Testimony before the US Commission for International Religious Freedom
Cynthia R. Bunton
Director of Asia Programs
International Republican Institute
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Commissioner Gaer and the Commission on International Religious Freedom for this opportunity to address you today.
The International Republican Institute (IRI) has been working in Bangladesh since 2003. In developing our program we determined that in a democracy the five pillars of civil society – private industry, nongovernmental organizations, trade unions, media and political parties – form a cohesive matrix to influence government – hence we named our program “The Five Estates.”
In Bangladesh’s zero-sum political game, political parties focus strongly – some would say almost exclusively – on electoral success, but appear to place far less value and attention on meeting the needs of constituents and solving the critical problems facing the country.
Organizations such as IRI face significant challenges in dealing with political parties because party leaders seem unable or unwilling to alter the status quo, while lower level leaders are powerless to promote change. The on-going stalemate between the two principal parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party, leave organizations such as IRI striving hard to find ways to bridge the gap between voters and politicians to ensure that the government is accountable to its citizens. To address the issue of political accountability, IRI focuses its programming efforts on the abovementioned estates or pillars – that typically pressure political parties to be more responsive, honest and diligent. IRI hopes that by strengthening these groups, a more informed and active citizenry will increasingly demand that political parties work for real and positive change. I want to very briefly talk about a few of our programs that help to promote democracy and democratic reform for democratic institutions provide the best safeguards for all citizens of Bangladesh – regardless of gender, religious or political beliefs.
International and domestic interest in Bangladesh is now focused on parliamentary elections, expected to occur in January 2007. IRI believes in and supports democratic development before, during and beyond Election Day, and our programming reflects that broader commitment. Bangladeshis are proud of their democracy and dedicated to maintaining it. Participation in elections is high. There is a growing sense among them, however, that their elected representatives and political parties are not being sufficiently responsive to the real needs and concerns of the Bangladeshi people.
Public concern is also growing that the electoral system may be subject to corruption or manipulation. Public anger and disillusionment are unfortunately on the rise. IRI has therefore undertaken a multifaceted program that seeks to provide a wide cross section of Bangladeshi citizens with the tools needed to accurately monitor the upcoming elections, particularly in the weeks leading up to Election Day.
IRI has instituted an extensive election monitoring and observation plan for the 2007 election. First we conducted a train the trainer session for domestic election monitoring organizations nationwide that began in March 2006. Over the course of this five-month program, IRI trained a total of 737 master trainers in 25 districts in six divisions. These master trainers are now busy training other observers. In August, IRI began trainings sessions for our election observation partner the National Election Observation Council (JANIPOP) which will field teams of observers throughout the country for 50 days prior to the elections, on Election Day and post-election. IRI partnered with JANIPOP to build confidence and trust that the political system can work effectively.
In 2005, together with JANIPOP, IRI observed two significant elections: the Chittagong City Corporation mayoral elections and the Faridpur parliamentary by-election. Both those elections – deemed free and fair – demonstrated that the people can express their will in a political setting and particularly in the case of Chittagong, that opposition candidates can and do win elections based on popular vote.
These success stories cannot, however, overshadow concerns about the upcoming national elections. There have already been an unacceptable number of instances of inter-and intra-party violence and the political rhetoric of both major parties has frequently been inflammatory. The process and the result of a recent voter registration list update have been the cause of widespread controversy that may erode confidence in the election. Moreover, the current government and the opposition remain at loggerheads over such crucial questions as who will lead the country’s Central Election Commission during the election period, and perhaps even more important, over who will head the constitutionally proscribed caretaker government that is scheduled to be seated at the end of this month. Failure to reach consensus on these critical issues could de-rail the elections process and further threaten the future of democracy in Bangladesh.
To help provide the necessary oversight and monitoring of 2007 elections, IRI is working with JANIPOP and other election and human rights organizations to improve the skills of long-term observers by training observers to shadow candidates through every stage of the election process, from the campaign to candidate registration, to the counting of ballots, recording all irregularities. IRI is training these observers to pro-actively patrol and identify cases of electoral abuses, as well as election violence – particularly abuses targeted at vulnerable and/or minority groups. In addition, IRI will also directly sponsor 50 long-term observation teams as well as provide training and support for other teams supported by other organizations. These teams will deploy 50 days in advance of the elections.
Election monitoring training focused heavily on electoral rules and procedures, including the full range of possible election manipulation and fraud; voter registration; campaign finance; documentation and reporting; party polling agent registration; dispute resolution and adjudication procedures; crisis management; and security issues including election-related violence. IRI produced a comprehensive manual containing these and other election-related topics that were printed and distributed to a wide range of domestic election observation organizations.
Believing that an uninformed press can undermine confidence in the electoral system and exacerbate election violence, our media program, funded with a grant from the U.S. Department of State, educates journalists and editors on the electoral process and how that process can be manipulated as well as teaches basic journalistic skills. Half of the training course covered the same topics as those taught in our long-term observation course. The other half of the course focused on topics such as story corroboration, factchecking, investigative journalism, truthful photo journalism and other topics designed to reinforce the need for objective, fact-based journalism.
Our program has other components as well. We work to educate youth to increase their understanding of and respect for the democratic process and democratic institutions. Indeed, approximately 10 million young Bangladeshis will go to the polls for the first time in 2007. Our program focuses on youth advocacy councils, first-time voter forums and youth democracy fairs. We work with female city commissioners who, although they won their (reserved) seats, are being denied the authority and funding to equally participate in development activities, thus preventing them from serving their constituents on an equal footing with their male counterparts – this occurred despite a 2004 ruling by the High Court which decreed that female and male commissioners are to share fully in all elected duties. We also work with labor unions and the business community to encourage them to identify and advocate for those issues most important to their constituencies.
In conclusion, Bangladesh is at a point of political gridlock. It can continue to follow the path of extreme politicization and deadlock, or it can take the path of more constructive and inclusive political discourse and more responsive government.
The increase in domestic violence which the Commission’s Policy Focus so accurately describes is an indication that core institutions of Bangladesh’s democracy are weak or at risk of being undermined. Weak democracies cannot provide the confidence building measures – such as political stability, respect for rule of law, freedom of expression and religious belief – that are the vanguard against polarization and extremism. IRI and other like-minded institutions will continue to work hard to help build that confidence so Bangladeshis of all ages, genders, religions, ethnic groups and political views can live the free, prosperous and democratic life they so richly deserve.