Monday, 30 December 2013

Thailand’s opposition rejects elections

Anti-government protesters at Bangkok’s Victory Monument (Source: Prachatai)

Max Grömping

30 December 2013

A wave of recent protests has brought a backlash of the elites against popularly elected (and perhaps populist) governments around the world, as shown from Egypt and Turkey to the Ukraine and Thailand. Driven by typical middle class angst of the numerical superiority of “uneducated” masses, these protests sometimes have elements of a democratic rollback.

Thailand exemplifies a country roiled by mass protests against elections.  Demonstrations in Bangkok have drawn increasing numbers onto the street during recent months.  In mid-October 2013, the government led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra hastily rammed an amnesty bill through the lower house of parliament. This would have absolved corruption charges against the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's brother. The government quickly backed down in the face of protest and the amnesty bill was subsequently killed by the Senate. Nevertheless the protests were transformed into a wholesale condemnation of the government, with the goal of completely uprooting the “Thaksin regime”. Protesters forced the capital to a virtual standstill on 22 December 2013, with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators convening around the city.

The current wave of protest is the latest installment of the ongoing struggle between Thailand's yellow and red political camps. Anti-government and pro-government forces face each other across this color-coded divide of regional, ideological and class differences (see this article by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker, and a recent survey conducted by the Asia Foundation).  

The anti-government forces  

The anti-government demonstrators are a reincarnation of the yellow-shirted movement that first brought Thaksin's government to its knees by sustained urban protests and a military coup d’état in 2006. Although currently an alliance of diverse groups, the backbone of the yellow movement rests on the Bangkok middle class and Thais from the upper southern provinces. The capital’s middle classes, who have dominated Thai politics since the 1960s and prospered disproportionately from the country’s economic success, feel threatened by the growing aspirations of rural citizens and urban poor, who have turned out in mass at the polls to support Thaksin’s popular policies - such as universal healthcare, micro loans, or guaranteed rice prices. The middle classes have nothing but disdain for their rural compatriots of the upper North and Northeast, whose cultural and linguistic roots are predominately Lao and Lanna, while many Bangkokians view themselves as the true holders of “Thainess”.

The South on the other hand is the traditional stronghold of the opposition Democrat party, who first reluctantly joined the protests but has now been completely absorbed by them. When all Democrat MPs resigned from parliament on 8 December 2013 to join the protests, Yingluck was quick to dissolve parliament and call a snap election for 2 February 2014.

This was the sensible move for Yingluck. Her governing Phuea Thai party won the latest 2011 election in a landslide. Previous Thaksinite parties have dominated the electoral arena since 2001. The mass resignation of Democrat MPs seemed counterproductive, given that the party had failed to succeed at any election since the 1990s. But their goal was not a new election but rather the transfer of legislative powers to an unelected “People’s Council”, to be comprised of members of occupational associations, academics, and “respected figures from society”. This proposal drew severe criticism from academic circles but it resonates well with the demonstrators and some strata of Thai society. The protesters reject the upcoming election and want it postponed for 18 months, while the electoral system is reformed and corruption rooted out under the auspices of the “People’s Council” as caretaker government.

Resigned-Democrat MP Suthep Thaugsuban has become the unlikely leader of this protest movement. His anti-corruption rhetoric and talk of replacing degenerated politicians with “good people” resonates well with many followers, who have deeply rooted beliefs in virtuous leadership, going all the way back to notions of what Thongchai Winichakul terms “royalist democracy”. There is a certain irony in the fact that a former southern “provincial godfather”, a machine politician with his own impressive track record of corruption charges, is the figure that middle classes coalesce around.

Thai prime minister Yingluck Sinawatra (left) and protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban (Source:

The pro-government forces

They are pitted against the red-shirted movement, a coalition of groups broadly in support of the ousted prime minister (in self-imposed exile since 2008) and his proxy parties.  On this side of the political divide, one can find an array of groups that date back to the military coup of 2006 (see Nick Nostitz’ “Red vs. Yellow” Part 1 and Part 2). First formed in defense of Thaksin’s government and solidifying around their rejection of the coup, the red shirts have since evolved into a considerable mass movement, with their stronghold in the Northern and Northeastern parts of the country. Broadly aligned with the Phuea Thai party and previous Thaksin proxy parties, there are nevertheless groups within the movement that do not unequivocally support the ex-premier. A subsection of red shirts turned out to protests against the amnesty bill in October 2013. In addition to absolving Thaksin, it would have also granted immunity to the perpetrators of the 2010 military crackdown on redshirt protesters in Bangkok, which left more than 90 people dead.

Yet, progressive elements within the red shirts that demand an end to impunity and actually rejected the amnesty bill are a clear minority. The majority, under the leadership of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), promptly converged on Bangkok in October 2013 to support Yingluck’s government and staged their own counter-rally in reaction to Suthep’s demonstrations. The location of this counter-rally – Rajamangala stadium in eastern Bangkok – was the site of the first bloodshed of this round of protests, when local anti-government protesters and students clashed with the pro-government redshirts gathering in the stadium. Five people remained dead in the street.

The protests escalated further when the anti-government demonstrators occupied several ministries and forced TV stations to air Suthep’s speeches in November 2013. Yingluck’s government showed restraint and even yielded ministry grounds to the protesters for some time. This incapacitated parts of the administration and has been called a “people’s coup”. Through all this, the military and the courts refused to intervene on behalf of the yellow side (as they had done several times before). Previous experiences had shown that a violent counter-backlash from the red shirts would ensue.

