Bangladesh returns to democracy

Jan 5, 2009

To create the photo voter list, data entry operators were trained in basic laptop use, finger print scanning, web camera usage and using the voter list database. After the 10 day training, only the best candidates were chosen to work.
photo © UNDP
With UNDP Support, Elections Hailed as Transparent and Credible

Over 70 million Bangladeshis, including more than 46 million women and first time voters, went to the polls on 29 December 2008, amidst tight security, to elect a new democratic government.

Bangladesh’s 9th parliamentary election was peaceful and orderly and is being hailed as the country’s most credible and transparent election ever.

With 87% turnout, voters stood in long lines to cast their vote in the landmark election, returning democracy to Bangladesh after two years of emergency rule.

"I've come here half an hour before the polling began…there are already 200 women standing in lines," said Tashkina Yeasmin, a voter waiting in line in northwestern Chapainawabganj town.

‘The election was like celebration for our friends. We didn’t vote emotionally but intelligently and tactfully. The first-time voters were lucky because the pre-election environment was very peaceful.’ said Sristi Barua, a first time voter. (1)

The High-Level Panel established by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon for the December 2008 Bangladesh parliamentary election, consisting of senior UN officials and election experts said that the Election Commission had conducted the polls with credibility and fairness, pointing to the very high voter turnout and the large participation by minorities. The Panel, however, stressed that democracy goes beyond elections, and that the incoming government should make efforts to strengthen democratic governance in a wider sense, echoing remarks made by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator Kemal Derviş.

“Only by sharing and checking power will a country begin to move forward on the path to long-term stability and prosperity.  If winners take all, everyone loses,” said Mr. Derviş. “Today, Bangladesh stands at an important moment in its history. It is determined to build stronger democratic institutions and deeper practices of democracy.”

The Bangladesh Election Commission (BEC), actively working with UNDP, introduced several tools designed to increase the accuracy, transparency, and credibility of this election:

•    A new voter list with photographs, which helped to reduce voter fraud, revised constituency boundaries ensured each vote had comparable weight, and
•    A new nationwide ICT infrastructure, which improved access to information on candidates, the voter list and Election Day results.

In addition, national civic and voter awareness campaigns were held, informing voters of the registration process, the new voter list and Election Day procedures. The BEC held an all-night live broadcast announcing the results as they came through the new ICT network.

Over 200,000 national and 500 international election observers deployed on Election Day returned with one verdict: the election was peaceful, transparent, and credible, setting a high democratic standard.

“Professionalism, transparency and credibility were the hallmarks of this election”, claims the European Union Election Observation Mission.

"All Bangladeshis can take great pride in the success of these elections. The high voter turnout underscores the people's desire to see democracy restored," said Gordon Duguid, a U.S. State Department spokesman. (2)

All the international observer organizations credit the voter list for reducing voter fraud and bringing credibility back to the electoral process: “The successes of Election Day were due in large part to the establishment of the new voter list. The Caretaker Government, the BEC, the Army and the United Nations Development Program are to be commended for their efforts to register more than 80 million eligible voters and ensure their inclusion in the new list”, read the International Republican Institute’s statement on the election.

The general election was originally scheduled for January 2007 but was cancelled following widespread violence and protest that had brought the country to a near standstill. An army backed caretaker government imposed a state of emergency at the time, which was lifted ahead of the December 2008 election.  

The Bangladesh Election Commission (BEC) enjoys high levels of public confidence; it worked closely with a wide range of stakeholders to prepare for and conduct the hallmark election. In addition, the BEC also undertook widespread electoral reforms including new electoral laws, codes of conduct and the mandatory registration of political parties.

UNDP has supported the BEC since 1996 and as a result of this long-term partnership, the reconstituted Election Commission requested UNDP to provide technical, logistical and administrative support to prepare for and conduct the December 2008 election. UNDP worked closely with the new government and the Election Commission to develop an election timeline to return the country back to an elected government.

With UNDP support, the Bangladesh Election Commission implemented several initiatives aimed at correcting past deficiencies:  

A major reason for the cancellation of the scheduled national election of 22 January 2007 was a seriously discredited voter list. Civil society organizations and political parties demanded the creation of an accurate voters list with photographs to facilitate free and fair elections. At the request of the BEC, UNDP developed voter list processes, methodologies and technical specifications for the creation of the computerized voter list with photographs. With logistical and organizational support from the Bangladesh Army, a pilot project was implemented in June 2007 to test the methodology and technology and to establish guidelines and parameters for the implementation of the full project. In just eleven months, over 81 million voters - nearly 51% female- were electronically registered, which includes entering voters’ photographs, fingerprints and detailed personal information into a nationwide database. Bangladesh now holds the record in registering the largest number of voters in the shortest time period. This enormous achievement required training more than 500,000 election workers including over 104,000 computer operators, including 25 percent women. Over 10,500 laptops with webcams and fingerprint scanners were deployed in teams to complete registration, along with 500 desktop computers/servers and the initiative involved coordinating activities in nearly 90,000 registration centers across the country. The exercise also involved digitally capturing personal data, photographs and fingerprints into laptops, which were integrated with a central data center. The equipment was designed to allow for redeployment for updating and management of the photo voter list and to support the future e-Governance requirements of Bangladesh.  

Methodologies and solutions were found to address challenges that are specific to Bangladesh including special strategies for the inclusion of minorities, indigenous groups and hard to reach areas. For the first time ever, eligible voters from the Bihari community were registered to vote and recognized as citizens of Bangladesh.

