Vote BD tracks and disseminates information about politicians and electoral candidates in Bangladesh.
Posted by Aparna Ray on Dec 28, 2010
VoteBD is a web-based platform from SHUJAN (Shushashoner Janya Nagorik, or Citizens for Good Governance) that tracks, compiles, and disseminates information about politicians and electoral candidates in Bangladesh.
The website was the first in Bangladesh to make voter registration records accessible to citizens, so they could check the presence or absence of their names and any errors in the listing. This enabled citizens to take necessary steps to ensure that their names and correct details were entered in the list, thereby making them eligible to cast their vote in the various elections.
My name is Dr. Badiul Alam Majumdar, and I am one of the founders of VoteBD. In our country there are a lot of problems pertaining to elections. Our democratic and political system suffers from a lack of transparency and accountability, and in many cases corrupt and unwanted people get elected. Many of us have been worried about these issues for quite some time now. We thought that, as responsible citizens, we needed to do something about it so we organized ourselves under the name “Citizens for Fair Elections.” One of our main problems, we realized, was the paucity of honest, capable contestants in these elections, and the few honest, capable candidates who contest are unable to win and get elected, as the electorate is not aware of them and they quickly get rooted out by those using money and power unfairly to win over the electorate. So we thought: let us start our activism right from the grassroots level and see if we can do something to ensure that honest, deserving candidates get elected.
So, before the 2003 Union Parishad (rural administrative units in Bangladesh) elections, we went to the villages and asked what kind of people they would like to see as candidates in this election. The villagers told us that they wanted people who are honest, capable, without criminal records, not associated with women-related crimes, etc. We also found that people want to know about the candidates’ financial details, how much they spend on elections, the development work they intend to do if elected, etc.
Based on their opinions, we prepared a questionnaire which we sent to 55 Unions. Through our volunteers, we interviewed as many candidates as we could and prepared a chart with candidate profiles based on information that they had disclosed voluntarily. Some candidates gave responses, some did not, some gave incomplete information and some even gave erroneous responses; whatever the case, we prepared a simple poster with all these details and put it up in these 55 Unions. Furthermore, the candidates were invited to face the electorate for question-answer sessions and discussions. This novel approach created a buzz in the Unions where this initiative was undertaken. This was the first attempt to make voters conscious and aware about whom they were voting for.
Then, during the Pouro Sabha (City Corporations and Municipalities) elections, which are held in a staggered manner, we repeated this exercise in many constituencies with encouraging results. We also did similar exercises in some other by-elections. We felt that we did not want to restrict our work to disseminating candidate profiles only and we wanted to enlarge the scope of our work to include the start watching the use of money in elections, as well as good governance covering various aspects that would help to strengthen the democratic process. At the time, we changed our name to Shujan (Shushashoner Jannya Nagorik, or Citizens for Good Governance).
Later, in the General Elections of 2008, we tracked and collected information on candidates for 299 seats (information from affidavits, tax returns, etc.) and published them in a consolidated form on one of our websites: VoteBD.org. The VoteBD website has a dynamic module where these candidate profiles are entered and converted into a simple comparative format so that an ordinary citizen can immediately gauge which candidate is the more suitable one. This information is also disseminated offline to the various constituencies. In 2007, seeing that there were a lot of problems and complaints regarding the voter list — there were many errors and it was not properly updated — we created a database and uploaded the entire list, with 7.5 crore (75 million) names onto the VoteBD website to increase transparency in the voter list. It was the first such initiative in Bangladesh. On this website we are also preparing a corruption-related archive with information taken from various newspaper articles.
To help bring about an effective democratic system, this is the vision, and it encompasses fair elections, reform of various institutions, reform of the electoral process, transparent governance, people’s participation, decentralization — a whole host of areas. And one of the most important is citizens’ awareness creation and activism.
Now the Election Commission has made it mandatory for candidates to submit all the relevant information. But all this data is not meaningful. As a voter, if you are not able to see all the information across candidates at a glance, it will not really help you to make an informed choice, it will not really empower you in any way.
To help bring about the change we want to see happen, we also do a lot of other innovative work. For example, we hold election/democracy Olympiads, an initiative aimed at repairing the democratic processes. We do this with students, where they come and do a one-hour written exam on various aspects of our democratic process, our constitution, elections, etc. Then we check their papers and have a lively interactive session with them. They have many questions and opinions pertaining to the issues raised in the test questions. This is like an appetizer to get them interested and involved in the democratic process.
