Thursday, 16 July 2015

Cleaning up politics

By Pippa Norris, Andrea Abel van Es and Lisa Fennis 

This blog post appeared on the Washington Post's Money Cage on July 16 at 3:02 PM

The degree of state regulation of political finance around the world, from less (yellow) to more (red)

The role of money in politics challenges states worldwide, both rich and poor. Its abuse raises problems of graft, corruption and cronyism, which undermine legitimacy and governance. In recent years, financial scandals have erupted all over the world. In Britain, a Conservative Party treasurer offered access to the prime minister for 250,000 pounds. In Germany, corruption hit during the final years of Chancellor Helmut Kohl. In Brazil, high-profile politicians made clandestine payments in exchange for support. In Australia, members of the prime minister’s Liberal party stepped down after soliciting illegal donations. In Chile, recent corruption allegations rocked the political establishment.

Yet money is essential for mobilizing election campaigns, sustaining political party organizations, and communicating with citizens. And countries, such as Sweden, have managed to avoid falling foul of malfeasance and graft.

So how can politics be cleaned up most effectively? New evidence on this issue is available from a comparative report and dataset released by the Money, Politics and Transparency project, produced by Global Integrity (GI), the Sunlight Foundation, and the Electoral Integrity Project (EIP) at Harvard University and the University of Sydney.

Election experts worldwide argue that political finance is one of the key problems faced by political parties and candidates during election campaigns, and ineffective regulations damage electoral integrity worldwide. The report compares how this problem is tackled in emerging economies as diverse as India, Mexico, South Africa and Russia, as well as in established democracies, such as Britain, Japan, Sweden and the United States.

The Money, Politics and Transparency project investigated three crucial questions: How do states around the world attempt to regulate the role of money in politics? What triggers landmark reforms? And, what ‘works’, what fails and why?

The project Web site presents evidence from its Political Finance Indicators, comparing over 50 countries worldwide. A new downloadable report on Checkbook Elections describes detailed case studies of campaign finance reforms in states from all regions of the world.

How do states regulate money in politics?

Policies regulating the role of money in politics include disclosure requirements, contribution limits, spending caps and public subsidies. In most cases, these strategies are combined.

States range across the spectrum from laissez-faire to comprehensive regulation. Transparency rules reflect a minimal role for the state. Contribution and spending limits intervene more directly to provide more equitable party competition and to limit the risks of corruption. Public funding, directly reliant on the state, is the strongest single form of state intervention. A combination of all regulatory policies reflects maximum state regulation.

Data from International IDEA shows that countries such as South Africa, Sweden and India have more laissez-faire policies, while Brazil, Indonesia and Russia are more interventionist. But more legal control is not necessarily better. The results are mixed. For example, Japanese reforms during the early 1990s successfully cut election costs and expanded political competition. But Russia’s tight political finance laws entrenched electoral authoritarianism. And South Africa’s lax political finance laws have entrenched ANC predominance.

The map at the top of this post shows the degree of state regulation of political finance around the world. Countries with more laws on the books are not necessarily closer to achieving a level playing field in party competition, more transparency or less corruption. The reasons become evident if we compare several typical types of reforms.

Transparency requirements are among the most common reforms of the last decade. But disclosure rules are often inconsistently applied. Global Integrity used experts to to construct their Political Finance Indices covering 54 countries worldwide. The results suggest that eight out of 10 countries have statutes requiring parties and/or candidates to submit contribution and expenditure reports. Yet in reality this rarely happens during campaign periods, and the public is unable to access much of the information reported to oversight authorities.

Restrictions on contributions and expenditures are often undermined by loopholes. For example, laws often limit the amount an individual can donate directly to a political party or to a candidate, but not both. Similar loopholes in regard to anonymous and corporate donations are common, and spending limits also fail in many cases. Moreover, few countries regulate election spending by nonprofits, unions, and independent groups, where this is regarded as a private activity in civil society.

Finally, states have adopted public funding and subsidy laws to reduce dependence upon private sector donors and the dwindling band of party members. In practice, however, funds can be unfairly allocated

What ‘works’ and why?

Effective laws depend upon enforcement capabilities, political will, and autonomous oversight agencies. Unfortunately oversight bodies are often hamstrung through a lack of merit-based appointments, independent leadership, technical capacity, and lack of authority. Partisan appointments, insufficient staff and budget, and/or a lack of substantive legal power hinder oversight bodies in countries as diverse as the United States, Romania, Nigeria and Russia.

No single policy can control money in politics. For instance, public funding without spending or contribution limits can lead to a campaign finance arms race. Disclosure requirements without spending caps or equitable public funding may erode public trust in the electoral process. It is more effective to use a balanced mix of regulations fitting each country.

Policies often require trade-offs between values, such as the importance of freedom of expression vs. a level playing field for all parties.