Chaotic scenes as anti-government protesters storm the site of party-list candidate registration in Bangkok on 26 December 2013 (Source: Phuket Gazette)

To elect or not to elect?

The core of the conflict now rotates around the issue of the election, scheduled for 2 February 2014.  The red side supports the polls – partly out of their principled faith in the electoral process, and in parts due to the fact that they know they will win.   Yet the anti-government side (including the Democrat party) is firmly aligned against it. Suthep’s protesters demand the immediate resignation of Yingluck and the transfer of power to the above-mentioned “People’s Council”. They consequently sabotage the preparations for the election by blocking venues for candidate registration in Bangkok and several southern provinces. Clashes with the police who tried to protect the registration venues have led to further loss of life, with at least one police officer and one protester dead.

The Democrat party decided to boycott the election and will not field any candidates at all. They claim practices of widespread vote-buying, candidate-buying and the overall moral corruption of elected politicians. They hold that the principle of “one person, one vote” is not appropriate for Thailand, given the impact of money politics and a lack of education. By the latter, they tellingly mean the supposedly uneducated rural supporters of Thaksin and Yingluck.

But this logic is based on a counter-factual argument, because observers have deemed recent elections in Thailand to be comparatively free and fair, and the impact of vote-buying has diminished since the 1990s. While monetary gifts to voters are still the norm for all political parties in Thailand, their impact on voters’ actual choices is disputed. This skewed view of electoral malpractices is well in line with recent research that suggests that those affiliated with the losing side are much more likely to perceive flaws in elections.

In addition, the protesters’ discourse has turned to “populism” and “policy corruption” as useful memes. Thaksin’s and Yingluck’s popular policies have mobilized the rural voters, who now see that their vote can make a clear difference. The middle classes see their political dominance threatened by the numerical strength of these Northern and Northeastern voters, supposedly “bought” by particularistic election promises. The Democrat party has unsuccessfully tried to counter this appeal by launching very similar policy platforms in the 2011 election. Yet, they have failed to bridge the gap to Thaksin’s supporters, given the growing chasm of identity politics. This also highlights the failure of Thailand’s party system to implement any kind of internal party democracy. Most parties have not become vehicles for citizens to voice their grievances within an electoral framework. As a consequence, the Democrats boycott the upcoming election, meaning that Thailand’s oldest party and only viable opposition force has completely relinquished the electoral arena in favor of street politics.

Finally, the protesters voice legitimate grievances over endemic corruption and a lack of checks and balances in what they call the “Thaksin regime” or “electocracy”. Knowing that they cannot win at the polls, the focus has shifted to calls for institutions of horizontal accountability to keep the legislature in check and to protect minority interests. These usually consist of independent courts, anti-corruption commissions or ombudsmen, and in the Thai case, the Senate. Unfortunately, most of these institutions have become thoroughly politicized in Thailand and lack the ethos of impartiality, or the loyalty to the constitution which is arguably required of such bodies. One reason for this might be found in the fact that Thailand has had 17 constitutions since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932. This is derided in a common joke that claims that the text of the constitutions can be found in the “periodicals” section of any library. While these grievances may be substantively legitimate, the talk of a “parliamentary dictatorship” that follows them obscures the fact that most of these institutional checks and balances are already politically tilted in favor of the yellow shirt camp.

Cover of Matichon Weekly newspaper (edition of 27 Dec. 2013 – 2 Jan. 2014) and billboard in Bangkok asking whether “Thaug chooses, or election chooses?”, referring to Suthep Thaugsuban’s nickname (Source:

Elections exacerbating the conflict?

 In Thailand, this dissent is squarely aimed at electoral democracy as a political process. The disparate discourses of both sides, each caught in their own partisan media bubble, have led to a divisive climate in which elections are unlikely to produce a government whose legitimacy is accepted by all stakeholders. Some even voice concerns that the continued divisiveness and lack of a common ground might lead into further violence, and that even a civil war is no longer unthinkable. An ominous “third hand”, commonly referred to in Thai street politics, is blamed for attacking protest guards at night, possibly trying to provoke the military to step in to “restore order”.

The opposition movement vows to shut down candidate registration and to sabotage the election in every way possible. If they manage to do so in a sufficient number of constituencies to prevent 5% of seats being filled, parliament could not convene. This might finalize the crisis of state and bring about the military intervention that the protesters possibly hope for. Meanwhile, the red side pledges support for the electoral process and threatens collective action in support of the government. The Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) appears unwilling or unable to take a decisive stance to fulfill its mandate and go ahead with the election. Regional election officials in the South are already resigning in frustration over the ongoing hindrances, or perhaps in a move to derail the election themselves. So it seems indeed plausible that the polls might worsen the political conflict. Instead of channeling political forces into a peaceful electoral contest for national power, they instead provide the fuse that might ignite the powder-keg that is Thailand. If they go ahead, the yellow side will reject the results, if they are cancelled, the red side will be infuriated.

