The turnout debate and other election irregularities

Posted in politics by jrahman on February 18, 2009

If it is possible to change the results of one polling centre after the ballot count, it puts a question on the whole system.

…দেশে-বিদেশে প্রশংসিত একটি নির্বাচনকে … হঠাত করে প্রশ্নবিদ্ধ করার চেষ্টা হচ্ছে, তার তদন্ত হওয়া দরকার ।

….যদি উল্লিখিত কেন্দ্রে মোট ভোটারের চেয়েও অতিরিক্ত ভোটার ভোট প্রদান সম্ভব হয়ে থাকে তাহলে দেশের বাকি কেন্দ্র গুলোতেও এ জাতীয় ভোজবাজির ঘটনা যে ঘটেনি তার নিশ্চয়তা কোথায়?

The first quote is from a series by yours truly and Syeed Ahamed before the 29 Dec election.  The quote is from this piece.  The overall series is available here.  The second quote is from an article published in Daily Amar Desh on 17 Dec 2008, after our analysis led to investigative reporting by Prothom Alo.  The last quote is from Mr Mahmudur Rahman, who owns Amar Desh and was among other things a major campaign strategist for BNP during the Dec 2008 election.  He wrote this as part of a series of ‘post game analysis’ of why BNP lost.  The quote is from this article.  The series ran in the Daily Naya Diganta throughout January. 

Mr Rahman’s central thesis is that high voter turnout, 89 per cent nationally, is an evidence of serious irregularities in this election.  By way of comparison, turnouts were around 75% in 1996 and 2001, and ranged 50-55% in previous elections, including in those of 1970 and 1991.  I contend that Mahmud Sahib, and other BNP supporters parroting that line,  is very likely to be wrong in the turnout debate.  I also speculate on whether there might have been other irregularities that BNP doesn’t want to talk about, but if true deserves broader discussion.

Phoney debate on turnout

Mahmudur Rahman is very likely to be wrong on the turnout issue. 

Firsly, as a talking point, ‘the turnout was low and there were no voters’ is simply incredible.  On the election day, BNP was demanding an extension of polling hours because the lines were too long.  And this is what the Daily Naya Diganta — a major anti-AL newspaper — printed in its front page.


More importantly, there is a rather reasonable explanation, one that doesn’t rely on conspiracy theory, of the high turnout.  As noted here, the current voter list is based on a volunteery registration system, and people who bothered to visit camps and stand in long lines to register were likely to vote, and therefore the turnout was likely to be higher than previous elections, all else equal.  As Zafar (the commenter in that link) claims:

…percentage is only percentage of REGISTERED voters, not percentage of population of voting age. in fact, if you calculate number of votes as a percentage of number of people of voting age, the percentage is little different from the past.

This is a testable proposition.  Is it supported by data?  Let’s have a look. 

According to the IMF, Bangladesh had a population of about 113 million in 1990.  According to the UN, Bangladesh’s mortality rate was 5.6 per 1000 persons in 2006.  Applying that rate to the 1990 population gives us a rough estimate of the number of people over 18 in 2008: about 102 million.  According to the media reports, about 69 million votes were cast on 29 Dec.  This gives us an ‘adjusted turnout’ of about 68%.  We can do a similar calculation for 2001, when the ‘adjusted turnout’ turns out to be 64%. 

Rapidly different between ‘deshe bideshe proshongshito’ 2001 election and the 2008 election of ‘digital karchupi’? 

You be the judge. 

Possible irregularities

Leaving that phoney turnout debate aside, let’s consider a few other irregularities that may have happened in this election.  At this point, let me stress the ‘may’: I am not claiming that any of these happened in this election.  Rather, let me point to irregularities witnessed in past elections (described here and here), and discuss their likelihood in this election (by way of comparison I’ll refer to the 2001 election as well the upazilla election).

We can classify the irregularities in two types: pre and post voting. 

Pre-voting irregularity starts from intimidation, often physical, of the supporters of the opposing camp through to violence on the election day to capture of polling centres and casting of false votes.  Short of a complete media ban, it is difficult to see how widespread irregularity like this can escape public knowledge.  Incidents of election-related violence were reported widely in the lead up to both October 2001 election and the recent Upazilla election.  And yet, there were little report of any such violence in anywhere in Dec. 

Forget about the media.  There are 43 million cellphone users in Bangladesh.  Most of the sets have camera.  These cameras were used to spread images of the August 2007 riots across Dhaka and beyond.  Had there been widespread irregularity on the election day, where are the images? 

Post-voting irregularity is more subtle.  It involves the polling officers or presiding officers changing the results.  At the heart of Mahmudur Rahman’s high turnout argument is this kind of irrgularity.  We have already seen how the high turnout in and of itself is not an evidence of anything.  Plus, it turns out that in 7 of the 30 seats won by the 4-Party alliance, turnout was higher than 90%, and in 19 other seats it was higher than 80%. 

So there weren’t any irregularity in the Dec election? 

Here I come to the most speculative bit of this post.  Anyone involved in actual (as opposed to lounge/online) politics in Bangladesh will tell you that to win an election you usually need money and muscle.  By all accounts, the role of muscle was minimised in this election.  If for nothing else, most of the musclemen of both sides were either in jail or hiding for the past two years and resurfaced only weeks or days before the election.  So neither side had their musclemen, and one can argue that there was a ‘level playing field’. 

Can we say the same thing about money?  Let me be specific about what I mean by ‘you need money’.  One part of this is ‘vote buying’ — as described to me buy a candidate: এক হাতে টাকা, আরেক হাতে কোরান শরীফ, টাকা নিবে, কসম খাবে .  You also need to bribe the local law enforcement or government officers to turn a blind eye if you were to use muscle.  And campaign itself — rallies, doorknocking, get out the vote — costs money.  It costs a lot more money than the ridiculous 15 lakh ceiling put by the Election Commission.

We know that many 4-party activists were caught with large sums of money on the election eve.  Were they the only ones using money (and breaking rules)?  Were the Grand Alliance folks innocent?  As it happens, party activists from both sides in couple of seats north of Dhaka told me that BNP is the ‘money party’, and a crackdown of the illicit use of money hurt it more.  In addition, BNP activists accused that the authorities only cracked down on their side, turning a blind eye to AL.  Of course the AL guys denied it vehemently. 

I really am not in a position to say which of these versions are correct, or what may have happened outside Dhaka.  But let me note how the role of law enforcement forces in 2001 are recounted.  According to AL types, army/BDR heavily cracked down on AL activists in Sep 2001, and as a result its efforts on the voting day was severely hampered, contributing to its loss.  BNP types however tell a different tale: after 5 years of AL rule, BNP activists were in no position to use violence, whereas most of the intimidation etc were being done by AL cadres, and the neutral law enforcement forces rightly cracked down on AL. 

Whether you believe the AL or BNP version, it seems that money and muscle do matter in our elections.  It’s easy to see why Mahmud Sahib or other BNP pundits won’t claim ‘we lost this election because we couldn’t spend crores or use our cadres’.  But it is important to discuss these issues.  As we noted in the concluding part of our series:

… 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. 

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