Lax regulation can lead to skyrocketing campaign costs, corruption, cronyism and winner-take-all politics. Yet excessive regulation can lead to loophole seeking and entrenched elites.

More information, including the report Checkbook Elections, detailed case studies and the Political Finance Indicators, is available at

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Detecting and deterring electoral fraud and malpractices in Africa

Tuesday, 30 June 2015
By Ferran Martínez i Coma
Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Following the launch of EIP’s report Electoral Integrity in Africa, the Hanns Seidel Foundation's Conference on Electoral Integrity in Africa kicked off with a two-day day program focusing on the role of political parties in detecting and deterring electoral fraud and malpractice in Africa.
The program and presentations were of very high quality, and hold many valuable insights For those working in this field. This piece intends to capture a few of the key arguments and lessons.

After the introductory remarks by Graham Hopwood from the Institute for Public Policy Research in Namibia, Dr Brigalia Bam, former Chairperson of the South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission, and Professor Jørgen Elklit, from Aarhus University, took the floor for the first presentation of the day. They presented on the role of political parties in promoting electoral integrity in Africa. Bam’s key message was that that electoral fraud should not be seen as an exceptionally African phenomenon, but that measures to detect and deter it should be informed by context-specific variables. She also spoke about the impact of electoral observer missions, and argued that missions could be better understood if there was room for reciprocity, primarily between those operating in African states and their Western counterparts. 
Professor Elkit departed from this premise, arguing that we cannot expect political parties to contribute or promote electoral integrity. In his view parties, in the end, are organisations trying to maximize power. Hence in order to assure that parties promote electoral integrity, it must be establishing structures that make it in their own best interest. Elklit concluded by proposing measures that would allow parties to teach members, supporters, party agents and the public to behave in an orderly way and cooperate with the Election Mission Bodies.

Day one: Unpacking electoral integrity in Southern Africa

Following these presentations the remainder of the day was dedicated to presentations with a country-specific focus on Southern Africa:
  • Dr. Collette Schulz‐Herzenberg presented preliminary data from the Comparative National Elections Projects. These meshed well with the conclusion of EIP’s edited volume Advancing Electoral Integrity: citizens tend to be more likely to perceive a greater supply of democracy and express satisfaction with the way democracy is working when they consider the elections to be free and fair, and electoral institutions to be trustworthy.
  • Miguel de Brito from EISA subsequently explained why Mozambique performs so badly when holding elections. As is illustrated in EIP’s report Electoral Integrity in Africa, de Brito observed that in Mozambique, some malpractice is systemic and systematic while other is individual and opportunistic. He explained that initiatives to improve such situation should include a combination of education, unequivocal enforcement of the law, and punishment / penalties. Moreover improved monitoring by political parties, media and citizens alike would also help uncover and draw attention to both systemic and opportunistic malpractice and fraud. 
  • Graham Hopwood spoke about the last elections in Namibia, which was its first national political contest using electronic voting machines. Though victory was accepted and the electoral process was not questioned, some major problems and deficiencies. These include long queues – the the hours spent in line proved an obstacle for many, particularly for women with children. Morover the polling stations inconsistently adhered to the 21:00 closure rule, meaning that in some cases people who had been queuing were allowed to cast their vote, while others were not. To add insult to injury, it has been reported that in various locations mobile polling stations never arrived or arrived late.
  • Dr. Neo Simutanyi from the Center for Policy Dialogue explained that Zambia’s elections have been controversial since 2001, and that electoral fraud and malpractices have dominated Zambia’s political discourse. Examples of irregularities include the State’s use of patronage resources (vote-buying), buying of voter’s cards to disenfranchise voters, and unusually large number of invalid or spoilt votes in opposition areas. 
  • Tom Wolf, representing IPSOS in Kenya, presented his work on the circumstances in which an incumbent elite is prepared to ‘lose’ an election and give up power. He argued that in calculating the costs or benefits of refusing to ‘lose’, incumbent elites consider various factors, such as the degree to which pre-election manipulation and/or electoral fraud can be concealed, the likelihood of violent protests or external/donor ‘punishment’, the likelihood of suffering inacceptable individual punishment, and the likelihood of the new government pursuing ‘misguided’ policies if a fair election results in defeat.
  • Kizito Tenthani from the Centre for Multiparty Democracy in Malawi gave a detailed assessment of Malawi’s state of democracy, covering matters ranging from the current political situation in Malawi to the role and performance of the electoral commission, its administration, the elections, its results and the management of such results.
  • In the afternoon, I had the pleasure of chairing the session in which Olufunto Akinduro from EISA, spoke about the electoral process in Nigeria. Providing an overview about the electoral process in the latest elections, she noted that five elections have been held in Nigeria since 1999. The 1999 election was acceptable, whereas the 2003 contest was not credible, and 2007 saw the worst election to date. This election acted as a turning point, leading to the ERC and constitution amendment aimed at increasing integrity in the 2011 elections. The 2015 election was the most competitive in Nigeria’s history, with the exception of the controversial 1983 elections.
  • Then, the floor was for Dr. Motlamelle Kapa from the University of Lesotho who noted that in 2001, the MMP system was adopted expanding the inclusiveness of parliament and a virtual elimination of claims of fraud and that all parties have relatively equitable access to state resources like state-owned media and party and campaign funding. 
  • Finally, Professor Sheila Bunwaree from University of Mauritius talked about a necessary holistic approach in addressing fraud and malpractice. Moreover, she mentioned that although there have been nine general elections since independence, the last 2014 general election revived the debate on the ‘funding of political parties’, which remains shrouded in opacity. 
Day two: A broader discussion on electoral integrity in Africa