An impartial and professional assessment of the quality of the election is thus needed more than ever. Yet there is a void of high-quality domestic election observers in Thailand, unlike in neighboring Cambodia or Malaysia, where civil society has built strong capacities to keep an eye on the electoral process. The only domestic Thai watchdog, the NGO Poll Watch Foundation, has shrunk to near insignificance following the 2011 election. Compared with large domestic observation efforts in neighboring countries, Poll Watch’s observation team of only 700 seemed ill-suited to provide extensive coverage. Interestingly, the organizations former chairperson, Somchai Srisuthiyakorn, is now one of Thailand's five election commissioners, calling for a postponement of the election. Meanwhile, the only other source of independent observation, the regional monitoring network ANFREL, struggles with constraints of manpower and funding, leaving only partisan observers to keep watch.

Even if such an independent assessment could be provided, perhaps by involving ordinary citizens in crowd-sourced monitoring of the polls, it is unlikely to convince the current protesters of the legitimacy of the election. The ongoing political conflict requires first a broad alliance for what some call a new social contract, a negotiated settlement on broadly accepted rules of the game. But absent this, the election is likely to inflame the political division of the country and lead to further violence.

Max Grömping
Bangkok, 30 December 2013

Max Grömping is a researcher for the Electoral Integrity Project at the University of Sydney. His current research focuses on the role of social media and domestic observers on electoral integrity. Prior to this, he lectured at Thammasat University, Thailand. 
Contact: max.groemping[at]

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Electoral authoritarianism in retreat? (The 2013 Cambodian Election, Part 3)

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (right) meets with opposition leader Sam Rainsy (AP/Heng Sinith)

After massive post-election protests Cambodia is still embroiled in a political deadlock, four months after the 28 July election. Some argue that it is time for the opposition CNRP to give up unrealistic demands of thorough investigation of the allegations of electoral fraud in favor of a longer term strategy of electoral reform via the provided institutional channels. Others see Hun Sen's long reign drawing to a close.

This short journalistic piece on the election aftermath, published in SocDem Asia Quarterly, tries to draw some conclusions from the observation of massive manipulations and civil society monitoring during the election. The article suggests that the ruling party's tactics  - the use of registration fraud and media monopolization instead of outright election-day cheating or violent repression - hint that the CPP still has a long time horizon and therefore wants to refrain from overly visible and severe electoral manipulation. The party appears to think about the future, and does not see a very immediate threat to its continued rule. 

Nevertheless, in the end fraud was exposed (not least due to the large-scale mobilization of domestic observers), so electoral authoritarianism might therefore still be alive and kicking in Cambodia; and 'second-order' uncertainties to regime survival continue to be relatively modest. 

It remains to be seen whether the opposition can make constructive use of its slightly widened political space and the continued impetus of a disaffected and politicized youth movement to achieve substantial reforms.

Read the SocDem Asia Quarterly  article here.

Max Grömping, 28 November 2013, Sydney

Friday, 18 October 2013

World's elections bodies launch new partnership

(A-WEB Secretariat in Songdo, Republic of Korea)

From October 14th to the 17th representatives of over 140 election management bodies (EMBs) from Afghanistan to Zambia, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations attended two of the most important events this year for those interested in increasing electoral integrity. The opening of the Association of World Electoral Bodies (A-WEB) was held on October 14th, and the sixth meeting of the Global Election Organization Conference (GEO) took place from October 15th to 17th.  

A-WEB opens 

Monday saw the inaugural assembly of A-WEB. Two years in the making, A-WEB is a new international organization of ninety-four (so far) election management bodies and a number of non-governmental partner organizations. It is hosted by South Korea and has ambitions to be a major international hub of enhancing coordination and knowledge sharing amongst election organizations.

Monday afternoon saw video congratulations from the President of the Republic of Korea and the UN Secretary General Ban Kee Moon. The Chairman of the Korean Election Commission Lee In-Bok also spoke after he was appointed Secretary General. 

A-WEB is being hosted in the new (and amazing) city of Songdo built on reclaimed land and still very much in the process of being built. We were given a tour of the A-WEB building on Monday morning, which overlooks Songdo Central Park. 

A constant refrain heard from the heads of EMBs at GEO was encouragement for A-WEB's mission and the necessity for a strong and robust organization. While it seems at this stage to still be in the process of being formed, next year's meeting in the Dominican Republic should see a more developed organization with an established mission.

The short video below shows a bit about the ambitious goals behind the establishment of A-WEB.

GEO conference

The theme of this year's GEO conference was "Sustainable Electoral Processes, Strengthened Democracy." GEO conferences are held every two years (the last taking place in Botswana in 2011). Since its inception in 1999, it has grown rapidly from only a few dozen participants to over 300 this year. The goal is to share experiences, enhance networking opportunities, and encourage capacity building and the sharing of best practices. Also important was the knowledge fair and the presentations from international and non-governmental organizations from the UNDP to IFES, International Crisis Group, and International IDEA.

One presentation that I was excited to attend was a Wednesday morning session where representatives from International IDEA presented their new Electoral Risk Management Tool. International IDEA's ERM tool allows EMBs to consider election risk factors, customize the interface to the risk factors that are relevant to their case and then draw risk maps and implement preventative actions and conduct post-election analysis. It has already been piloted in Kenya and Bosnia-Herzegovina and plans are underway to implement it in upcoming elections in Namibia, Libya, and Nepal.

I present on EIP's Perceptions of Electoral Integrity database

On Thursday, I had the honor of presenting our PEI database on a panel chaired by Lee Jong-Woo, Vice-Chairperson of the Korean National Election Commission. Other presentations were made by Emeritus Professor Rafael Lopez Pintor from the University Autonomous Madrid and Avery Davis-Roberts from the Carter Center. I gave a preview of the goals of the Electoral Integrity Project, how it might encourage systematic understanding of electoral processes and the nature of electoral integrity and threats to it. I also presented empirical results from our pilot data that are described in a forthcoming (October 2013) article in the Journal of Democracy. There was extensive recordings of the event, and hopefully videos of the presentations will be made publicly available. If so, I will update this post with links.

