They would support only those who wanted reforms and changes from the status quo. Such was the sentiment of a large segment of our citizens irrespective of their age, education, location and social standing, which ranged from uneducated housewives in distant villages to urban elites.
Similar voter assertiveness, it must be noted, was visibly absent even a few years ago. Even the issues of corruption, clean candidates, war crimes etc. were not relevant in the past they became important only in recent years. In fact, until recently most citizens, except the diehard supporters of political parties, were quite resigned. Many of them thought that their views and opinions did not matter and they themselves did not count. Unfortunately such dejected views became an increasing phenomenon over the years.
How did this change a clear and assertive stand of many voters on important issues before the recent elections come about? What caused issues, rather than personalities or slogans to become important? Also, who are these voters with such forceful opinions?
There is little doubt that the media played a central role in molding public opinion and gave voice to many citizens. In the last few years, more than half a dozen private satellite television channels entered the market and they had to scramble for contents to fill the airwaves. Consequently, they designed many new programs, including regular newscasts, midnight talk shows such as “Tritiyo Matra” and free-flowing discussions on various issues using formats like the “BBC Sanglap”. In fact, watching talk-shows and discussion meetings on various issues has become a favorite pastime for many citizens in recent years. Even Bangladesh Betar and Bangladesh Television entered the foray during the Caretaker Government. BTV not only aired talk shows but also allowed programmes like “Janatar Katha,” which performed the role of a citizen’s parliament. Some private FM radio stations joined them in recent years. In the print media also there was intense competition in the last few years with some prominent entries into the market using the financial backing of large corporate houses. Such competition forced all newspapers to look for new contents and pursue own niches.
The almost unhindered freedom that the media in Bangladesh enjoyed over the years allowed them to experiment with new types of programmes. The experiment included in-depth coverage of issue-based discussions such as seminars and roundtable meetings and pursuing campaigns, sometimes in partnership with civil society organisations, on social and political issues such as the clean candidate campaign.. In fact, media activism has become an important phenomenon in the last few years.
Non-partisan citizen groups such as SHUJANCitizens for Good Governance, Nagorik Committee, TIB and many distinguished individuals provided contents for the media which the latter readily used, although sometimes with partisan twists by some media houses. These contents came out in the process of many civil society interventions. Sometimes con-tents were developed in partnership with the media. Contents also came from political parties, although they were viewed by many as mere political rhetoric and hence enjoyed less credibility.
One of the first significant civil society interventions for creating mass awareness on electoral issues dates back to 2002 when a group of us formed the Citizens for Fair Elections (CFE) with the intention of helping elect clean candidates in the impending Union Parishad (UP) elections. Based on consultations with many voters, we developed a questionnaire to seek information from candidates regarding their background such as education, profession, income, criminal records, assets and liabilities etc. Using the questionnaire, the CFE volunteers
collected information from candidates and used the information to prepare candidate profiles, which they turned into posters and leaflets for distribution among the voters. The volunteers then arranged “Candidate-Voter Face-to-Face” meetings where candidates had a chance to present their election “manifestos” and voters had the opportunity to ask them questions. Despite the warning that seeking such information would put our volunteers’ safety at risk, the exercise was successfully carried out in 55 UPs, and the work received a great deal of acclaim from various quarters. A subsequent survey also showed that a significant proportion of voters changed their voting decisions based on the information they received. The same exercise was subsequently conducted in several Paurashava elections.
Another far-reaching initiative toward creating mass awareness was the launching of a campaign for political reforms in Bangladesh in September 2004. It was launched jointly by SHUJAN (which is the new name for CFE) and The Daily Star. Later The Prothom Alo joined the campaign and in a subsequent joint roundtable discussion held in April 2005, a comprehensive set of reform proposals was presented. The proposal detailed reforms of the electoral process, the Election Commission and political parties, and also the requirement for the disclosure of antecedents of candidates. Subsequently similar roundtable discussions and workshops on reform issues were held all over the country, which have been continuing to-date. Rallies and human chains in support of such reforms were also held throughout the country. In addition, SHUJAN launched unique initiatives like “Election Olympiad” and “Electoral Debates,” abridged versions of which were televised by Channel-i as part of its public service initiative. All these initiatives helped identify issues which were highlighted by the media leading to public education and awareness. In fact, all these efforts helped foment a movement for change from the status quo
One milestone event in molding public opinion was the High Court judgment of 2005, in response to a writ petition filed by a group of lawyers, which required candidates for parliament elections to disclose a set of personal and financial information about themselves and their families. An appeal was filed against the judgment on behalf of an imposter named Abu Safa, using fraudulent means. SHUJAN unearthed the fraud and brought it to the attention of the Court, and, after much drama in the highest judiciary, the judgment was upheld. The Court proceedings invited much publicity which created mass awareness and a strong public sentiment in favor of the issue of clean and competent candidates. Following the initial Court judgment, efforts were made by SHUJAN volunteers to implement it in five byelections, despite non-cooperation by the EC led by Justice M.A. Aziz. The summaries of affidavits submitted by the candidates were distributed to voters by SHUJAN volunteers and “Candidate-Voter Face-to-Face” meetings were arranged in three constituencies. These activities, after much persuasion, received significant media attention, contributing to the mass support for disclosures as a means to identifying clean candidates. In the course of these initiatives, it may be noted, SHUJAN units cropped up in many parts of the country and it truly became a platform for those who wanted to change the status quo and were willing to take actions to that end.
A watershed event in creating public awareness for change was the fiasco involving the electoral roll. It may be recalled that after the reconstitution of the EC with Justice Aziz as the CEC, the EC prepared a fresh electoral roll with more than nine crore voters. The authenticity of the electoral roll and the manner in which it was prepared generated considerable controversy and the matter was ultimately brought before the High Court for decision. SHUJAN prepared a database of the entire electoral roll and uploaded it on its website, http://www.shujan.org, and in the process helped demonstrate inaccuracies in the electoral roll. This massive task of posting over nine crore names was reported in Time magazine and this initiative ultimately paved the way for the preparation of a permanent electoral roll with photographs a task acclaimed by all concerned. The drama surrounding the electoral roll caused a media uproar leading to widespread voter outrage.
In March 2006, a partnership of CPD, The Prothom Alo, The Daily Star and Channel-i launched a clean candidate campaign around the country to delineate “the role of civil society in accountable development efforts” and a “Nagorik Committee” was formed with a group of the most distinguished citizens of the country. The Committee held 15 “Citizens Dialogue” in different locations and received widespread media coverage, creating demands for clean politics. The Daily Star also, in January 2006, held a seminar with the same theme featuring Professor Muhammad Yunus to celebrate its…th anniversary.
After the second Caretaker Government took over in January 2007. SHUJAN submitted a comprehensive draft to revise The Representation of People Order, 1972 to ensure free and fair elections and focused its attention to creating public opinion for the proposed reforms. These efforts gave new impetus to the movement for change that was already underway. It may be noted that a big breakthrough in public opinion came with the news conference held by Awami League President Sheikh Hasina on behalf of the Fourteen Party Alliance in July 2005 in which she proposed a unified outline for reforming the Caretaker Government, the Election Commission and the electoral process for free and impartial elections issues that were already identified by civil society organizations like SHUJAN. This received a further boost with her declaration in November 2005 of a unified minimum program on behalf of the Grand Alliance.
Strengthening local government is another issue that received media attention and galvanized popular support in recent years. A good number of academics and thoughtful citizens and organizations like The Hunger Project have been for quite sometime advocating reforms to strengthen our local government system. The last Caretaker Government, primarily due to the advocacy of SHUJAN, formed a Committee which recommended major changes in the present system. Nearly two dozen consultation meetings were held by the Committee and several roundtable meetings were also organized by SHUJAN, Governance Coalition, Democracy Watch and others. These events, covered extensively by the media, made strengthening local government a major issue with widespread public support.