The second day, the conference moved onto more general issues related to electoral integrity. 
In the first session we covered electoral violence and conflict management panels.
  • Gareth Newham, representing ISS, showed different maps on patterns of electoral violence in South Africa. He showed that during the 2013-2014 period, 7% of all protests were election related (153 events), of which 63% were violent. 29% of all election protests were in Gauteng, 22% in the Western Cape and 16% in the Eastern Cape. 63% took place in metro areas, 19% in urban areas and 18% in rural areas. The 2014 elections proved that protest hotspots are not always predictable: they develop over time and initial triggers vary widely.
  • Ilona Tip, from EISA, spoke about conflict management practices. She mentioned that her organization has learnt a number of lessons, including that working closely with the EMB builds trust, the importance of adequate training; and the need for agreement of mediators by stakeholders. She concluded that any mechanism for preventing, managing and resolving election conflict can only be effectively implemented if there is agreement on the rules of the game. 
  • Professor Shaheen Mozaffar, from Bridgewater State University, explained that elections magnify existing conflicts unrelated to elections, for example the land issues prevalent in Cote-d’Ivoire, Kenya and Zimbabwe. Such violence takes the form of short-term episodes directly related to election events, but may have long-term consequences, which is why it is an important focus of analysis and policy intervention. He also stressed a paradox: in essence, elections are organized uncertainties because their outcomes cannot and should not be known ex ante. The paradox is that substantive uncertainty requires procedural certainty. It is this paradox that defines the central task of electoral governance: organizing electoral uncertainty by providing institutional certainty. As a way forward, Professor Mozaffar suggested to incorporate the EIP framework and insights presented in Electoral Integrity in Africa into future analysis, assessments and policy designs. 
  • Finally, Professor Jørgen Elklit, having served the Kiegler Commission, spoke about his impressions about the outbreak of electoral violence in Kenya. He witnessed firsthand the poor quality of the voting register. Whilst many new voters were registered during 2006 and 2007, more than 25% of the voting age population were not registered, and women and youth were particularly under-registered. Also, many deceased voters (close to 1 million) remained on the voters’ roll and many of them were shown to have voted. Moreover, there were various inconsistencies, and when malpractice and misunderstandings are perceived as rigging, this can result in violence. 
The topic of the second session was on ballot fraud and party agents.
  • Ebrahim Fakir, representing EISA, exposed some recent incidents of electoral fraud in South Africa such as irregular registration in a municipal by-election in Abaqulusi, in northern KwaZulu-Natal; the use of false addresses in Potchefstroom (Tlokwe); and the use of marked ballot boxes filled with ballot papers in Alexandra township.
  • Miguel de Brito, also from EISA, explained that in Mozambique party agents are potentially the most important oversight element in the electoral process, depending on their numbers, powers and access. However, their impact is limited by lack of quality, training, resources, support and commitment. 
  • Naita Hishoono, from the Namibia Institute of Democracy, presented the results of a survey that administered on the 16 political parties that participated and experienced the 2014 election in Namibia. Although some parties did not offer any feedback, a common complaint was the need to clearly delineate the roles of poling staff and police officers on duty at the polling stations. 
  • Tom Mboya, from the Democratic Congress in Kenya, explained how the country has experienced two questionable elections in a row. During both contests, administered by two different EMBs, voting went well, only for the process to collapse at the tallying stage. He emphasised that the recruitment and training of party agents is critical to ensuring the integrity of vote. He also noted that party die-hards and sycophants are not necessarily the answer, but that it is important to invest in party agents and institutionalize their role.
The final session of the day focused on electoral disputes and multi-party liaison committees.
  • MP Haniff Hoosen, from the Democratic Alliance in South Africa, presented his views as he noted that free and fair elections are not an event, but a process leading up to the event. He emphasised that the role of the IEC is key to this. He explained that in his experience, an electoral commission can only function as an institution that facilitates the provisions of democratic systems if it provides the leadership and direction that commands citizens’ respect and trust. It’s alternative is to be reduced to a mere administrative tool on Election Day.
  • Libolly Haufiku, from the Rally for Democracy and Progress in Namibia gave a presentation on his experience on the role of the judiciary. 
  •  This last session was closed with the research on Ghana by Halfdan Lynge-Mangueira from Oxford University. He noted that according to the literature, challenging an African election in court makes little sense, as it is an expensive and time-consuming avenue with few benefits. Although it is very rare for a judiciary to overturn an election, there are examples where this has happened (Kenya 2013, Ghana 2012 and Nigeria 2011). Halfdan’s research looks at the content of such challenges. In total there have been 26 challenges (5% of all elections) parliamentary elections in Ghana go to court. His analysis shows that the probability that elections are challenged is higher when won by an NDC candidate (1.2%-point – recall that only 5% of all elections are challenged); and that the probability that elections are challenged is higher when win-margins are small. In his view, one of the secrets to Ghana’s success is the high level of competition between well-organized parties, decentralization, and delegation of responsibility to the party agents.
Overall, the conference proved to be informative and productive. We will continue collaborating with our African colleagues and with HSF.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

