Parliamentary By-Elections 2004, Monitoring Report, Murshid, Sharmeen et al, Brotee 2004.
3. Pouroshova Elections 2004, Brotee and Fema, 2004.
4. National Elections 2001, Election Observation Report, Brotee 2002
Sharmeen Murshid is Executive Director, Brotee, an election monitoring organization.