When we did the work for the Union Parishad elections, we got a huge response from the people. There was a definite buzz created in the villages. With this exercise, a stronger public opinion was formed in favour of or against various candidates, as voters were much more aware due to the information available to them. We have also seen a reflection of this is the election results. In the 55 Unions where we could do this exercise, we believe that relatively better-quality people have got elected. The elections were peaceful and, for what was a first in Bangladesh elections, the defeated candidates warmly congratulated the winners. We feel that our initiative played a significant role towards creating a new political culture of co-operation. After that, we did a survey in those areas and in the survey we found that a significant number of voters had changed their voting preferences on the basis of the candidate-related information. This is very significant. If even 2 to 3% of voters change their opinions and voting preferences, that can overturn an election result. We are very encouraged by this and proud that we made a difference.
When we first started the work of preparing candidate profiles, there was not much interest and attention given to our work; even the mainstream media did not seem very interested. In fact, they could have done a lot of investigative reports based on our information but they did not go for it. But now there is a growing awareness and there are even Court rulings which are resulting in candidatures being rejected on the basis of non-disclosure of relevant information. Revealing the data about candidates has become institutionalized, creating an environment conducive for citizens to make informed decisions when they cast their votes.
Our efforts have also got formal recognition in 2008, when we won the Manthan Awards in Delhi.
The biggest challenge is that we are a thorn in the side of our people. Unfortunately, we do not have that much tolerance in our society, so we are subject to various obstacles and challenges by the ruling elites. Also, despite the huge awakening among citizens in 2008, an apathetic situation has unfortunately again seeped in. The current government has been voted into power to bring in change, but unfortunately things are degenerating to their old ways. A lot of people are frustrated, saying, “What is the use of all these efforts? It looks like nothing is going to change!” People are now disheartened not because of what we did or did not do, but because they feel that promises have not been kept.
Then of course there is the issue of finances. We do not have the financial resources, we are not registered and we are not taking any finances from the donors, so that is a continuing challenge. We are not registered because if we were registered then we would not have been able to do these things that we are doing; our efforts would have been muzzled a long time ago. As citizens we have the constitutional right to organize into groups and that is what we are exercising in Shujan. Till now we have not faced any problems on that front.
Our biggest strength is our large volunteer force. Also, we know that nothing worth achieving can be achieved without taking some risks and facing these obstacles, so that is what we have to do. We have not yet applied for any grants. In the future we may accept some grants, but it will have to be on our terms because we want to focus on our work and not focus on fulfilling someone else’s agenda.
We feel that people are tired of what is happening in the society around them. Corruption, criminalization of politics, violence in politics… people are fed up of these things. People want a change. We saw this happening especially prior to the 2008 elections. People were tired of what was going on and they wanted a change, and we represented that need for change. We were the peoples’ voice. This is a citizens’ movement, and because citizens are themselves desirous of change, they are motivated to participate in our initiative.
In our country, the civil society movement has been largely destroyed through the patronage system, so we are trying to rejuvenate it and we are trying to provide a platform which creates an opportunity for people to speak up, speak out and be part of the movement.
Our civic role is that as citizens we address both the demand side and the supply side. We create demand for reforms. We create demand for transparency. We create demand for accountability. We create demand for clean elections. We create demand for effective governance. At the same time, we also supply ideas, show the path — like in the case of the voter list, or in the area of disclosure of information. We have had quite a few important reforms in the time of the caretaker government and we generated many of the ideas. We also drafted a law and gave it to the Election Commission, and they accepted many of our suggestions because we not only generated the ideas but also generated citizens’ demand for those reforms. We also helped the EC draft many of their forms. Thus we played a significant role in 2008 towards democracy building. Now we want to play a significant role in democracy consolidation.
Unfortunately, in Bangladesh most of the NGOs are service delivery organisations and, as far as elections went, their main role was limited to election observation only. And these were money-based, i.e. donors gave grants for election monitoring and the organizations have been doing this since the 1990s. So the organization would come forward and get a piece of the pie and do this work whether or not they were otherwise involved in this area. But we have not taken any funding from any donors. We have funded our work through our own contributions and we work with the Election Commission (EC). Our relationship with them is bittersweet. We are critics of the EC and at the same time we are their supporters. So when they do a good job we praise them; at the same time, when they don’t do what is right, we speak up. We had an adversarial relation with the earlier Election Commission management. They were partisans, but the current Election Commission managers are non-partisan and try their best to deliver a free and fair election, so we have been able to work with them.
Unfortunately, no, our work has not been replicated by others, I think mainly because there is no money in this initiative. Funders are not interested in funding these kinds of work. If funders start funding this work then we may see more people doing it. Moreover, this is a difficult task. This is not about hiring thousands of people and generating reports, this democracy monitoring, democracy watching, electoral process watching, working with the available data, going through it with a fine-toothed comb, sorting and sieving it, collating it, publishing it, spreading it to the various constituencies, publishing it not only for national elections but all local elections such as Upazilla (City Corporation) elections as well.