New report: Electoral integrity in Africa

Since its launch in 2012, the Electoral Integrity Project has studied electoral integrity around the world, considering such notions as why electoral integrity matters, why elections fail, and what can be done to address these problems.

A regional focus on Africa

EIP's research programme on Perception of Elections Integrity (PEI) is an ongoing initiative which does not only allow a comparison between countries, but over time will enable us to compare consecutive elections within countries as well as identifying regional trends. Providing an in-depth analysis of recent elections in 28 African countries, this is EIP's first report that presents findings of the study of electoral integrity in a specific region. A continent of great diversity, African elections are under-studied in comparison with Europe or America.

The Hanns Seidel Foundation, a German non-profit organization promoting democracy, good governance and the rule of law across the African continent,  commissioned the report, which was launched in Cape Town on 22 June 2015 by EIP's Ferran Martínez i Coma and Judge Johann Kriegler, former Constitutional Court Judge of the South African Constitutional Court.

The Foundation has welcomed the report, and the PEI index on which the findings are based. Noting that "it is currently the best rating tool available", the Foundation recognises that this is the first attempt to measure electoral integrity across the African continent, and hopes it will stimulate the debate on the integrity of political contests across Africa.

During 2015, Zambia, Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Burundi and Burkina Faso, among others, have voted or are expected to do so. The integrity of the elections is crucial, not only for normative reasons, but for instrumental factors, such as the internal stability of the country, and citizens’ satisfaction with their regimes. We are currently gathering data on those contests and hopefully this will be the first of many reports to come.

Purpose of the report

The purpose of this report is twofold. First, to present the African results of the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity expert surveys, and then to analyse important elements at play in shaping the integrity of African elections. Much attention has been placed on polling day and the immediate administration of elections, but Ferran Martínez i Coma and Max Grömping show that many other elements of the electoral cycle are key to the integrity of the elections. 

Eight main findings:

  1. The degree of threats to electoral integrity is more severe in Africa when compared to the rest of the world.
  2. The types of problems in Africa are similar to those found in the rest of the world. Put simply, there is no African electoral exceptionalism.
  3. The report highlights the fact that elections can fail long before election day, so attention should be paid to the electoral dynamics and institutional quality over the entire election cycle not just election day.
  4. State resources for elections are important, but not determinant.
  5. Difficulties in regulating campaign finance extend across the continent.
  6. The vote count is consistently the highest rated part of the election cycle.
  7. Countries with good overall electoral integrity may still perform poorly in certain dimensions of the electoral cycle, on the other hand, low overall performers may excel in certain dimensions.
  8. Two country case studies of Malawi and Mozambique highlight that countries with similar levels of economic development can have vastly different outcomes of electoral integrity.

Download the report

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

How seriously should we take the opinions of academics and experts when it comes to complicated issues like electoral integrity?

This blog post appeared on LSE's Democratic Audit UK on 9 June 2015.

By Ferran Martínez i Coma and Carolien van Ham

The result of the 2015 General Election came as a surprise for most people, but particularly those in the academic and polling community. But what is the appropriate role for academics in an electoral setting, particularly when it comes to complicated issues like the integrity of electoral contests. Ferran Martinez i Coma and Carolien Van Ham seek to answer this question, and conclude that expert surveys are useful even when treating complex and multi-faceted issues, such as electoral integrity; and even when carried out in institutional settings as different as liberal democracies and electoral autocracies.

Senate House, University of London (Credit: Steve Cadman, CC BY SA 2.0)

For many years, social scientists have been using different databases that measure and classify complex, multidimensional and contested concepts such as democracy, freedom or corruption.

The utility of such data is evident not only for academics but also for the policy and the advocacy community. At a glance, such data summaries the state of democracy or corruption in a country, and position it relative to others with a score or ranking. Yet, such scores are not created in a vacuum. On the contrary, data on multi-dimensional and complex concepts such as democracy, freedom or corruption are normally generated through a process of measurement of multiple indicators and subsequent aggregation of those indicators.

In order to measure complex concepts, we need to gather information about their different elements or components. To do so, researchers could rely on public opinion surveys or information contained in media and other secondary sources. However, the level of complexity and the necessary knowledge to address some issues may not be an easy task. Consider, for example, the electoral management body’s autonomy. While probably the general public is able to have an overall assessment of its performance and also the public may know whether such body is formally dependent of the government or not, it is unlikely that the public know the details of the implications of changes in the autonomy of the electoral management body is violated.

An alternative approach is to measure complex and multidimensional concepts with expert surveys. There are good reasons for the use of expert surveys. First, experts are aware of the specificities of the concrete matter, since they have the knowledge and capacity to grasp the fine details. Moreover, experts may have access to information that citizens do not have access to, potentially providing better data on covert practices such as corruption. Third, they considerably diminish the costs of other polling alternatives. Finally, they have been widely used to study, to mention a few, corruption; democracy and its components; party and policy positioning, the power of prime ministers, evaluations of electoral systems, or policy constraints horizons.

However, expert surveys are not risk free. There are several limitations. The first question has to do with the object of evaluation: do experts judge the same aspects of the concept under study? The second is on the criteria that experts use when judging: do they rely on their expertise, or do they also provide personal views? Third, as expert surveys become more comprehensive and encompassing with more and more diverse experts around the world, it is fair to ask whether they share the same criteria when evaluating concepts or whether their judgments are dependent on the context in which the election take place. Finally, it is also the case that, in contrast to mass surveys, there is still no common methodology to construct expert surveys, nor agreed technical standards and codes of good practice. This is very relevant not only for research but also for policy-makers and practitioners using indices and rankings based on expert surveys.

Given the potential advantages and limitations of expert surveys, in our paper in the European Journal of Political Research (EJPR), we assess the validity of experts’ judgments when judging the integrity of elections. We analyse three sources of bias that may arise in expert evaluations: the object, the experts and the context. These sources of bias are applicable to almost all expert surveys. First, the object of evaluation may be defined and perceived differently by different experts. Election integrity is a complex, multifaceted concept, and different experts may emphasise different aspects, ranging from media bias to election violence. Second, experts may differ, both in their level of expertise as well as in their degree of political neutrality. Third, contexts may differ – that is, expert evaluations may be context-bound, limiting the capacity of both concepts and data to ‘travel’.

We test these three sources of bias and evaluate expert judgment validity using a new dataset on expert perceptions of election integrity, the Perceptions on Electoral Integrity (PEI) that asks experts to evaluate 49 specific indicators of election integrity. This database includes 49 variables measuring 11 dimensions of electoral integrity over the electoral cycle. The survey encompasses the full electoral cycle, ranging from the pre-electoral period, the campaign, to polling day and its aftermath, as outlined by the United Nations. The PEI data currently has responses of over 800 experts on 66 parliamentary and presidential elections that took place in 2012 and 2013, covering countries as diverse as Angola, Kuwait, Malaysia and Norway.

An expert is defined as a political scientist (or social scientist in a related discipline) who has published or who has other demonstrated knowledge of the electoral process in a particular country. By ‘demonstrated knowledge’ PEI understands one of the following criteria:

(1) membership of a relevant research group, professional network, or organised section of such a group;

(2) existing publications on electoral or other country-specific topics in books, academic journals, or conference papers;

(3) employment at a university or college as a researcher or professor.

For each election, the PEI survey identified and contacted around forty experts, seeking balance between domestic and international experts. When the number of available domestic experts was limited, as was the case in some developing countries, PEI relies more on international experts.

There are three main findings of our research. First, considering the object of evaluation, we find that questions of a factual nature generate lower deviation in expert judgments than more evaluative questions. We also find evidence that questions that are more difficult to answer, either because the issues are technical or because the information might not be publicly available (i.e. voter registration, campaign finance) generate higher deviation in expert judgments.

Second, when we analyse the heterogeneity of the experts, we argue that they may differ both in their level of expertise as well as in their degree of neutrality. We find that having a high level of knowledge about the election (as indicated by the number of questions answered and age) is not significant in predicting expert variance. However, having strong ideological preferences appears to affect variance between experts. This result underscores the importance of careful selection of experts as well as the consideration of their partisan background.

Third, we also study whether the context –the election they assess and the country in which they are living- impacts experts’ judgments. Among all the factors we include to capture context, almost none seems to impact the variation of expert judgments. The only element that seems to matter is the ideological polarisation between experts, increasing the variability of expert judgments.

Concluding, our overall results demonstrate that expert surveys are useful even when treating complex and multi-faceted issues, such as electoral integrity; and even when carried out in institutional settings as different as liberal democracies and electoral autocracies.