All in all a productive and fascinating conference--one where I had the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with the people tasked with running elections around the world. Now for the flight back to Sydney!

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Join us at APSA

We welcome those of you heading to Chicago to join us at our one day pre-APSA workshop on emerging challenges to electoral integrity. 

The complete program and the papers being presented can be found on the Electoral Integrity Project's website here.

The workshop runs from 10:00am to 6:45 pm on Wednesday August 28, 2013 at the Hilton Chicago, Floor 3, PDR 2.  

The workshop is co-sponsored by the APSA Organized Section on Elections, Public Opinion and Voting Behavior (EPOVB), the IPSA RC23 Elections, Citizens and Parties section and the Electoral Integrity Project (University of Sydney and Harvard University) and co-organized by Pippa Norris and Rich Frank.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Cambodian civil society keeps an eye on the election amidst widespread irregularities (The 2013 Cambodian Election, Part 2)

Calmer minds supposedly emerged from a one-day cooling period, and Cambodians took to the polls on July 28, 2013. 123 seats of the national assembly were contested in 24 provinces (called ‘constituencies’ in Cambodia). Voting day started at 7am, with lines already forming in many places before polls opened. In 19,009 polling stations throughout the country, voting concluded at 3:00pm, followed by the counting process and polling station results posted outside each station from as early as 6 pm in some placesAfter the opposition leader hastily withdrew an early letter in which he claimed the win for CNRP, Hun Sen’s CPP called their own preliminary results around 8pm. According to these CPP results, the ruling party won 68 seats, leaving 55 to the opposition. The mainstream media followed the CPP's lead, and later that night COMFREL concluded their Parallel Vote Tabulation with similar results (67 to 56 seats). Official tallies were at that time still being consolidated at the commune and later at the constituency (provincial) level.

I would like to leave it to more qualified observers to discuss the political implication of this huge opposition gain and the different scenarios that had already been speculated about before. While the opposition has already rejected the results, the coming days will show how things fall into place. Rather, I will focus this blog post on the diverse monitoring efforts set up before the election in a multilateral effort towards accurately depicting the conduct of the election and preventing election-day fraud.

The Situation Room

Cambodian civil society mobilized an impressive number of volunteer election monitors. The DHRAC had deployed 2,000 observers, the Khmer Youth Association (KYA) fielded 700 people, TIC/CISA provided 900 observers, joined by NICFEC,’s contingent of 3,000. The largest group was deployed by COMFREL with 10,000 short-term observers (STOs) and 250 long-term observers (LTOs). These combined ca. 15,000 observers could not cover all of the 19,009 polling stations, but there was still a considerable chance that any malpractice would be noticed.

In order to coordinate the diverse election monitoring efforts, COMFREL established a situation room on July 26th - a best practice they had adopted after a personnel exchange with several African observer NGOs. The aim of such a set-up is to serve as an information-sharing platform for diverse electoral stakeholders, facilitate real-time evidence-based analysis, and enable rapid response to problems of electoral process. In an ideal scenario, the latter goal is achieved by cooperating closely with election management bodies (EMBs) and security forces and by inviting them to join the situation room. While monitoring incoming reports from STOs or from citizens via phone and social media, and disseminating them to the public in regular press conferences, the information should also be shared on a continuous basis with decision-makers of state agencies with an appropriate mandate to take action. This model cuts short communication times and is meant to clear up what one could call “the fog of election day” (freely adopted after Clausewitz’s phrase "Fog of War", describing the difficulty of decision-making during conflict). 

Source: author

Pioneered by PAFFREL and others, situation rooms have worked reasonably well in Sierra Leone or Nigeria, and the turnout for COMFREL’s effort was huge. A coalition of 30 different NGOs attended and shared their observations with the media and international organizations such as ANFREL, the EU, UNHCR, OSCE/ODIHR, La Francophonie and others. Yet, the concept did not come to full fruition in Cambodia due to several factors: 

1. No participation of the NEC and security forces

The motto “together in the situation room” was unfortunately misleading, because neither the NEC nor any other state agencies deemed it necessary to attend. The NEC instead set up its own press tent and briefed the mainstream media and an observation team from the International Conference of Asian Political Parties – which, by the way, glowingly endorsed the election after being invited by the CPP.

While this came as no surprise, given the generally dismissive and disinterested stance of the Cambodian EMB, nevertheless this crucial ingredient highlights the situation room's shortcomings. For instance, when it was revealed that the indelible ink employed for the election could be easily and completely washed off with household detergents, no NEC representatives were present to respond to the problem or even present a counter view. In fact, the NEC had invited political party representatives and observers for an official testing of the ink – only to be absent when the results were discussed. The situation room committee took great lengths not to antagonize the NEC too much, instead stressing that the information was meant to help the election administration address this crucial problem, and to increase the transparency of the whole process for voters.

