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Washington, D.C., Bangladesh, and South Korea

Bob Pastor of Emory University and I flew from Americus to Washington and joined Bob Michel and Phil Zelikow at the White House to give President Bush and his staff a summary of the Federal Election Commission recommendations.

Key provisions are:

  • Statewide voter registration lists
  • Each person claiming to be qualified can cast a "provisional" vote
  • Election on a holiday
  • Simplified absentee voting
  • Felons permitted to vote after serving full sentence
  • Standardized voting systems
  • Definition of what is a vote
  • No preliminary projection by media
  • Federal-state funding
  • Establish an Election Administration Commission, and
  • Federal set general policies but states with primary responsibilities.

After a briefing in the Rose Garden, we reconvened at the National Press Club for a more in-depth session with reporters. I gave personal interviews to CNN, National Public Radio, and Chris Matthews before returning to Atlanta for a flight to London, Calcutta, and Dhaka.

Bangladesh: Bangladesh is the most densely populated country in the world. Smaller than Georgia, its population is 130 million, amounting to about 2,400 people per square mile. Its recent political history is tortured, beginning with a successful struggle for independence from Pakistan in 1971.

An interesting summary: Sheik Mujibar Rahman became the first Prime Minister, but was assassinated in 1975. General Ziaur Rahman became President in 1977, but was assassinated in 1981. General Hassain Mohammad Ershad became President in 1982, but was forced to resign and imprisoned in 1990. In 1991, Begum Khaleda Zia, widow of Ziaur Rahman formed the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and was elected Prime Minister.

Her party was defeated in 1996 by the Awami League (AL), headed by Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the daughter of Mujibar Rahman. The third largest party is Jatiya, headed by former president Ershad (who is no longer jailed but forbidden by law from holding office himself). There are two minor parties, one of which is a fundamentalist Moslem group.

It is easy to see how divided the current parliamentary form of government might be, and filled with intense animosities derived from former history. A crippling "winner take all" political system has evolved, so that it would be impossible for any ruling party to conduct a fair election. Members of parliament must resign after a five-year term, and then for 90 days a "caretaker" government assumes all power that relates in any way to the conduct of the election. The head of the caretaker government is a former chief justice of the supreme court (there is a 65-year-old mandatory retirement age).

After arriving in Dhaka, I met with Latifer Rahman, Chief Advisor for the Caretaker Government, who appoints 10 other advisors, and they perform the role of prime minister and parliament during the period leading up to the election. This group has control over the police, military, news media, and all election procedures, and can even change laws or impose directives, subject only to approval of the figure-head president. After the election, the 300 members of parliament take office and compose the government.

Bangladeshis are very proud of this caretaker arrangement, and it has resolved historic election problems so that results in 1991 and 1996 have been reasonably fair and accepted by the losers. But after the parliament is constituted, the opposition party usually has boycotted parliament sessions (except for attending committee meetings) and frequently called nationwide strikes, called "hartals." During the past 10 years, the two women leaders had not met except once in a public Armed Forces Day ceremony.

Working with The Carter Center's Ashley Barr, NDI chief Pat Merloe, and others, we quickly devised specific goals for my 2-1/2 day visit. These involved using public events and private negotiations to get pledges of reduced violence, harmony during the election, and revisions to the parliament composition and procedures. The first step was to get the two major party leaders together, with invitations sent for them to join me for a working lunch.

The news media and the public were enthralled when both of them came, exchanged polite greetings, and had photographs taken together with the Chief Advisor and me. I was prepared with a number of questions and, speaking to me separately from across the table, the two leaders agreed on a number of major issues.

They agreed to call on their supporters to renounce violence and inflammatory rhetoric and to cooperate with the police and army in gathering both legal and illegal weapons. They pledged to follow a strict code of conduct that is being prepared by the Election Commission. They also agreed, with some original reluctance, to support an allocation of about 60 additional parliamentary seats to women, to be awarded administratively during this next session and subsequently to be directly elected. (An expired law awarded 30 during this past session, all to the AL ruling party.)

We then met with the Chief Election Commissioner, M.A. Syeed, and his associates, and they outlined some of their proposals for improving the process. We urged cooperation among all the leaders in carrying out the promises outlined above and permission for our trained domestic election observers to have free access to every polling place. They asked us to urge the party leaders to support their controversial reform proposals, including a limit on and thorough reporting of campaign finances and restrictions against candidates who are deeply in debt. In fact, these can be given the force of law if approved by the president.

Then I met with Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League associates, all of whom tried to speak at once. Finally, though, we were able to induce them to accept all the proposals we put forward and to authorize me to quote them to the news media. After meeting with the minor parties, we had a session with Begum Kaleda Zia and her BNP associates and reached the same minimum, but important agreements. The party leaders examined the following pledges in writing and agreed on:

  • Approval of at least one domestic observer per polling site
  • Compliance with a Code of Conduct of the Election Commission
  • Restraint of violence, intimidation and verbal abuse in party
  • At least 60 women in parliament, direct election by 2006
  • Speaker to be non-partisan, free of future election challenge when he runs for re-election
  • Enhanced opposition role, including Chairmanship of one or two key committees
  • No boycott of Parliament
  • No calls for general strikes (hartals)

We typed up these agreements so there would be no confusion, and had the three major parties approve the text. Saturday morning we had a press conference to report our activities and then individual interviews with top news media. In all, we accomplished much more than we had expected, and were inundated with urgent requests to return for the election.

South Korea: I then went to Seoul, South Korea, and drove about two hours south to Hoseo University, in Asan, which is near one of our six Habitat building sites and where we had a room. I met Rosalynn there, and we joined 9,000 other volunteers in six sites around Korea and completed 136 homes. We worked hard on our own homes, and Wednesday and Thursday we flew by helicopter over much of South Korea, visiting all the other sites. The visit to Paju, inside the DMZ, was quite emotional.

The eight homes are in the little village of only 50 families, all of whom have lived and farmed under tight restraints for the past 50 years. They are excused from taxes because of the strained living conditions. Back in Asan, we met with a delegation from Durban, South Africa, where the Jimmy Carter Work Project 2002 will be conducted next June.

During the week I had extensive discussions with President Kim Dae Jung and other political and academic leaders as well as interviews with top news media and found intense interest in U.S.-North Korea relations. The most significant commitment of President Kim's administration was "reconciliation" with North Korea, and he was making enough progress to receive the Nobel Peace Prize last year when he went to Pyongyang.

However, everyone seems to feel that recent uncertainty about U.S. government policy has aborted or at least interrupted any inclination by North Korea's leaders to take further steps.

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