Corruption has always been a big issue in our society. But because of the politicalization of crime and criminalization of politics, it has become an all encompassing problem and the most important issue in our recent parliamentary elections. Transparency International-Bangladesh (TIB) played a critical role in bringing this issue to the forefront and gaining widespread media coverage. Corruption Prevention Committee (CPC), SHUJAN and many other groups and individuals also played a significant role in making corruption an election issue.
Another important civil society initiative was launched by the Sector Commanders Forum in 1997 calling for the trial of war criminals. This initiative caught the imagination of many citizens and was quickly echoed by many citizen groups. In fact, thanks to the widespread media support, by election time this issue was on the lips of many voters.
A major initiative by SHUJAN on the eve of election attracted considerable media attention. SHUJAN volunteers collected the affidavits and tax returns, if applicable, of all 1566 contestants, prepared candidate profiles and distributed them in all 300 constituencies. Leaflets and posters were also distributed urging voters not to vote for candidates with tainted backgrounds. Several news briefings were held to share with the media the candidates profiles. They were also posted on the website: www.votebd.org, which was widely visited by newsmen and other interested stakeholders. The website also includes an archive of over 5,000 stories of political criminalisation published in major national dailies in the last few years. The media widely used the information and highlighted the criminal records, educational qualifications, financial background etc. of the candidates. Some enterprising newsmen also prepared investigative reporting using the information compiled by SHUJAN. All these activities and information generated an innumerable number of media stories and reports which helped many voters make informed decisions.
SHUJAN volunteers also arranged “Candidate-Voter Face-to-Face” meetings in 87 constituencies throughout the country, some in partnership with CCC (Committee of Concerned Citizens) formed by TIB and CPC. In these unique events candidates signed a declaration promising, among other things, to stay away from corruption and hooliganism, disclose their assets and liabilities each year, and not to interfere in the affairs of local government etc. The most distinguishing aspect of these events is that all the voters present took a oath that they would vote for “candidates who are honest, competent and committed to public service.” That they “would not sell their vote for money” nor would they vote for the “corrupt, hooligan, tool collector, liar, war criminal, abuser of women, drug seller, smuggler, con-
victed criminal, loan defaulter, bill defaulter, misuser of religion, land grabber, black money owner …” Many voters were deeply moved when they pronounced the words contained in the oath.
SHUJAN volunteers developed two other tools for its awareness campaign. They developed a video entitled “Vote For Whom?” which was played in different areas of the country. They also developed “SHUJAN in Songs” a pack- age of songs to articulate various issues. These songs were used by many SHUJAN units around the country and they were quite effective in creating voter awareness of issues.
The innumerable number of post-editorials and articles published in major newspapers and magazines on various issues in the last few years made a significant contribution toward creating public opinion for change. As I recall, when we started generating reform ideas in 2002-03, the media published almost nothing on reform and the relevant issues. To remedy this void, I myself became a news paper columnist and over the years wrote several hundred articles in major dailies articulating almost every reform issue. We also tried to encourage others to write columns and pro-vided materials.
Obviously many voters were impacted and their voting decisions affected by the interventions of the civil society and the coverage of those interventions by the media. But, who are these voters? What are their identities?
Some simple arithmetic can be used to identify the segment of voters most influenced by the civil society interventions. According to knowledgeable observers, nearly a third of all voters are diehard supporters of Awami League, a similar percentage have allegiance to BNP. Other parties, including Jatiyo Party and Jamaat-e-Islami supporters account for roughly another 15 percent of the voters. Thus, between 20 to 25 percent of voters many of whom are young, are not loyal to any political party. During the recent parliamentary elections, the issues articulated by the civil society and publicized by the media found expression in this segment to voters, and they gave the Grand Alliance a thumping victory. This support, it must be noted, may disappear if the government fails to deliver.
To conclude, it is clear that the people of Bangladesh were fed up with the governance failures and criminilization of our politics by successive governments and they have been yearning for change. Civil society organizations like SHUJAN defined issues that needed to be addressed for that change. The media gave expression to these issues and those expression became the voices of the people. Needless to say, the Grand Alliance embraced those issues and the rest is history.
Reference by: 18th ANNIVERSARY OF The Daily Star, 24 February 2009