Similarly, when bloated voter lists, over-production of ballots (about 27% more ballots than needed) and over-issuance of temporary Identification Certificates for Election (ICEs) to Vietnamese voters were alleged in the situation room, there was no reaction from the NEC.What can any observation effort realistically achieve under such adverse circumstances? It certainly highlights the fact that models like the “citizen co-production” or “co-governance” of elections as a public service is only possible when there is a ‘willing’ EMB, ready and able to participate. While the above factors put serious constraints on the functioning of the situation room as a direct link between observers (foreign and domestic) and the state it nevertheless did generate a platform of information-sharing among the watchdog organizations. Parallel joint debriefings of all involved observer groups also served this aim.

Video evidence on the (not so) indelible ink is presented (Source: author)

2. Cambodian mainstream media ignored the situation room

Although turnout was huge, and even increased significantly on election-day, Cambodian national TV stations were notably absent. Thus, the effort of disseminating election-relevant information to the public was more or less stopped in its tracks. Thai TV was present in force, as were some Khmer radio and print media. But there was a strange sense of preaching to the choir, since the gathered civil society members were overwhelmingly critical of the ruling party, and some media outlets could certainly be considered partisan. With no dissenting voice in the room to present a reaction from either the government, the NEC, or the armed services, the gathering became a rather one-sided affair. This became apparent when on July 26th an audience question challenged the CNRP’s anti-Vietnamese campaigning as hate speech and wanted it considered an election irregularity. Responses from the plenary were overwhelmingly dismissive, going so far as to agree with Hun Sen’s characterization as a “Vietnamese puppet”. This rhetoric had become so strong in the CNRP’s campaigning that the Vietnamese embassy felt compelled to comment about it.Vietnamese citizens being bussed in to cast their vote for the ruling party was a recurring theme, and it was difficult to discern xenophobia from genuine reports. In some instances, observers reported hundreds of Vietnamese being put up in a hotel in Phnom Penh or crossing the border in tourist buses. The derogatory term “yuon” was used widely in the observer circles as well as opposition media. It is certainly a plausible scenario that the voter list tampering together with the mass-issuance of ICEs would facilitate the addition of ‘foreign’ voters. Especially, since these last-minute documents are issued in lieu of other forms of identification by the commune chief - 98% of whom are CPP party members. But one would have to wait for a conclusive report to make a judgment call.
The absence of mainstream Cambodian media in itself was certainly a strong example of the strategic manipulations of vote choice so prevalent in this election.

3. A cumbersome workflow

In the absence of a ‘willing’ EMB, theory tells us that - at the least - monitoring should increase the likelihood of exposure and lead to increased international costs of cheating, because international actors will withdraw “democracy-contingent benefits” from regimes who engage in election fraud. Domestic costs should also be higher, because civil society organizations will use information about irregularities to increase leverage for social accountability, theoretically imposing reputational costs on cheating parties. Of course, for these mechanisms to work, monitoring groups need to generate accurate, timely, and reliable information. In other words, they need to clear up the fog surrounding election day.While the alliance of NGOs excelled at getting a plethora of anecdotal and personal evidence – sometimes through witnesses presenting the evidence themselves – there was a structural problem of how to systematically receive, prioritize, classify, and take action on incoming reports.

To the attending press and foreign observers it was not entirely clear, which of the reports constituted massive and widespread irregularities, and which reports were of more isolated incidents. This kind of analysis is of course a huge logistical task, since it requires a division of labor and many organizational units feeding into each other’s work. It should have nevertheless been the priority of the situation room to make sense of a huge stream of information and concisely funnel it to the public as a big-picture view. In a way, the situation room turned into a mishmash of disconnected evidence, perhaps adding more clouds to the fog of election day instead of clearing them. On the other hand, perhaps this is understandable in such a heated and time-sensitive environment as an election.

To be fair, an intervention team did evaluate available evidence according to whether it violated either election or general law, and it subsequently requested action from the local or national election commission, or the Ministry of Interior. In some instances, this cooperation with state agencies worked. For instance, there were several cases in Phnom Penh where companies tried to prevent their employees from taking Sundays off to go home to provinces to vote. They threatened to fire employees who left or stationed guards in front of employees’ housing. This occurred in the garment and electronics sectors. In all reported cases, the COMFREL intervention team notified the NEC and other state agencies. With the help of the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training several cases were resolved, and employees were finally allowed to go upcountry to cast their ballot.

Crowdsourcing or crowdinforming?

COMFREL also invited the participation of the general public in the election watch effort. In an open call to the 'crowd', they opened channels to report all irregularities via the Cambodian Voter Voice (CVV) platform. Anybody could report observations via phone call, email, tweet, Facebook, or by filling out an online form. These reports would then be verified by COMFREL’s volunteer team to the extent possible and then displayed in an online map.

Call for participation via the CVV platform (Source: author; © Taylor Lowe)

The expected benefits of crowdsourced election monitoring include widening the information base for assessments of the quality of elections by exponentially increasing the number of eyes placed on the electoral process. By doing so, crowdsourced monitoring should increase the leverage of civil society and international actors, should they want to sanction the cheating party by withdrawing aid or mobilizing protest for example. Thus, the crucial component of this methodology is the engagement of organized civil society and the citizenry at large. 

Hardly any empirical evaluations of these expected impacts exist at this time, though Michael Callen, James Long, and colleagues are doing some great work in this regard, as are Catie Bailard and Steven Livingston. Whatever the impacts might be, one would expect them to be strongly contingent on the level of buy-in from state actors, linkages, and alliances of civil society organizations, ICT penetration rates, provisions for data validation, and the level of ‘crowd’ participation in the platform.

