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Digital victory vs. digital rigging in Bangladesh

(This story was published at Election times. To get the story at that site please click Here)

December 29, 2008, ushered in a new chapter in the history of Bangladesh, when the nation saw perhaps the fairest election in its independent existence . Besides the vigilant media, 44 million mobile phone users and thousands of Internet users and bloggers had the chance to play an important role in it.

When the result was published, the Bangladesh Awami League that won the elections claimed that they had secured a digital victory, but the losing Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) termed it as “digital rigging.”

Sheikh Hasina, president of the Awami League, frequently used the term “Digital Bangladesh” in her party’s manifesto during her campaign in 2008. It gave great hope to the citizens, especially to youngsters like Shamsul Alam, a student of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET).

He said the concept of “Digital Bangladesh” was a milestone in the history of Bangladesh, adding that the term equals a better future. “I am hopeful about this (Digital Bangladesh) and I have campaigned for it by using digital technology like e-mailing to my friends. I have also used Facebook for this purpose,” Alam says.

Influence of mobile phones

Debabratha Chakrabarty, assistant editor with the prominent Bangla daily The Samakal, dubbed the election a “Digital Election.” He says that the cheap mobile phone connections have brought the citizens closer to each other. The mobile phone revolution is not new in Bangladesh, but the new element is that mobile phones have internet connections. He says, “Now people not only capture photo or video on their mobile phones, but also upload them on the website using the same [gadget].”

Debabratha says this technology has made every citizen a journalist, as they can send their news items to the media houses. “Mobile phone connections were active during the last December’s election, and everyone had the opportunity to communicate with each other about the elections,” he said, adding that the officials and the agents at the polling centers were also keeping their mobile phones with them, which they could use to report irregularities at the polling stations.

Mobile phone operators also played a role in making the country digital, as they provided latest news and result updates during the elections to their subscribers. Azad Rahman, a resident of the capital city, Dhaka, says that on the election day, he was in his remote village, 400 kilometres away from Dhaka. Despite having no television, computer or Internet, he got the updated results by subscribing to ‘breaking news’ using his mobile phone.

“My parents did not want to vote because they were afraid of political clashes, but after knowing about the peaceful condition of the country on the mobile phones, they went to the polling station,” Azad says.

On the other hand, Omar Farooq, a member of a radical Islamic group Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, claims that the breaking news service caused their leader Motiur Rahman Nizami’s defeat. “On the morning voters came to know by SMS that ex-personal secretary of our leader had been arrested for violating the electoral law. From that point onwards we lost the support of our voters, having no chance to make a comeback,” Farooq says.

Rebeka Sultana, a teacher of the Dhaka Residential Model School and College, says, “Last December’s parliament elections were really special in the history of Bangladesh. The losers always say that there is vote-rigging, but this is a time of transparency and if you have any complaint, you will have to substantiate it with logical proof,” she said.

“In earlier times we didn’t have many TV channels, or candidates campaigning for elections in TV and radio advertisements, but now we have a very good number of TV channels, radio stations and newspapers,” Sultana says, adding that during the 2008 election the country has seen political leaders trying to impress public in advertisements to get more votes.

Social networks like Facebook and Somewhere In, a famous Bangla blogging website, have also played an important role in making the public aware of the facts. Tanzila Noor, an IT expert, thinks that Bangladesh has successfully entered into the digital and information highway. “Political parties’ websites were full of their manifestoes, goals and achievements, providing everyone an opportunity to look out for the positive change by using their websites,” she says.

Technology in the campaign

A member of the ruling Awami League party, requesting anonymity, says that his party had used digital technology for their campaign, adding that his chairperson Hasina could not attend her scheduled meetings for her security concerns, but she had reached to the voters and the supporters by video- conferences.

What was new in the last parliament election in Bangladesh? Mahmudul Hasan, a security official of the country, answers this question: “Everything was new. The process started with the computerised ID cards with photos. Even the

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March 1, 2009 - Posted by | Media

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