“It's amazing to have at last a national identity. It feels even greater especially when I know my end is near. That I'd ever be able to say 'this is my country' before I die was way beyond my expectation.” said Abdul Sattar (70), a voter from the Bihari community who last voted prior to Bangladesh’s independence in 1971. (3)

A useful and innovative by-product of this initiative is the provisional National ID card, which was given to voters after they registered to vote. This ID marks the first form of identification many Bangladeshis have ever received.

The voter list project was formulated as a pooled funded project administered by UNDP and implemented by the BEC with funding from the Government of Bangladesh and financial support from nine international development partners (Denmark, the European Commission, Republic of Korea, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom and UNDP).

Independent audits of the voter list have confirmed the high accuracy and credibility of the list. Following the completion of the voter registration process, UNDP commissioned Washington-based International Foundation for Electoral System (IFES) to assess the 2008 photographic voter list. The audit confirmed the high degree of accuracy of the data and photographs and inclusiveness of the list.

To ensure that all votes carry comparable weight, the BEC successfully completed the first comprehensive constituency delimitation exercise since the mid-1970s. Large disparities existed in the number of voters across constituencies, from as low as 104,100 voters in some constituencies to more than six times as many voters in other constituencies. UNDP provided technical assistance to develop the methodology and guidelines for delimitation, including the introduction of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology to support the accurate and timely delimitation process.  UNDP also provided assistance to develop capacity within the BEC to support the new GIS equipment and software.  Over 130 constituency boundaries were redrawn and a nationwide hearing process was led by the Commissioners, resulting in more equal sized constituencies for the 29 December 2008 election.

To improve communication networks and ensure sustainability of the new initiatives, UNDP supported the BEC in establishing long-term operational and technology strategies for both the national and local level. The establishment of an ICT infrastructure allowed for the creation of a nationwide candidate declaration system, a nomination and results system, and an upgraded interactive website accessed by more than 750,000 persons during the election period. The system was used to scan and transmit all candidate nominations and asset declarations which were made public on the BEC website, allowing Bangladeshis to make more informed choices on Election Day. The new system also allowed for the transmission of progressive election results from the field to the central level, ensuring real time updates are published on the BEC’s public website. The BEC is now recognized as one of the most advanced users of ICT in the country and as one of the first organizations in Bangladesh to establish networked computerization down to the district and sub-district levels. The new ICT systems allow citizens’ access to information, deters and prevents fraud and electoral irregularities and improves pubic confidence in the electoral institutions.

Following a long-term demand of some major political parties, the Bangladesh Election Commission committed to providing translucent ballot boxes for the 29 December 2008 election. UNDP, with financial support from the Government of Canada, assisted the BEC in specifying and procuring 240,000 translucent ballot boxes and supported training and training videos to introduce election officials to translucent ballot boxes.  The translucent ballot boxes helped build confidence in the process and ensured transparency during the election.  

The BEC also requested UNDP’s assistance in identifying and procuring the indelible ink pens used on election day. The pens helped deter multiple voting and increased public confidence in the process.

To ensure sustainability of the initiatives undertaken by the current Bangladesh Election Commission, UNDP provided technical assistance to an organizational restructuring designed to build the capacity of the Commission to professionally conduct and manage credible and technically sound elections, institutionalize all ICT mechanisms and systems, and support the Commission’s independence.

Additionally, UNDP assisted the BEC in the design and development of voter education and awareness materials for the 29 December 2008 election. The awareness campaign covered topics such as candidate declarations, the new provision for a ‘no-vote’, voting day procedures and identification of polling centers.

UNDP will continue to support the BEC to ensure sustainability of the achievements including the institutionalization and infrastructure to maintain the voter list. UNDP will assist in establishing permanent server stations throughout Bangladesh to provide permanent facilities to be able to update the list on an annual and ongoing basis and to perform other administrative and election management functions.   

The election was a crucial step, but it is only a first step in ensuring that structures, institutions and processes of governance engage and address the needs and rights of all citizens. Throughout its support to the current BEC, UNDP provided opportunities, mechanisms and processes that allowed for interaction and communication between the BEC and non-governmental organizations. Regular and frequent consultations were held between UNDP, BEC and the national and international community, ensuring that all stakeholdersworked towards the same end.

UNDP and the UN Secretariat remained engaged throughout the process and played a vital role in the electoral preparations. From 2006, the Electoral Assistance Division of the UN Department of Political Affairs dispatched about half a dozen expert missions to assess the situation and to ensure that preparations were conducive to good electoral practice. When UNDP Administrator Kemal Derviş visited Bangladesh in March 2008, he paid particular attention to how the country was preparing for democratic elections, meeting with the Chief Election Commissioner and visiting voter registration sites in rural areas. “Democracy belongs in Bangladesh, This is a people with a strong love for democracy, a passion for independence, and need for forthright discussion and exchange of views,” he affirmed.  “A Bangladesh that overcomes its current economic challenges and successfully makes its democratic transition is a powerful example to many other countries confronting similar problems.”

During his visit to Bangladesh in November 2008, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon highlighted the role of UNDP in assisting the country in “ushering in a better, brighter, more sustainable democracy.” After his visit and in response to a request from the Caretaker Government of Bangladesh, the Secretary-General established a High-Level Panel for the forthcoming parliamentary elections, consisting of senior UN officials and election experts. The High-level Panel subsequently made two visits to Bangladesh, assessing the preparations for and the conduct of the elections.

Concluding its second visit with a press briefing on 2 January, the High-level Panel said that the Election Commission had conducted the election with credibility and fairness.

“It is highly desirable that the new government makes the strengthening of the democratic institutions a priority and ensures the independence of bodies that have been created over the past two years, such as the anti-corruption commission,” said the High-level Panel.


(1) Courtesy, "The Star Campus"
(2) Courtesy,
(3) Courtesy, "The Daily Star"

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