Insights and Analysis

Asia’s Maturing Democracies Wrestle with Election Realities

March 25, 2015

By Andrew Thornley

What exactly are international norms and standards of electoral integrity, and how should these be promoted while accommodating local circumstances, such as conflict, socio-economic conditions, and culture? Last week, the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) and the National Electoral Commission of Timor-Leste organized the second Asian Electoral Stakeholder Forum in Dili – a two-day event attended by over 120 participants from 27 countries – to examine these and other issues. Here are some takeaways.

Photo/Conor Ashleigh

Timor-Leste has joined many of its neighbors as a maturing democracy, and is now wrestling with the realities and challenges of administering elections. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

Campaign finance is the “last frontier” of electoral integrity. While the challenge most often lies in implementing commonly accepted standards of electoral integrity – the independence of Election Management Bodies (EMBs), for example, or equal access by all electoral contestants to state media for campaigns – there are no such commonly accepted standards for campaign finance. Electoral corruption remains a significant problem, and the lack of transparency and accountability in campaign finance is one important reason. This is not just an Asian regional problem. In the 2014 Electoral Integrity Project Report, the United States ranks as the worst performer among long-established democracies, ranking poorly on its regulation of money and politics.

There is broad acceptance of the need for greater inclusiveness in elections and political processes. Encouragingly, much of the discussion addressed issues of promoting the rights of overseas voters, voters living with disabilities, minority populations, and women as electoral officials, voters, candidates, and elected representatives. Where progress has been achieved, it is still often due to the imposition of quotas on EMBs, electoral lists, and legislative representation. However, in many cases there remains a gulf between the rhetoric and reality. For example, few countries accommodate overseas voters. Admittedly, this involves regulatory and logistical challenges, and the cost can be prohibitive. External elections in Iraq in 2005 cost nearly $100 per voter. In Australia, the cost of external voting is four times higher than that for voters in country.

Nothing is permanent but change. This is perhaps best reflected in Thailand’s yoyo cycle of election-coup-election and Bangladesh’s regression into conflict and single-party domination of key state institutions. The January 2014 general elections in Bangladesh raised serious questions about the point at which elections hurt rather than help democratic consolidation. But change can be for the better. Sri Lanka was roundly credited with conducting a more peaceful and better administered presidential election this January than in the past. And only a hardened cynic would fail to see progress in a forum panel involving electoral officials from Myanmar and Bhutan.

Low public trust in political parties – a regional phenomenon – poses a threat to the consolidation of electoral democracy. Independent electoral management bodies are soft targets for criticism of the conduct of elections since, by definition, they enjoy no direct political backing. The role of civil society and the media during elections, likewise, often engenders intense scrutiny. But it is time to more critically assess the performance of political parties. Effective administration, impartial observation, and professional reporting count for little in the absence of active and accountable participation from parties and candidates during and between elections. And surveys across the region continue to reflect low levels of trust in political parties and elected officials.

Use of information technology to improve electoral integrity is inevitable and increasingly beneficial, but there is no one-size-fits-all. Participants proposed technology-based solutions to address a range of election issues – from voter registration to voter information and education, mapping of electoral observation, e-voting, and the aggregation of election results. Neighboring Indonesia provided an interesting point of reference. On the plus side, technology has helped to disseminate election data and inform voters via a range of mobile and web apps. During the last election, Perludem, a leading civil society organization in Indonesia, launched API Pemilu (Elections Application Programming Interface), a database of election information carefully verified, aggregated, and coded in a developer-friendly way. API Pemilu data fueled several apps and an interactive candidate map covering all 34 provinces, built in partnership with Google and The Asia Foundation. But there has been substantial pushback in Indonesia recently on the issue of e-voting, due to concerns about cost, infrastructure, transparency, and public perceptions of legitimacy.

Two to watch: the high cost of elections and declining voter turnout. Simply put, elections are expensive, and in many places, such as Afghanistan, continue to be underwritten by the international community, raising inevitable questions of sustainability. Also, in many countries, voter turnout has declined dramatically with progressive democratic elections. Mongolia, for example, has seen rates decline by 30 percent in just over 20 years. Elections in Japan last December cost over $500 million, but turnout, at 53 percent, was a post-war low. Building confidence in elections will require budget efficiency as well as improved promotion of public participation.

How close is too close for election observers? ANFREL did an excellent job of convening electoral stakeholders from Asia for this event, reflecting its close relationship with EMBs across the region. But this does raise a question for election observation organizations in general: how best to define and implement an appropriate balance between engaging EMBs and government officials – in particular, to advocate for key electoral reforms – while remaining staunchly independent to fulfill a critical watchdog function free from real or perceived conflict of interest?

Xanana Gusmao, former president and prime minister of Timor-Leste, remarked at the Forum that his young country has benefited from being a millennial – maturing as an independent state in an interconnected age when information is quickly shared. His tone darkened, however, as he cautioned against placing too much faith in elections as a panacea and berated the international community for forcing elections in many countries as a condition for assistance, whether or not local conditions are conducive.

I was in what was then East Timor for the pivotal 1999 referendum and then again during its transition to independence from 2000 until 2002. The euphoric embrace of elections from that era is gone. Timor-Leste has joined many of its neighbors as a maturing democracy, and is now wrestling with the realities and challenges of administering elections, as well as with the expectations of democratically elected governments which that entails.

Andrew Thornley is a program director for The Asia Foundation in Indonesia. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Japan, Mongolia, Myanmar, Thailand, Timor-Leste
Related programs: Elections
Related topics: Afghanistan Elections, Australia


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