Effective Electoral Assistance

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Effective Electoral Assistance
Brief History of Electoral Assistance – Three leading actors
The hard lessons of the 1990s
The Wake-Up Call of the New Millennium
Facing Electoral Realities: Too Much Assistance, Too Late
The Electoral Cycle Approach
Setting Up an Effective Electoral Assistance Project: From Identification to Evaluation
Institutional Strengthening and Capacity Development
Existing Knowledge and Capacity Building Services
Embracing technology
The Way Forward
A Bangladesh Case Study: Technical Electoral Assistance and Deeply Divided PoliticsBy Jeremy Eckstein

Bangladesh has a history of holding competitive elections since 1973. Since independence in 1971, power has been transferred between the country’s main political parties, the Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) four times. This electoral track record has been marred, however, by occasional large-scale violence, military intervention and opposition boycotts, both of the elections themselves and the subsequent parliament. The social, economic and political disruptions resulting from parliamentary elections are symptoms of the confrontational, centralized and acrimonious politics that have characterized Bangladesh’s political party-system since the birth of the country.

The international community has provided technical support to the electoral process in Bangladesh since the 1990s. It has provided assistance to the administration of elections, as well as international observers, funding to domestic observers, political mediation and political party strengthening programs. International support to the electoral process peaked between 2006 and 2008, a period during which the Bangladesh Election Commission (BEC) implemented significant reforms, including the creation of a new, digitalized, biometric voter list with over 90 million entries. Despite these efforts, and the highly successful 2008 elections, the 2014 elections were subject to an opposition boycott and were described by Human Rights Watch as the “most violent in the country’s history.” [1]

This case study explores the potential and limitations of technical assistance to the electoral process in Bangladesh. It is not intended to be an in-depth review of how elections have been supported to date, nor is it a comprehensive analysis of the political economy issues that drive Bangladesh’s electoral disruptions. Rather this paper is meant to provide a brief overview of the country’s electoral and political landscape, and pose questions about how to provide international assistance in this context. It is likely that something can be learned in other countries from the Bangladesh experience.
A Brief History of Bangladesh's Political Parties and Elections

Both the AL and BNP, which have formed governments since the country’s independence, are rooted in Bangladesh’s independence struggle. The AL is led by Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Khaleda Zia, the wife of a prominent independence fighter, Commander General Ziaur Rahman, heads the BNP. Both parties are highly centralized and do not make use of democratic systems to select party leadership and candidates. The relationship between the AL and the BNP is characterized by a deep-seeded and personal acrimony between the two parties’ leaders. In terms of ideology, the parties differ little. The AL is perceived as leaning slightly left of center, while the BNP is perceived as leaning more to the right. Both parties have joined with other parties to form strategic electoral coalitions. The BNP has traditionally aligned itself with the Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami.

Ten parliamentary elections have been held in Bangladesh to date. Since the first 1973 parliamentary elections, the AL and BNP have alternated power regularly. After a period of military rule, which ended with a BNP electoral victory in the 1991 Fifth Parliamentary Elections, an incumbent government was not returned until the 2014 Tenth Parliamentary Elections, when the AL was reelected. Political parties in opposition have expressed deep distrust in the government’s ability to hold free and fair elections, despite the existence of a constitutionally independent BEC. This distrust, and large-scale violence following 1996 parliamentary elections, led to a constitutional amendment that created a Caretaker Government system under which executive power was handed to a non-partisan government for the duration of the electoral period. Elections were held under this system in 1996, 2001 and 2008, until it was removed by the AL-dominated parliament in 2013.

International assistance to Bangladesh’s electoral process peaked between 2007 and 2008. In this period, following the collapse of the scheduled 2006 Ninth Parliamentary elections due to an AL electoral boycott and large-scale violence leading up to the polls, a military-backed Caretaker Government sought to reform not only the technical aspects of the electoral process, but also politics as usual.

Reforms were focused on strengthening the BEC technically, through the creation of a new voter register, which the AL had declared inaccurate before the scheduled 2006 elections, and through a range of other technical reforms. Indeed, the AL had put forward a ten-point list of demands to reform the electoral system. Many of these concerns were addressed during the two-year period of reform.

The Caretaker Government also sought to reform politics by arresting a large number of leading politicians, including the two former prime ministers, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, with the intent of removing them from political leadership. While the technical reforms were very successful, in large part due to the exemplary leadership of the BEC commissioners, the existing political structures were too deeply entrenched to be significantly changed during this two-year period. The Caretaker Government’s efforts to remove the existing political leadership and seed the emergence of a new cadre of political leaders failed.

In 2008 the Ninth Parliamentary Elections were held with the participation of both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. These elections were lauded by domestic and international observers as the most technically sound and violence-free parliamentary elections held in Bangladesh to date. They were a resounding technical success. However, it did not take long for business as usual to return to Bangladesh’s political scene. The BNP, losing the elections, boycotted parliament after only a few months of participation. The AL later amended the Constitution to eliminate the Caretaker Government system, claiming that the BEC had been sufficiently strengthened and that therefore such a system was no longer needed. The AL also claimed that the system had been abused in the 2006-2008 period, when the Caretaker Government sought to reform politics.

Following the dissolution of the Caretaker Government system, the BNP declared that free and fair elections were not possible under an incumbent government. It sought to ratchet up pressure on the AL government by organizing successive waves of protests, unleashing levels of violence that surpassed even the levels seen leading up to the scheduled 2006 elections. The Economist wrote that over 500 people were killed in political violence in 2013, making it “one of the most violent years since independence.” [2] After a series of failed attempts to negotiate a solution, including discussions on the formation of an election-time government, the BNP declared that it would boycott the Tenth Parliamentary Elections. A traditional AL ally, the Jatiya Party eventually joined the boycott, leaving 153 of the 300 parliamentary seats uncontested.

Unsurprisingly the AL won a landslide victory. Most international observers missions withdrew their observers. The media, however, found the elections to suffer from suppressed voter turnout and violence against civilians, activists and electoral officials. The New York Times characterized the elections as “bizarre” and noted that “at least 19 people were reported to have been killed in political violence, and 440 polling places were closed early because of security concerns.” The newspaper further noted that on the day following the elections, “official counts from Dhaka suggested that the turnout here averaged about 22 percent — a steep decline from the last general elections, when more than 87 percent voted.” [3]
Lessons from Three Electoral Cycles

In five years, elections turned from being the country’s most peaceful and technically sound to the most violent and opposition-boycotted. This change did not occur due to an erosion of the technical capacity of the BEC to hold elections. Despite the appointment of a new slate of BEC commissioners in 2012, the technical gains put in place during 2007-2008 period generally remained. In fact, unlike during the lead-up to the scheduled and ultimately collapsing 2006 parliamentary elections, the opposition did not have a slate of technical demands.

The BNP’s concerns regarded an incumbent government’s ability to facilitate free and fair elections. This concern has historically rested on the fact that district government officials are appointed as Returning Officers during the election cycle. Returning Officers are critical to the election process as they coordinate and control the state apparatus at district level, including security services in support of elections. While the BEC has a secretariat that extends to the district level, it nonetheless continues to rely on these high-powered government administrators.

In order to understand the progression of recent electoral history it is helpful to compare and contrast developments between the scheduled 2006 elections, the 2008 elections and the 2014 elections. Each of these brought with it a unique context, different levels of electoral assistance, observation and electoral outcomes. The table below summarizes some of the aspects of the different election periods.

The table hints at the limits of technical assistance in facilitating a smooth electoral process in Bangladesh. While the far-reaching technical reforms that were supported by the international community were instrumental for the 2008 elections, these parliamentary elections also took place under unique circumstances.

In 2007 and 2008 the BEC, with strong support from the international community, replaced the existing voter register and addressed one of the most poignant technical concerns of the opposition. In addition to a greatly improved technical landscape, the 2008 electoral process benefited from being held under a non-party government that enjoyed the backing of the military. There was little scope for electoral violence and the Caretaker Government and BEC were able to secure the political parties’ electoral participation. Given the immense popularity of the BEC and strong popular support for the return of democracy, the political parties were under significant pressure to participate, and indeed had few justifiable reasons to object to the fairness of process.

