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Bangladesh precedent points the way for Cambodia

Bangladesh precedent points the way for Cambodia

Elise P. Schoux, who was among the foreign observers at the recent Bangladeshi

elections, argues the importance of such a job.

IN June, as the people of Bangladesh sought to elect a new government and progress

down the bumpy road to democracy, I served as a member of the multi-national election

observation mission sponsored by the National Democratic Institute for International

Affairs (NDI).

A number of Cambodians representing government and non-governmental organizations

(NGOs) lent their services as election observers, as well. Delegations sponsored

by NDI and The Asia Foundation included Pok Than, Sam Rainsy, Chan Chamman, Chem

Vuthikar, Lao Mong Hay, Iv Borin, Thang Leng Huot, Im Suosdey and Sam Borin. The

Cambodians made a special point of being observers as a way of gaining experience

with elections and to learn important lessons to apply in the upcoming Cambodian

elections.

What we learned may be pertinent to Cambodia as it prepares for commune elections

and national elections. In its work to promulgate laws, regulations, and procedures

necessary for elections, it is hoped that the government will provide for both international

and domestic election observers. Both groups play important roles in the election

process, especially in the case of elections for democracies in transition.

International observers represent the eyes of the international community, and a

positive report can go far to legitimize the election results. In Bangladesh, for

example, many people looked to the election to supply more than a freely elected

Parliament.

Thoughtful people of all political presuasions commented that a free and fair election

was important as a demonstration of political stability, which is necessary to attract

and hold badly needed foreign investment. They understood the value in having their

elections declared "free and fair" by 160 foreign observers from a large

number of countries and sponsored by the Commonwealth Community, the European Union,

the Japanese Parliament, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC),

and the United States (NDI and The Asia Foundation).

In addition, the presence of international observers can serve as deterrents to the

problems of voter intimidation, ballot fraud and intentional mis-counting and mis-reporting

of ballot results that can be attributable to individual candidates and their supporters.

During the Bangladesh election, for example, members of the NDI team in the Chittagong

area received reports of a pattern of intimidation and threats to a group of Hindu

women. The reports were investigated and the matter brought to the attention of local

police, who then escorted the women to their polling place.

This experience was isolated, however, and despite the concerns we identified before

the polling - the wide availability of illegal weapons and the resultant potential

for violence and intimidation, black money used to buy support for particular parties

and their candidates, irregularities with the list of registered voters - most international

observers in Bangladesh agreed that the polling was conducted without major incident

or irregularities.

Our efforts on election day began at 7:30am with a visit to a polling center in order

to observe preparations for the opening of the polls. Already scores of men and women

were lined up in anticipation. Empty ballot boxes were shown to polling and election

agents and the domestic and international observers. When polls opened as scheduled,

with our list of potentially "hot" polling places in hand, we toured as

many polling centers as possible before the scheduled closing of polls at 4:00pm.

We then spent two and a half hours observing the unfolding, smoothing out, and counting

of 2,118 ballots at one of the polling places.

What did I see on election day in my area of Khulna? In the morning, each polling

center had long but separate lines of men and women. Both men and women (51 and 49

percent of registered voters respectively) had turned out in large numbers. The women

were often dressed in their best clothes and many wore jewelry. An air of eagerness

and celebration could be felt. By early afternoon, the long lines had diminished,

but voting continued.

In all eleven polling centers we visited, the only problem observed was that of false

voting, in which a person arrives to vote and finds that someone has already voted

using his or her number. We found this in three centers, and it seemed limited to

less than half of one per cent of the voters at each center. Other observers in the

Khulna area reported a few instances of false voting and no other irregularities.

However, we did not conclude that the false voting constituted fraud. In Bangladesh,

people often have no identification documents; even birth certificates are rare.

Because there is no system by which voters can be easily identified, some amount

of mis-identification is to be expected.

International observers do not impede the election process. These observers follow

internationally recognized standards that require neutrality regarding the election

results. I and all my fellow observers were instructed to abide by relevant laws

and international agreements and to avoid interfering or becoming involved in the

election process. We were firmly instructed that our roles were limited to distinguishing

facts from allegations and to documenting observations; it was up to the people of

Bangladesh to manage their voting process and to decide which candidates should be

seated in Parliament, which party or parties should form a government, and ultimately

whether the process was free and fair.

It is not surprising that half of the Cambodians who served as international observers

in Bangladesh are members of non-governmental coalitions organizing to specifically

support election activities. Their experiences in Bangladesh will be useful in their

work for the coalition activities, which will include the conduct of training for

election monitors as well as voter education programs for Cambodian citizens.

These coalitions - COFFEL and COMFREL - serve an important role as civic organizations

that serve important public functions of an election such as voter education, transparency

of the elections process, accountability of all participants whether government or

nongovernment, and independent investigations of irregularities.

For the Bangladesh elections, there were two domestic monitoring organizations -the

Fair Election and Monitoring Alliance (FEMA) and the Coordinating Council on Human

Rights in Bangladesh (CCHRB) - that greatly contributed to the transparency of the

electoral process.

Both are coalitions of Bangladeshi non-governmental organizations whose more than

17,000 trained observers monitored polling centers across the country.

Now that the 160 international observers have returned to their home countries, FEMA

and CCHRB are the entities that continue to provide civic education, monitor the

media, examine electoral rolls, train observers and similar activities necessary

to maintain the integrity of the electoral process. Like the members of COFFEL and

COMFREL, these election monitoring organizations understand that NGOs and associations

like theirs contribute to a vibrant civil society, which is essential in building

and maintaining democracy.

These civil society organizations are meant to complement the role of government,

not supersede it. The role of civil society institutions is to link ordinary citizens

with governmental institutions in which decision making takes place.

In this way, these organizations help ensure effective governance through which the

people at large, rather than elite minorities, are able to set priorities for themselves,

their communities, and ultimately their nation.

The upcoming Cambodian elections are important in the country's history. Elections,

however, are events, and democracy is a process. A successful contestation of the

commune and national elections will help keep Cambodia progressing on the road to

democracy.

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