There are several implications from our research both for policy as well as for future research. First, our findings demonstrate the importance of testing the validity of expert surveys prior to using these data for substantive analyses, so that validity problems can be identified and dealt with. Second, our findings underscore the importance of careful selection of experts and taking into account their partisan background when collecting expert survey data. Third, the widespread use of indices based on expert survey data, such as indices on corruption and democracy, by policy-makers and practitioners, underscores the need for developing technical standards and codes of good practice for gathering data using expert surveys.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit or the LSE. 

Dr Ferran Martínez i Coma is a Research Associate at the Electoral Integrity Project at the University of Sydney. Prior to this position, he was a Technical Adviser for elections for the General Direction of Interior Policy of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, in Madrid, Spain.

Carolien Van Ham is a Lecturer in Politics at University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

How to regulate the messengers? Insights from electoral media coverage in Portugal

By Carla Luis, May 26, 2015

Carla Luis is a researcher at CES - University of Coimbra, Portugal, and acknowledges the research grant from FCT SFRH/BD/79096/2011. More info available here

Media coverage is one of the critical issues worldwide when it comes to electoral integrity. According to “The Year in Elections, 2014”, recently released by The Electoral Integrity Project, media coverage scores only 60 points in a total of possible 100. 

International standards regarding the media have been developed by institutions such as UNESCO, The Council of Europe and OSCE, among others. While there is a wide margin for each state to regulate the issue, equal, impartial and non-discriminatory treatment is shared as a common benchmark. This is due to the prominent role of the media, being balanced information and impartiality important standards regarding election coverage. An impartial and independent body should also be appointed to monitor these issues. 

Portugal is probably not an exception on media coverage challenges and there is a public debate on this issue going on at the moment. The Portuguese electoral system for parliamentary elections is proportional, with D’Hondt method. There are 230 seats, divided among 22 multi-member constituencies. Parliamentary representation is usually achieved by about six parties, varying according to the political situation, with many more registered political parties, though not all running for each election. 

Facing a severe economic crisis, with external financial interventions, Portugal is a political exception in Europe in two specific aspects: no extreme right-wing party has emerged, nor a new left wing one has been able to capitalise the crisis discontentment. The two major political parties are again competing for power in what seems to be a tight race. However, new political parties have been created in the recent times, especially on the left, some with quite charismatic political actors. With no threshold, there is an effective chance that these small parties can elect members for the parliament, particularly in big constituencies, typically in urban areas. At this level the competition is also high. These two aspects, combined, can increase the importance of the media coverage for the upcoming elections. 

Portugal has a strong regulatory framework on elections. The Portuguese Constitution establishes the general principles of electoral law (art. 113), foreseeing “equal opportunities and treatment for all candidatures” during the campaigns (n. 3, b), being this further replicated in each electoral law. It binds not only public entities but also the media, within the electoral period (about two months before the election day). Paid advertising is forbidden and a limited free airtime period is provided to all candidacies, on an equal basis, during two weeks before the election (the official campaign period). The EMB, the National Electoral Commission (NEC) is the responsible body for media monitoring in the electoral period, i.e., from 60 days before the election takes place. This in line with common international standards, following regulatory patterns of countries such as Germany or France, towards equal treatment or equal opportunities on access to the media. 

Nevertheless, and despite the clear regulatory framework, if we look at the media coverage in the last 2011 parliamentary elections, namely news coverage time that televisions devote to each party, the figures seem to follow a pattern.

Table 1: Total time of news coverage to each party by RTP, public tv broadcast company, in the 2011 electoral period. Source: NEC, Portugal

Table 2: Total time of news coverage to each party by TVI, private tv broadcast company, in the 2011 electoral period. Source: NEC, Portugal

Table 3: Total time of news coverage to each party by TVI, private tv broadcast company, in the 2011 electoral period. Source: NEC, Portugal 

Looking at these tables, the question arises: is this the desired outcome and is this compatible with the general principle for equal media coverage? Is an equal level playing field being ensured to all competing parties? If the essence of elections is to provide freedom of choice, are citizens being duly informed of their available options? Should parties even be omitted from a 60-day media coverage period? Probably, the answer is no and the EMB has already raised the issue for several times.

The Council of Europe Guidelines for media coverage emphasize that in a PR system with low threshold “the case for equal access is stronger”, giving The Netherlands as an example[1]. Furthermore, regardless of the regulatory framework, the result to achieve should be a fair and balanced broadcast, with equal access for political parties. These would be specific obligations impeding on the media during the electoral period. 

Nevertheless, despite the clear legal framework, Portuguese media have been arguing that the existing regulation is too strict, as journalists are already bound by deontological codes of conduct (differently from media companies) and media freedom should prevail. But the question remains: are these outcomes of campaign coverage acceptable? 

It would probably help if we could place these questions within the electoral context, looking at the broader interests at stake. Media coverage has a paramount importance for fair and balanced elections, allowing voters and citizens to have an informed freedom of choice. 