The gains made in institutionalizing well-run and violence-free elections were, however, undone by the AL government in removing the Caretaker Government system after its election. One can only guess at the calculus of the BNP in insisting on an election under the Caretaker Government. However, it remains clear that keeping in place the Caretaker Government system would have removed a critical justification of an opposition boycott.

The 2008 elections were politically successful because they took place under a neutral government that was able to facilitate a fair election and provide security against electoral violence. The elections were technically successful because a number of reforms, with support from the international community, greatly strengthened the administrative apparatus of the BEC. The 2014 were politically unsuccessful because the BNP could not concede an election held under an AL government.

Current political culture in Bangladesh seems to require neutral government administration during electoral periods, and the experience of the Caretaker Government during the 2007-2008 period to reform political culture only highlights how deeply entrenched this culture is. The lesson therefore is that technical electoral support can open doors for electoral success, but that technical efforts are currently still secondary to solving the political obstacles to holding elections in Bangladesh.

This lesson raises a number of important questions for the international community in supporting Bangladesh’s electoral democracy:

  • What is the cost-benefit calculus for supporting elections technically when the political circumstances will not permit peaceful process? The large investment made by the international community in the electoral process in Bangladesh during the 2007-2008 was not meant to support only one election cycle. Donors and implementing agencies made efforts to ensure that investments were sustainable. However, the outcome of the Tenth Parliamentary Elections shows that technical assistance by itself was not sufficient to secure a successful electoral outcome, and demonstrates that perhaps a complementary, political track of international engagement was needed to keep the cost-benefit calculus positive. In the absence of a winning political strategy, is continued technical support justified?
  • What is the best way to promote the resolution of political obstacles to a peaceful and fair electoral process? There was no shortage of high-level international diplomatic engagement during both the political crisis of 2006 and 2013-2014. However, in both electoral cycles these efforts failed to secure the participation of boycotting political parties through a negotiated solution to the opposition parties’ grievances. Given the recurring patterns in Bangladesh’s electoral history, it may be prudent for the international community to develop a comprehensive strategy for political engagement around electoral issues.
  • What is the role of international observers in signaling the legitimacy of an electoral process? International election observers withdrew their missions before the cancellation of the scheduled 2006 parliamentary elections and before the 2014 parliamentary elections. Both mission cancellations came after decisions by the opposition to boycott the elections and amid significant violence. In 2006 elections were cancelled shortly after international observers withdrew. However, in 2014 the Tenth Parliamentary Elections went ahead and therefore did not benefit from systemic international observation and eventual comment as to their conduct. This lack of comment leaves a significant hole in the electoral record for Bangladesh and makes it more difficult for national and international stakeholders to analyze the legitimacy of the electoral process.

As noted earlier, this case study is intended to provide a high-level review of international electoral support and provide context to pose the questions above. Readers interested in an in-depth review of Bangladesh’s electoral reforms during the 2007-2008 period and a more extensive analysis of political factors leading to the collapse of the 2006 election cycle would benefit from the UNDP publication, “Elections in Bangladesh 2006-2009 Transforming Failure into Success”.

[1]Democracy in the Crossfire -Opposition Violence and Government Abuses in the 2014 Pre- and Post- Election Period in Bangladesh”, April 2014, Human Rights Watch: p. 1
[2]Bangladesh’s Elections – Another Beating”, The Economist, January 11, 2014.
[3] Barry, Ellen, “Low Turnout in Bangladesh Elections Amid Boycott and Violence”, The New York Times, January 5, 2014.

About the author

Jeremy Eckstein has been engaged with the electoral process in Bangladesh since 2006, when he joined the International Republican Institute’s country team in order to managed the Institute’s election observer mission. After two years in Bangladesh during the country’s period of electoral reform, he returned periodically to conduct studies, assessments, and evaluations for a range of agencies, including the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, the United Nations Development Program and the National Democratic Institute. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon in the United States.