One serious obstacle to the crowdsourced initiative was the government ban on photos or videos within 100 meters of polling stations. This seriously restricted the collection of vivid evidence, which Archon Fung cites as a major advantage of 'popular election monitoring'. Still, it was possible to take pictures of the final vote tally. Likewise, the presence of security personnel, campaigning during the cooling period, or other irregularities before election day could be documented, as in fact they were by the dozen via YouTube and Facebook.

However, the CVV failed to make use of the ‘crowd’ to increase its information base for a more basic reason. There are two general approaches to crowdsourced election monitoring: The open approach is a truly open call to anybody and everybody to report whatever they observe via different technical avenues. Here, data validation issues are the main concern. The way to address this issue are threefold: a) Large volunteer teams for manual validation and georeferencing, as in the case of the Uchaguzi platform in the 2013 Kenyan election; b) sophisticated automated systems based on natural language processing; or c) approaches that “crowdsource the filter” and employ user ratings, commenting, redundancy, and the included evidence to calculate 'veracity' scores. In addition to the data validation, outreach becomes a prime concern for such open systems.

CVV took neither of these routes, as it was primarily designed to be a crowdinforming platform. It used a bounded or closed approach, in which primarily COMFREL’s own long-term observers (LTOs) provided information. On the one hand, these reports didn’t have to be verified by such stringent measures, as they originated from already trained and vetted observers. In other words, CVV relied on a 'trust network' (as Lederach calls it) to ensure accurate reporting, and used the mapping function mainly as a tool to visualize these findings in the situation room and to the general public. This intended function was well-served by the platform, as frequent questions in the situation room showed, It also became apparent how important a core of verified and reliable reports is when informing the media about the extent of irregularities. An open system would inevitably be criticized of being not trustworthy and easy to manipulate.

On the other hand, the CVV platform did contain the call to the public from the very beginning. It simply was not promoted by any concise outreach strategy. When a cartoon which informed citizens about reporting options (see figure above) was published on July 25th, it received several hundred shares on Facebook within an hour, more than the 'delible ink' video in the same period of time. The desire to put scrutiny on the election and get involved in the observation effort was obviously present, at least among Facebook users. Another indication was the countless YouTube videos uploaded within seconds of irregularities. This was the case in a small-scale riot in the Stung Mean Chey area near the capital, where voters angrily demanded to observe the counting protest. When a local official hit a monk who was making a claim on behalf of the protesters, the crowd erupted into an angry mob, throwing stones at the polling station and burning a police car. Videos of the incident circulated on social media within seconds, almost as fast as the news reached the situation room via phone.

Thus, it might be necessary to distinguish between different goals for crowdsourced election monitoring: One is to create an accurate depiction of the conduct of the election. The second is greater civic participation or engagement with the election process that goes beyond putting one’s ballot in a box. A bounded approach is more suited for the first purpose, while an open approach might be better for the second one. Trade-offs are inevitable.

Source: Phnom Penh Post

In summary, my observations above about the election's observers might sound overly critical. But to be sure, given the difficult relationship with state agencies and antagonistic media and the systematic manipulations of the electoral process, COMFREL and others exhibited great professionalism. They employed a range of standard instruments of election observation, such as voter registry audits or parallel vote tabulation. If anything, the following lessons need to put into the context of these great achievements:

a) Electoral authoritarian regimes do not cooperate much with civil society monitoring efforts. A model of 'citizen co-production', i.e. the joint fixing of problems within the electoral process, is unlikely to work in such circumstances

b) Domestic monitors need to ensure the trustworthiness and timeliness of their data. They also need to develop systems by which to effectively aggregate, prioritize and effectively disseminate huge amounts of incoming data.

c) Crowdinforming systems are a good tool to funnel such data to the public. Crowdsourcing systems are a tool for increasing the information base but at the same time exacerbate the problems of trustworthiness and call for a huge outreach effort. 

Max Grömping, 29 July 2013, Phnom Penh

Thursday, 25 July 2013

The 2013 Cambodian election, Part 1: The menu of strategic manipulation

A curious sight greeted the unwitting backpackers exiting Phnom Penh airport one week before Cambodia’s parliamentary elections of 28th July 2013. Just two days before, opposition leader Mr. Sam Rainsy had returned to the capital after a royal pardon ended his four-year long self-imposed exile. Allegedly, Cambodia’s long-time prime-minister, Mr. Hun Sen, had suggested the royal pardon himself to thwart allegations that the polling would be neither free nor fair. The prime minister’s move might be seen as an empty gesture helping primarily him and his legitimacy, but Sam Rainsy’s return has undoubtedly energized the Cambodian electorate.

Although not eligible as a candidate himself, the opposition leader’s arrival drew tens of thousands to the streets of the capital, and subsequent appearances in his tour through the country generated similarly large number in other provinces. The major TV news outlets didn’t deem it necessary to report this event, and left the field to foreign reporters, smaller news outlets, and citizen journalists. Shortly after, YouTube and the digital sphere were buzzing with videos of his appearances.

Even when the official rallies were over, droves of people lined the main street leading from the airport into the city, holding banners and shouting “Change or no change?” One couldn’t help but notice that the cheering crowds were young--the average age was 20 or below.

Sam Rainsy returns (Source: Phnom Penh Post)

Seldom has an election energized Cambodia as much as the upcoming poll this Sunday, even though the prospects for a real change in government are as bleak as always. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has maintained--and even extended--its power in every single post-war election since the first UN-administered election in 1993: in 2008 they increased their legislative seats from 64 to 90 (out of 126) and in the 2012 local commune elections they won 68% of all commune council seats (but occupying the crucial position of commune chief in an astonishing 97.5% of all communes).

