[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Thursday, 28 June 2007, 16:03 GMT 17:03 UK
Bangladesh's digital vote experiment
By John Sudworth
BBC News, Sreepur

A female voter's photograph is taken
A digital image will be taken of each and every voter

Sreepur is a pretty unremarkable town - small shops and a few garment factories in a sea of flat green farmland, an hour's drive from Dhaka.

Bangladesh is full of towns like this one. But Sreepur has found its moment in history.

It has been chosen as the place to begin a process of democratic reform so ambitious and far reaching there are unlikely to be many precedents anywhere in the world.

Bangladesh's electoral system, said to be riddled with fraud, is being completely overhauled.

The old voter list is being torn up and the photographs, fingerprints and personal details of an estimated 90 million voters are to be recorded from scratch.

Free and fair

The authorities have less than 18 months to complete the project and they are starting in Sreepur.

The chances of false voting... will be eliminated
Election commissioner M Sakhawat Hussain

When we visited the town in the suffocating heat of a Bangladeshi summer, two lines of people, one for men and one for women, were queuing outside a government building.

Inside, they were invited to sit down by young soldiers, who took their photographs and fingerprints and stored them as digital images.

A number of such centres have been set up across the district.

So far, more than 46,000 people have come to re-register as voters and claim their place in what they hope will be a fraud-free voting future.

"The new system will mean only I can cast my vote," one woman tells me.

"Whatever happened earlier," another man says, "God willing, Bangladesh will now have a real free and fair election again."

Corruption charges

In January, allegations of electoral fraud brought Bangladesh to the brink of anarchy.

Rioter in Dhaka, 28 September 2006
Political protests brought the country to its knees

The country was paralysed by strikes and rioting, centered on claims that the voter list was so corrupt that the forthcoming general election was a sham.

It was eventually cancelled, and a military-backed emergency government took over.

The new administration, led by former banker Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed, claims it has just one priority: to clean up politics before re-staging the general election.

More than 60 former parliamentarians, including many ex-government ministers, have been arrested on charges of corruption.

Pressure is being put on the political parties to move towards internal reform.

And the new voter list is being prepared to try to prevent the gerrymandering and ballot-rigging of the past.

Pilot project

If the Sreepur pilot project is a success, the exercise will be taken nationwide in the next few weeks.

A fingerprint is taken
Digital fingerprints aim to avoid fraud

The eventual aim is to prepare a national electoral register, complete with the photograph of every voter.

And, if any voter tries to register twice, in theory, the digital fingerprint images will match, and they will be stopped.

"The chances of false voting, of one gentlemen entering twice - here and somewhere else - will be eliminated," election commissioner Brig-Gen M Sakhawat Hussain says.

But the emergency government has vowed to hold the general election by the end of next year.

Is it really possible to photograph, fingerprint and register 90 million people in time?

"We hope so," says Mr Hussain.

"We are quite determined to have a free, fair election. That is our mandate. We have no other job."

But concerns have been raised about the practical obstacles in a country like Bangladesh.

Will people prove reluctant to travel to a registration centre, particularly during the monsoon rains?

Will the task of registering millions of itinerant workers, slum dwellers and homeless people prove too difficult?

The Election Commission claims the Sreepur experiment demonstrates that people are willing to participate in the registration process and that the technology works.

It needs to. Nothing less than the future of one of South Asia's biggest democracies depends on the authorities completing the task in little more than a year's time.

Jail term for Khaleda Zia adviser
21 May 07 |  South Asia
Bangladesh ex-PM 'still not free'
08 May 07 |  South Asia
What next for Bangladesh dynasties?
26 Apr 07 |  South Asia
Opposition welcomes B'desh U-turn
26 Apr 07 |  South Asia
Q&A: Bangladesh crisis
26 Apr 07 |  South Asia
Bangladesh at a crossroads
05 Apr 07 |  South Asia

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific