Can the Web Poll Prevent a Rigged Election?

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Elections in Bangladesh can be unruly affairs: The run-up to the national poll of January 22 has already seen demonstrations, riots, soldiers on the street and the threat of a boycott by one of the two main political parties. It doesn't help that the leaders of those two parties haven't spoken to each other in years. Or that Bangladesh is one of the most corrupt countries in the world according to Transparency International. Still, last week while reporting on the elections in Bangaldesh's capital Dhaka, I came across an interesting use of technology that should help keep the politicians honest.

First, the background: As usual, the elections pits Bangladesh Nationalist Party led by Khaleda Zia, widow of assassinated President Ziaur Rahman, against the Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Bangladesh's first president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. These have alternated in government every five years since military rule ended in 1991, with the BNP forming the most recent government. Bangladesh's constitution, however, requires that the incumbent party steps down a few months before an election and hands the reins to a neutral caretaker government to run the country and oversee the electoral commission, until the next government is chosen. This time, though, the Awami League has accused the BNP of stacking the caretaker government and the electoral commission with partisans — an accusation amplified this week when U.S. ambassador Patricia A. Butenis said that the interim body "has not always conducted itself neutrally, and the nation has suffered as a result."

The Awami League also accuses the BNP of altering the voter roll before leaving office, removing the names of its supporters while entering the names of BNP voters multiple times. The BNP concedes there are problems with the roll but denies manipulating it. "They cannot really establish it, number one," says BNP joint secretary general Nazrul Islam Khan of the Awami League's allegations. "Number two, we did not do it."

Muzaffer Ahmad, head of Transparency International Bangladesh, is more suspicious. He wants to know why people who were on the list and voted in 2001 have had their names removed. He also wants the updated list to be made public as one roll so he and his colleagues can compare it against the old roll before polling day. And that's where technology comes in: With the electoral commission seemingly intent on posting the roll piece by piece in each polling center, Ahmad and a group of democracy campaigners are turning to the Internet for help. The group, which goes by the name Shujan, has posted the 2001 voter roll online. That enables voters to check their details as recorded in 2001, and then visit their local polling center to make sure those details are the same or have been accurately updated.

Of course, most Bangladeshis don't have access to clean water, let alone an Internet-connected computer. But with the help of what Ahmad says are thousands of computer savvy volunteers around the country, millions of people can still compare their voting registration information and then lodge a complaint if there are any problems. In much of the world, such basic information would normally be published by national electoral commissions. Ahmad says Shujan has offered Bangladesh's commission help "but they do not want to be helped." Ahmad also says that when the project first started a year ago, he got offers of aid from large foreign donors, but turned them all down. "This is our problem," the economist turned corruption-buster told me. "We have to deal with it ourselves."

The BNP's Nazrul Islam Khan says "that as a modern person I would support that everything should go to a website." But, he asks, "how many people will have the scope to go to that website — Shujan is a very nice organization but they are thinking of an ideal situation." That, says Ahmad, is exactly the point.