analysing past elections: running the numbers

[published in the Daily Star on 21 December 2008*]

Since the publication of our pieces analysing the polling centre level data from the last three elections in these pages on December 4, 7, 8, and 14, the irregularities discussed here have been reported in highly circulated Bangla dailies (see N. Morshed’s piece in Prothom Alo on December 15/16 for example). In this piece, we reiterate our reasons for publishing our results now, and make some specific recommendations for some key stakeholders.
Let’s start with our reasons. Our intention is not to start a debate about the legitimacy of the 2001 or 1996 elections. Rather, our analysis is aimed at helping with a better election process in the future. Unfortunately, analysis of this kind can be done only after a significant period of time following an election, because it takes a long time for the polling centre level election data to become available in the public domain.

By the time the data become available, the newly elected government is already settled in, and analysis of past anomalies runs the risk of destabilising the political situation. However, in the lead up to the next election, when everyone is paying attention, highlighting past anomalies have the maximum chance of resulting in stakeholders taking concrete actions to minimise the likelihood of a repetition of these irregularities. That is why we have published our result now.

Let’s now think of some concrete actions key stakeholders could take to avoid these irregularities.

Firstly, it is vital to have timely and accurate polling centre data so that the most blatant of manipulations can become apparent right away. The Election Commission should put the centre level data online as they become available so that they can be scrutinised immediately. And the national electronic and print media should use these polling centre data to project winners in each constituency.

If the EC fails to make this data available, then it is all the more important that organisations such as the NDI continue gathering and publishing these data so that similar analysis can be conducted after this election. In a political culture where the losing side invariably cries foul play, there is no substitute for timely and accurate data to assess the quality of the election process.

Secondly, it is important to have a free flow information between the polling centres, candidates’ campaign headquarters, and the capital. Events such as those in Parkumarkhali HS polling centre of the then Bagerhat-4 constituency — where miscreants went on a rampage in the 2001 election to prevent the minority voters from taking part — need to be reported in real time.

Here the print and electronic media can obviously play a crucial role. However, aware citizens can also help us avoid these abominations. In these days of mobile phones with cameras, one does not need to be an accredited journalist to report on blatant intimidation and violations of our most fundamental political right. Of course, for the citizen journalist to tell their stories, we need to have a functioning mobile network. In this context, reports of shutting down mobile networks on the election day is highly disconcerting.

Thirdly, the Election Commission should look into reforming the vote counting process to minimise the risk of post ballot count manipulation. Such manipulation can happen at the polling centre level, where polling of both formal party nominees as well those of independent dummy candidates often intimidate the electoral officer. Recent electoral changes have sought to make such intimidation harder.

Analysing the post-election data will tell whether they have been successful. It is, however, harder to detect manipulation at the returning officer level. One way to check against RO-level fraud is by allowing the political parties’ agents in the EC to do a random check of polling centre level count against that from the RO.

Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, it is the political parties that must mobilise against these manipulations. During the election campaign and on the day, party workers should work with the community to ensure that voters can register their opinion. And on during the vote count and later, it is in their interest to draw attention to blatant frauds.

Of course, the unfortunate reality has been that all parties are to various extents guilty of trying to subvert the process, and thus none really has the credibility to challenge wrong doings by the other side. It is about time that this changes.

[*co-authored with j rahman]

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