Therefore, when looking at the Portuguese case, even changing the law will not change the principle and the need for balanced media coverage remains, also deriving from international standards. Furthermore, if with a strong regulatory framework the result is the above, one may wonder what the outcome of a non-regulated scenario would be. In 2015, with new entrants on the political area, many of them being small parties competing for the first time, and the tight competition scenario among the biggest parties, the demand may be higher regarding fair media coverage.

Regardless of the law, equal treatment by the media is foreseen by the Portuguese Constitution and also arises from international standards[2]. Equal opportunities to compete for power may well be the essence of elections, nowadays with the key role of the media. Broader public interests are at stake. Effective balanced media coverage during the electoral period will always be needed. Contrary to the excess of regulation argument, the OSCE 2009 Observation Mission even noted that the legal framework would lack a timely enforcement mechanism applicable to the media. So, maybe the answer is not amending the law towards a less regulated framework. 

Nevertheless, media coverage regulation being currently discussed at the Parliament, with a fierce opposition from media companies, threatening to boycott the campaign coverage, which already led to the withdrawal of a proposal presented by the major political parties. There is uncertainty regarding this outcome but the pressure is high and public debate rarely goes beyond the media perspective. 

With parliamentary elections taking place this autumn and presidential in the beginning of 2016, the scenario of potential legal reform is risky. It is already too close to the elections, and the strong opposition from the media may lead competing parties not to challenge their de facto power in the eve of two much disputed electoral cycles. The consequences of this tense context are still to be seen, but legal reforms in these scenarios are rarely desirable. 

It is probably for a reason that media coverage remains a problem worldwide. In nowadays mediated societies, no one seems to be willing to oppose powerful media and even the public debate seems to be misplaced. In the meantime, broader aspects like the public interest, the right to information and to be informed, pluralism, equal opportunities and fair access to the media seem to be missing from this very mediated discussion. Framing the debate on the specific electoral context could help to achieve a balanced answer, combining broader aspects at stake.

In the meantime, the quest for balanced media coverage remains. In the eve of crucial electoral processes, it is still to be seen who can successfully regulate the messengers. 


[1] Media and Elections Handbook. Council of Europe. 1999, p. 32, available at

[2] For instance, see the Council of Europe, in Resolution 1636 (2008), “Indicators for media in a democracy”, state that “political parties and candidates must have fair and equal access to the media. Their access to media shall be facilitated during election campaigns” (8.5).

Friday, 22 May 2015

Good elections in bad times: The Tunisian case

Alessandro Nai, May 21, 2015

The Lisbon Forum met in Tunis 28-29 April 2015 to discuss “Financing electoral campaigns: a challenge for the electoral processes in the countries of the Southern Mediterranean.” The event sought to understand the role of money in electoral politics in order to formulate concrete proposals which met the requirements of a democratic, transparent and equal electoral process.

Tunisia, cradle of the Arab Uprisings, is facing a hard time. Even though its economy seems on the way to full recovery and international investors and funds seem rather supportive, the country is still facing some major social challenges. Tunisia is often described a particularly fertile breeding ground for ISIS fighters, and by some estimates Tunisian fighters in Syria and Iraq greatly outnumber those of other countries and regions. Beyond the drama of the event itself, the deadly attack of the Bardo Museum in Tunis on March 18th revived the fear of a decline in tourism-related incomes, extremely important for the country's economy. Especially in a context where tourism was slowly recovering from the turmoil of the Arab Spring, the Bardo attacks will undoubtedly have severe repercussions for the fragile economy. Even if the Tunisian society is undoubtedly more tolerant and avant-garde than some of its neighbours about women rights, gender-related violence is still high in the country, and over the last four years since the 2011 revolution unrests and public outburst of violence have been rather common.

Against this background, the country has recently experienced one of the most significant social and political transformations of the decade, following a series of substantial political reforms. These led to the ratification of the 2014 Tunisian Constitution. The legislative elections on October 26th 2014 and the presidential election on November 23rd and December 21st 2014 were important tests for the transition from autocracy, and they were closely scrutinized by the actors of the political, civil and academic society.

Citizens were somewhat suspicious about the Tunisian electoral process in the months prior to the October-December contests. This can be illustrated by Tunisian data from the sixth wave of the World Value Surveys, based on a representative sample of 1,205 Tunisian respondents surveyed in 2013 (margin of error +/- 2.74%). The results show that a clear majority of Tunisians estimates that violence is a threat at the polls, that only about half of the respondents thought that votes in elections are counted fairly and that voters are offered a genuine choice (Table 1). At the same time, about the majority of respondents think that election officials are fair, and that journalists provide fair coverage of elections.