However, perhaps due to Sam Rainsy’s return and the merger of his and another major opposition party into the new Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), coupled with increased attention among young first-time voters, the stakes are perceived as higher than ever. Numerous incidents from gunshots fired at CNRP headquarters, to clashes between CPP and CNRP supporters, to an attempted hack of the National Election Commission’s (NEC) computers by members of Anonymous Cambodia, attest to the highly charged atmosphere.

Few of the recommendations of foreign observers have been implemented since the last election. This time around, international observers were either not invited (except a few individual observers from ASEAN countries), or declined to come so as to avoid bestowing legitimacy on a process that they deemed flawed from the start. In a recent joint statement, the election watch NGO COMFREL and an alliance of civil society organizations drew attention to the most widespread problems in Cambodia's electoral process. The strategic “menu of manipulation” includes:

1) Intimidation and threats
Although there have been no killings (at the time of writing), the joint statement cites continued threats, intimidation, and disruptions “both at grassroots and national level”. Due to the overwhelmingly strong grip of the CPP on commune councils, commune chiefs and other local authorities are in a unique position to exert pressure on the electorate. This includes ostracizing known opposition supporters from the community, refusing to register them, or threatening other sanctions. Closely related to this is the engagement of security forces (military and police) in political activity, including election campaigns. Although prohibited by law, observers frequently recorded such partisan activities, which are just as frequently denied by officials.

2) Manipulation of voter lists
Two independent Voter Registry Audits (VRA), one conducted by NDI, Cambodia’s Center for Advanced Studies, and the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC), and another one conducted by COMFREL, found that 10.5-13.5% of eligible voters who thought they were registered did not actually appear on official registration lists. This amounts to more than one million disenfranchised voters (out of an electorate of about 9.6 million). At the same time, up to 18.3% of names on the voter list were invalid, according to the NICFEC VRA, either because they were deceased, lived somewhere else, or were completely made up names. This obviously opens the door to ‘ghost voting’, or ballot box stuffing. These two phenomena led to an interesting distribution of inflated and deflated voter lists throughout the country’s communes. Curiously, several tightly contested constituencies show inflated lists, as do opposition strongholds. Both, over-registration of non-existent voters, as well as under-registration of presumed opposition voters could be a strategic manipulation and could give the final push in closely contested constituencies. But such suspicions are at this point not backed by hard data.

Variation in voter registration (Source: Phnom Penh Post)

Just shortly before the election, the NEC ordered the regional consultancy Business and Marketing Research Solutions Asia (BMRS) to conduct their own VRA in rebuttal. Though this audit found a similar number of 13% erroneous or missing names, the NEC argued that most of them would still be able to vote (because if only one consonant is spelt wrong, one can still vote according to NEC regulations). Whether such assertions are credible or not, these problems should have been addressed far before the election. The interesting finding here is however that the second audit seems to have been a reaction to international doubts about the fairness of the election. Could it be that even hegemonic electoral autocracies are subject to some sort of pressure? And if yes, does this pressure generate from within or from outside of the country?

3) Restricted media access and biased reporting
The influence of the ruling party on the media, especially television and radio, remains strong. A media monitoring effort by COMFREL between February and March 2013 found “over 4000 speeches by, or references, to Prime Minister Hun Sen […]in contrast to 1200 combined mentions of the two opposition leaders, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, on radio FM105. Broadcasts referencing FUNCINPEC leader Nhoek Bunchhay were observed only a 170 times.” (Source: COMFREL). Cambodian television by and large does not report on opposition rallies or emphasizes negative news, such as traffic disruptions or social unrest. One radio host went so far as to predict a military coup in the unlikely event that the CNRP should get elected.

On the other side of the political divide, the CNRP brandishes nationalist anti-Vietnamese rhetoric against alleged illegal immigrants and voters bused in from the neighboring country. It is also a thinly-veiled reference to the prime minister's rise to power during the Vietnamese occupation. Such incitements have been decried as hate-speech by the CPP. Overall, the media landscape is at the same time systematically skewed in favor of the ruling party and has become a platform for what Sarah Birch calls the 'black arts' of manipulative campaigning.

4) Misuse of state resources
There is a long tradition of clientelistic power dynamics and misuse of local development funds or Ministry of Interior resources in Cambodia. The established practice of gift-giving as a coercive tactic is well-institutionalized in this country, and the CPP is ideally positioned to make full use of its strong networks of commune chiefs and local canvassers in this regard. The state’s resources provide an ample reservoir for pork spending and more mundane forms of voter or candidate-buying. Naturally, such tactics are as old as Southeast Asian politics itself. CNRP's Sam Rainsy tried to counter them in an innovating and frightening way: by announcing a "bounty" on canvassers. In a speech he offered to double the money offered to voters if they exposed the party agents offering it.

Prime minister Hun Sen (Source: CTV News)

The NEC has been inactive--or even obstructive--on most of these issues. The commissioners themselves consistently reject criticism and dismiss most problems as minor or due to incapacities. According to NEC, complaints are duly received, assessed, and dealt with. But the fact that international and domestic observers' recommendations are continuously ignored certainly makes it easier to classify this as a manipulation of vote choice (as Sarah Birch calls it). 

