Tuesday, December 11, 2018

2018 election: "Bangladesh's closing democratic space"

You wait ages for a bus, and then they all come at once! 

I thought that the International Republican International (IRI) poll undertaken in May 2018 was the most recent international standard poll undertaken in Bangladesh, but I was wrong. Democracy International/Nielsen Bangladesh undertook a more recent poll in September 2018, along with focus groups a few weeks later in September/October - and a source has sent the results report to BangladeshPolitico.

As mentioned in this blog's most recent post, IRI has published the results of its polls though keeping confidential the singularly most important question about which party respondents would support if there was an election. 

However, Democracy International - funded by the development arms of both the UK and the US government (UKaid and USAID) - however, has not published any information on this poll. In fact, Democracy International does not provide any information on its website about it polling in Bangladesh - and simply distributes the results of its polling and focus groups to the diplomatic community. 

This secrecy and confidentiality seems highly problematic. In 2014, I was in discussion with Democracy International about publishing its results, and following these discussions, the organisation set up a website called "Bangladesh Barometer" where it published results of its polls. However there is no information since 2016.  

Is it because Democracy International is too scared to publish its report?

"Closing democratic space"
The results of the September 2018 poll itself are significantly more favorable to the Awami League than those found four months earlier in the May IRI poll. I will provide information about this in a subsequent post, but am today providing the DI's report conclusions on the  "closing democratic space" in Bangladesh following 14 focus groups, two each in seven divisions which were conducted between 16 September and 5 October 2018. 

(The report states that the focus groups "were divided by gender and one group of each gender was conducted in each of the seven divisions. Groups were also divided by age, with one group of participants 18-35 and one of 35+ in each division. One group was conducted among rural and semi-rural respondents in each division, as well as one group of those with 12th grade or less education and one of those with more than 12th grade. .... Participants who strongly support a party were limited to two in each group. The rest were soft supporters of a party or undecided about which party to support." )

The distorted lens
The report first concludes that its own poll results have to be viewed "through the distorted lens" of the "closing" political space in Bangladesh. It stated the following
"• By a number of measures, the political space in Bangladesh is closing. The results of survey and focus group research in such closing democratic spaces must be viewed through this distorted lens.

Urban focus group respondents, particularly men, in several cities (Dhaka, Chattogram, Sylhet, Barisal) offered clearly articulated reasons why they were reluctant to offer their true opinions on the political environment of the country or criticize the ruling party in any way in a group setting. Many discussants ultimately did, particularly in Chattogram, once their confidence in the confidentiality of the space was assured and if they could find a way to do so indirectly. Participants were heard saying they were not giving their true opinion at times when the moderator was not present or they believed they were not being overheard. 
• Respondents in Rangpur, Khulna and Rajshahi and some rural residents were less openly fearful and felt more confident expressing their views. Participants in all groups, however, said they were concerned about the closing space for free expression, which may affect the quality and reliability of public opinion projects, particularly those related to measuring electoral support for the parties as well as attitudes toward parties and their leaders.  
• The impact on these data is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. There remains enough circumstantial evidence to suggest that acquiescence bias (the propensity to answer a survey question in the way the respondent feels is the “correct” answer) in the survey and respondent fear in the focus groups shape these results in unpredictable ways." (Emphasis added)
The results documents provides examples of how in the focus groups "participants said out loud that they feared talking in the focus group:"
"I feel scared to talk about this topic." (Sylhet semi-urban woman, over 35, more than 12th grade
"I am afraid to talk here." (Barishal urban man, under 35, more than 12th grade)  
"We cannot deny the ongoing rural development in Bangladesh as a whole. But, still we don’t have any right to speak out. Every conversation turns into politics. I am even afraid to talk in this session." (Dhaka semi-urban man, under 35, more than 12th grade
"I am afraid to talk about politics." (Dhaka semi-urban man, under 35, more than 12th grade)
Free Expression
In relation to free expression, the report came to the following conclusions: 
"• According to focus group participants, space for free expression in Bangladesh is closing. Participants are frustrated because they “live in a free country” but feel they are unable express their political opinions in public. They are particularly hesitant to speak about the ruling party, a theme that repeated itself through several groups.  
• Participants mentioned real consequences to expressing their views online or publicly: they feared cases opened against them, arrests and jail sentences. ....
• Fewer, but still some, participants had the same response when asked what they would say to or ask a BNP leader: they said they would keep their mouths shut out of fear. Others issued a blanket statement that they would not speak to a leader of either party. A few said they would offer only positive things. 
• Although the impact on the election is difficult to quantify, this reluctance to speak out or even offer an opinion to a party leader reflects serious erosion of democratic principles in Bangladesh. "
A slide provides the following quotes from people at the focus groups:

"Nowhere in Bangladesh can you express your opinions." (Barishal urban man, under 35, more than 12th grade)

"Despite knowing many things, we do not share them in public places." (Chattogram semi-urban woman, under 35, 12th grade or less)
"Even if we want, we can’t talk. Conversations may turn into quarrels so it’s better not to express political opinions." (Chattogram semi-urban woman, under 35, 12th grade or less)

"I am afraid to talk about politics." (Dhaka semi-urban man, over 35, more than 12th grade)

"We live in a free country. But we can’t express our feelings freely." (Khulna semi-urban woman, under 35, more than 12th grade)

"Most of us are now unable to express our feelings in public." (Khulna urban man, over 35, 12th grade or less)

"We live in a free country, but we don’t have any freedom of speech." (Dhaka semi-urban man, under 35, more than 12th grade)

"In villages, if you discuss these things there are problems. People even resort to fighting. The police often intervene." (Rajshahi semi-urban woman, under 35, more than 12th grade)

"I can talk about politics at home but not in the school where I teach." (Sylhet semi-urban woman, over 35, more than 12th grade)

"We have government jobs, so we always fear being targeted." (Sylhet semi-urban woman, over 35, more than 12th grade)

"You never know who is partisan and who is not. I fear offending those strictly supporting a party." (Sylhet semi-urban woman, over 35, more than 12th grade)
In particular the report concluded that "Speaking about the ruling party, in particular, is avoided" and provide the following quotes from people at the focus groups:
"Today we couldn’t speak freely if anyone from league was sitting here with us." (Chattogram urban man, over 35, more than 12th grade)

"We can talk among friends. It may create problem if we talk about AL, so better not to do it." (Khulna semi-urban woman, under 35, more than 12th grade)

"No one can discuss about politics except ruling party members. Even if you start speaking about politics, we will leave." (Rangpur rural man, over 35, more than 12th grade)

"We can’t express our political opinion freely everywhere. The ruling party has suppressed the opposition and created a non-political environment in our country. "(Rajshahi urban man, over 35, 12th grade or less)

"We are losing the freedom to express our opinions. If someone speaks against the ruling party, cases are filed. There is no free speech. In foreign countries, if someone mocks the president, they are not punished. They are applauded. While we’re progressing and approaching close to the west, in this regard we’re miles apart." (Barishal urban man, under 35, more than 12th grade)

"Now police and leaders of League together sit at the meeting places and prohibit us from talking." (Chattogram urban man, over 35, more than 12th grade)

Please email me here with any new information or comments.

Previous posts in 2018 election series:

- Dec 7: Disappearances before 2014 election
- Dec 7: Forced out, but service resumes
- Dec 9: Exclusive: Results of Confidential Poll revealed

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