Table 1

How often in country’s elections…
Fairly or very often
Not or not at all often
Voters are threatened with violence at the polls
Opposition candidates are prevented from running
Voters are not offered a genuine choice in the elections
Votes are not counted fairly
Journalists do not provide fair coverage of elections
Voters are bribed
Rich people buy elections
Election officials are not fair
TV news favours the governing party
Source: World Value Surveys, 6th wave (2010-2014), N=1205 (original wording reversed for some items to ensure comparability)

This relative distrust comes as no surprise given the tormented recent history of Tunisian democracy.

What is more surprising, perhaps, is that expert indicators measuring the quality of the 2014 elections show relatively positive evaluations. As presented in the Electoral Integrity Project 2014 Year In Elections Report, experts in the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity index (PEI) rated the recent Tunisian elections quite favourably: in comparison with the 127 elections surveyed since June 2012, the Tunisian elections rank at respectively the 25th (presidential election, second run) and 34th position (legislative election) from the top. The overall quality of electoral procedures and laws, the role of EMBs, vote counting and party and candidate registration flirts with the one of well-established democracies such as Norway, Sweden and Germany. Only the financing of electoral campaigns was rated more poorly (57 on a 0-100 scale for both elections).

To provide a more grounded comparison, recent elections in Algeria (presidential election, April 2014) and Egypt (presidential election, May 2014), both countries who share with Tunisia a recent past of political and social turmoil, rank respectively 103rd and 115th on the PEI data. Within this context, « Tunisia stands out as a beacon of hope for democracy » (EIP, The Year in Elections 2014, p. 21).

The Tunisian case illustrates some of the factors that can enforce (or depress) electoral integrity. Data gathered within the Electoral Integrity Project allow for cross-sectional comparison between countries, and they are able to show that some strong dynamics are at play. For instance (see Figure 1 below), there is a strong correlation between electoral integrity (as measures via the PEI index) and the stock of democracy that, roughly, measures the « length of time [a country…] has been democratic from 1972 to 2010 » (EIP, The Year in Elections 2014, p. 13).

This being the case, overall patterns do not prevent the existence of outlier cases, and the most recent Tunisian elections clearly fall into this situation. Having roughly the same historical stock of democracy as Egypt and Algeria, Tunisia reaches a score of electoral integrity that goes beyond such patterns, one of the only real outliers among the 107 countries surveyed. The Tunisian case stands out as an exception even more when compared with countries having a stronger democratic traditions but having performed more poorly in the recent elections in terms of integrity such as, to name just the most prominent example, United States.

Participants at the event

The North-South Centre, financed by the European Union and implemented by the Council of Europe, organized the meeting in Tunis, following an official invitation from the Tunisian authorities.

The Electoral Integrity Project provided the keynote speech opening the meeting. Officially representing the EIP, Dr. Alessandro Nai gave a speech on the definition, components and implications of electoral integrity. The talk introduced the audience to the innovative approach of the EIP to measure electoral integrity, and provided a focus on the recent Tunisian elections.

The participation at the Forum was an excellent opportunity for the EIP to strengthen its ties with the policy stakeholders involved in electoral monitoring and engineering. Participants, coming from the civil and political society, showed unmasked eagerness to know more about the project, the proposed comparative measure of electoral integrity, and the prescriptive work that awaits the EIP in the upcoming months. The keynote speech was, furthermore, widely covered in the national press in Tunisia, and beyond.

Other participants at the initial introductory sessions were Mohamed EZZINE CHLEYFA (Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs of the Tunisian Republic), Jean-Marie HEYDT (President of the Executive Committee of the North-South Centre of the Council of Europe), and Lora BORISSOVA (Democracy and Election observation, European External Action Service (EEAS), European Union). Later sessions saw the participation of, among many others, of Richard GHEVONTIAN (Member of the Venice Commission, Aix-Marseille University, France), Andreas GROSS (Member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Head of the PACE delegation for the observation of 2014 legislative elections in Tunisia, former Chair of the Council of democratic elections - Venice Commission), Lamiaa KALAWI (Regional Coordinator – Middle East and North Africa Region, Transparency International), Dr. Mohammad AL-MASALHAH (Commissioner, Independent Election Commission, Amman – Jordan), Isabel MENCHON LOPEZ (Focal point for Human Rights defenders & for Election Observation, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Spain), and Dr Quentin REED (Anti-corruption/ Governance Consultant).

Whether the experience of Tunisia can be consolidated and deepened further in subsequent contests, and whether the lessons spread to other fragile and poorer neighbouring states in the region, remains to be seen in these turbulent times. The new Tunisian government seems eager to prove to the world, and especially its neighbours, that the country is on the right path. The meeting of the newly elected President, Mr. Essebsi, with representatives of the US government is Washington on May 21st testifies of its good will to reinforce strategic partnerships with important allies, against the backdrop of tense relationships with some of its neighbours. Only time will tell if the 2014 elections were a clear turning point in Tunisian political and social history.