In Birch’s typology of different types of manipulations she expects the choice of manipulation strategy to be the result of weighing costs and benefits. The strategic manipulation of rules carries the lowest risk. However, in the Cambodian case, much of the regulatory structure, which was set up under the auspices of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), turned out to be comparatively robust, making this long-term strategy perhaps less accessible to the ruling elites. Organizations like COMFREL or NICFEC might insist that adherence to the law is lacking in the NEC's and some political parties' conduct. But the fact remains that such a relevant body of law exists.

The next best thing, according to Birch, is the manipulation of vote choice. All the described issues in Cambodia fall firmly into this category, further split up into “manipulation of the voters genuine preferences” (media bias, misuse of state resources, and candidate intimidation/obstruction), and “manipulation of voters expressed preference” through undue influence (vote-buying and voter coercion). In line with her expectations, the ruling party in Cambodia relies mainly on these strategies as the ones with the next-best cost-benefit ratio.

Resorting to outright manipulation of the vote (i.e. election day fraud, ballot box stuffing, carousel and ghost voting) would be a sign of the CPP’s slipping control.

The manipulation of elections is costly, as the quite vocal criticism by watchdog organizations (both domestic and international) shows. At the same time, increased reliance on Chinese investments insulate the ruling regime from outside pressure to a certain degree. In that sense, the ball is back in the corner of those young Cambodians lining the street from the airport or riding around town in the evening on their motorcycles, waving opposition flags and shouting "change".

And it is up to those Cambodians for whom elections with integrity are in themselves the yard stick by which to measure their country's progress. They will place scrutiny on the elections as they unfold by making use of cellphone cameras, the blogosphere, and their sheer presence. Ironically, the higher the turnout of young people and the closer the race, the higher the chances will be for outright vote manipulation. In such an event, any election result is likely to be refuted by the opposition, leading to post-election protest and a possible crackdown like that seen after the 1998 election. Whatever the scenario after election day, it is quite possible that those who characterize the process as a farce will be seen as being right.

More to come...

by Max Grömping

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Electoral integrity in Spain

Lately, attention has been drawn to Spain for a rather important flaw in the integrity of its elections— party finance. Spain’s leading conservative party, Partido Popular (PP), has been recently accused by its former treasurer, Luis Bárcenas, of using illicit financing methods. According to Bárcenas, Spain’s current Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, and the PP’s other leaders had improperly received money. Furthermore, members of the former Aznar government have also been implicated in illicitly receiving money in addition to their public wages. In addition, significant sums of money were illegally donated to the PP in a scheme that could date back over 20 years.

Mr. Bárcenas, who is now in prison, received a PP salary for more than 28 years, and the PP paid Bárcenas’ lawyers fees (over a million euro) until April of this year. It is also important to mention that PP referred to Mr. Bárcenas as an example of ‘great professional.’ Therefore, as a former PP insider, Mr. Bárcenas’ accusations have caused widespread attention both at home and abroad.

Mr. Bárcenas
While PP’s case of rampant and illegal party finance (summarized here and in wider detail in Spanish here) is the only one to have make it into the international headlines, unfortunately, it is not unique. Another high-profile case (known as the ‘Palau case’) suggests that Convergencia i Unio (CiU), the conservative nationalist party governing in Catalonia, took money from Ferrovial, one of the few Spanish multinational corporations. The scheme was simple: Ferrovial would give some money to the CiU, and then the Catalonian government would give public works contracts to Ferrovial. A similar scheme seems to be at the heart of the Bárcenas case. Such a quid pro quo is a violation of the Spanish electoral law, which forbids companies receiving public contracts from donating money to any political party.

Since the news broke in the case, Spanish society is shocked and asking questions. The President still has not given any explanation to Parliament, which has caused surprise both domestically as well as from the Financial Times, The Economist, the New York Times, Liberation,  the Independent, among others.
Where did the money come from? And what was the money used for? From what has been published in the media, the money primarily came from big companies in the construction sector. The money, in turn, has been used (allegedly) to finance electoral campaigns.

The above mentioned cases are not the only instances of illegal political party financing in Spain.  During the 1990s, both the Socialist Party and the Popular Party had their own scandals (the Filesa and Naseiro cases’, respectively).

If the money was used to finance electoral campaigns, one might ask, is it because Spain does not have a political finance law? No. The problem is that Spanish law allows for anonymous political donations up to €60,000.

Nevertheless, many corporate donations were above even this €60,000 level. One way to skirt the law was to make multiple payments. For example, if company X wanted to donate say €200,000, they would break it into six anonymous payments of 50,000. By this procedure, anonymity was guaranteed, and the law thwarted.

Even more shocking, in some documented cases the system approached the plot of a Hollywood movie. Mr. Bárcenas would collect envelopes full of cash from company X, scrupulously record it, and then put the money in the bank. Then, Mr. Bárcenas would call the PP mayor in a relevant city and tell the mayor to treat company X ‘well.’ Company X would get the contract, and the PP would have a deeper campaign war chest.

All together, the building contractors in Mr. Bárcenas records received 6,600 million euros in public contracts. Remember, this is forbidden by Spanish electoral law.

The implication of some research is that [Pinto-Duschinsky, 2002] that when party finance regulations are altered, democracy is altered. When an athlete, a biker, or a soccer player cheats, normally he looses his titles (e.g. Lance Armstrong). What should happen when a party that governs millions cheats? 

                                                                                         -Ferran Martinez i Coma