What makes an election free and fair?
Elections in a democratic system are vital and in order for the elections to be fair, it is important to examine whether the voters are free to exercise their right to franchise, adequately informed to do so, and have confidence that the electoral process will accurately reflect their choice. If the contesting candidates do not have the opportunity to carry out election campaigns freely for popular support, then a fair poll cannot be conducted. It must be ensured that government machineries and law enforcement agencies act impartially. Most importantly, the judiciary must be free to perform impartially and effectively and the news media must enjoy the freedom to disseminate accurate information so that the voters can make an informed decision. Citizen groups can act as watchdogs over the political process as well as the media—to observe whether access to all contestants is equal and whether there is objective coverage of events of national and local importance.
The electoral process must be monitored in the context of the current developments, debates and political transitions. Critically, it must help build public confidence in the electoral process. If the citizens do not have adequate information and freedom to choose the right candidate, elections will not be truly meaningful. A level playing field must be there so that all the contesting candidates have the confidence that they can reach and gain the support of the voters. The Election Commission (EC) recently warned Returning Officers saying, "We have taken a policy of zero tolerance against failure… We will not hesitate to take stern action against anyone who does not perform polls duties properly."
The participation of citizen groups in the electoral process is crucial for public confidence. Global electoral trends show the widespread acceptance of non-partisan neutral election observers. In Bangladesh reports of the election monitoring group have been accepted by the international community and political actors during the last two decades and have been cited in reference to the authenticity of the outcome of elections. Election monitoring by impartial election observation groups has significant contributions in building public confidence in the electoral process, which has also ensured citizens' participation thus making the government more accountable.
The human rights aspect of election monitoring has been guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, applicable to all member state as stated, "Everyone has the right to take part in the governance of his [or her] country, directly or through freely chosen representatives…the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of the government; this shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections, which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent voting procedures." In a society where the fundamental rights of citizens are not ensured, there remains little scope for holding free and fair elections. Thus election monitoring also provides a degree of freedom to a society and sheds light on whether institutions in a country are functional and whether there is any respect for civil, political and human rights.
Long-term Election Monitoring (LTEM) designed in a coordinated way provides a systematic basis to assess the entire election process in accordance with neutrality to evaluate the fairness of the process. LTEM, comprising of pre- and post-election periods, is useful in judging the performance of the electoral administration and the political institutions. LTEM designed to gather factual, well-documented information that can be objectively verified to analyse the situation, helps adopt decisions for creating a congenial atmosphere for voting. The findings of long-term observations need to be made public at the soonest so that the EC can take immediate and appropriate measures of handling any unwanted circumstances during the polls.
The EC recognised election observation by impartial citizens' groups as an important tool to ensure fairness and enhance acceptance of the outcome of elections. However, the Guidelines for Election Observers do not include the criteria for long-term observers, duration of deployment, areas of observation and reporting protocols. Following thorough review of the compliance criterion and public scrutiny about the neutrality and capacity to observe elections, the EC accredited 118 organisations to observe the election. Remaining politically neutral is a must for election observation but all politically unbiased organisations do not have the capacity to undertake the task of election observation. Most often, election monitoring organisations seek accreditation to observe elections in constituencies where the organisations do not have regular programme interventions. In such cases, the monitoring organisation registered with the commission engages local NGOs who are not qualified to take part in observation, which calls the effectiveness of election observation and quality of observation reports into question. Such practices must end and the EC should not allow organisations to observe elections in the constituencies where the registered organisations do not have direct programme interventions; this can be done by giving observers identity cards. Engagement of the Bureau of NGO Affairs can be instrumental in the screening process to avoid such practices.
The Guidelines for Election Observers limited election observation to polling booths on Election Day. The guidelines have mandated domestic election monitoring groups to deploy mobile observers in a team of five members who are allowed to visit the polling booth for a limited time (Article 9.5). This has posed serious challenges and limits the observers to monitor the entire process on Election Day. Although observation of the counting process is allowed (Article 9.6), due to the requirement of observers being deployed in a team, it is not possible to observe the counting process in each of the polling booths/centres. Parallel Vote Tabulation (an election observation methodology) has been recognised in other parts of the globe, and the EC should not limit observers monitoring the counting process by restricting them to stationary observation and narrowing the scope of integrated election monitoring.
Recently, the EC organised a briefing session for the monitoring agencies and spelled out a number of restrictions not stipulated in the observation guidelines that have already been made public. One of these restrictions was barring the use of mobile phones by observers, which would create problems for monitoring agencies in managing their observers. "Stand like a statue inside the polling station and observe the voting process. You cannot talk to the press no matter what," said the EC Secretary. This statement undermines the spirit of election observation. Conflicting opinions of observers and contesting candidates can be referred to by the media for the sake of neutrality, which is instrumental for election officials on duty and for the Election Commission to measure the legitimacy of any actions taken for resolution. The EC must consider the presence of election observers as playing a supportive role for greater acceptance of the management aspect of the election instead of putting restrictions that contradict the spirit of neutral election observation.
Election monitoring agencies should consider establishing a permanent database of observers, which will create the scope to monitor the quality of observation reports, collecting and training such a huge number of observers from across the country and finally to ease the process of getting accreditation from the EC. The EC may make this mandatory for the election monitoring groups, and should update the election observation guidelines in consultation not only with the observers but also with the political parties.
Election monitoring should not simply be an activity that gains traction every five years. There should be various kinds of capacity building initiatives and interactive sessions involving political parties in a continuous manner, which is instrumental for the institutionalisation of a neutral election monitoring system in the country.
Sadrul Hasan Mazumder is a policy activist.
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