The second Asian Electoral Stakeholder Forum, 18-19 March 2015, Dili, Timor-Leste
With recent elections in Asia having drawn some unfavorable media attention (see for instance reporting on Thailand, Afghanistan, or Bangladesh), the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), and the Comissão Nacional de Eleições (CNE) of Timor-Leste hosted the Second Asian Electoral Stakeholder Forum on 18-19 March 2015 in Dili, Timor-Leste. The forum brought together an eclectic group of electoral management bodies and civil society organizations from throughout the region, as well as participants from international assistance providers such as the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), The Asia Foundation, and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
Esteemed leaders of Timor-Leste’s young democracy joined the forum, with the nation’s President José Maria Vasconcelos, Nobel Laureate Dr. Jose Ramos-Jorta, Founder of the State Dr. Marí Bim Hamude Alkatir, and the country’s first president and Founder of the State Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão each sharing their observations about the challenges of nation building, democratic institutions, and development.
One of the primary aims of the forum was the discussion and development of the ‘Dili Indicators for Democratic Elections’. Drawing on the 2012 Bangkok Declaration for Free and Fair Elections and broader international standards such as the UDHR and ICCPR, these indicators are part of the move towards enshrining norms of electoral integrity in regionally negotiated frameworks. The Dili Indicators recognize the importance of the whole electoral cycle, from a sound legal framework, a level playing field in terms of boundary delimitation, campaign finance, and media coverage, to professional electoral management, and inclusive and meaningful participation of citizens. Content-wise, the indicators are closely aligned with cross-regional instances of norm entrepreneurship, such as the Venice Commission, or the Declaration of Global Principles for Nonpartisan Election Observation and Monitoring by Citizen Organizations.
While state-driven regional networks such as the Association of Asian Election Authorities might arguably extend a stronger claim of legitimacy for their norm entrepreneurship, both the Bangkok Declaration and the Dili Indicators are pushing norms in an innovative way through the joint deliberation and endorsement by electoral management bodies and civil society groups. The forum also deliberated whether regional norms should provide space for local practices such as the Noken voting system in parts of Papua – a topic controversially discussed elsewhere (see here, and here) – or whether norms of electoral integrity should be universal. Different views persisted, highlighting the ongoing debate around the normative framework of electoral integrity.
|Rohana Hettiarachchi, Executive Director of PAFFREL, addresses the panel, with representatives of the election commissions of (L-R) Cape Verde, Angola, and São Tomé and Príncipe listening closely.|
Several members of the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries (CPLP) attended the stakeholder forum upon invitation by the Timorese election commission. Speakers from Portugal, Angola, and Mozambique highlighted diverse challenges in their respective countries. Attending CPLP participants also moved forward with the Dili Declaration, initiated by the Timorese commission. The signatories - the EMBs of Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, São Tome & Principe, and Timor-Leste - committed to principles of universal, equal, free and direct suffrage. They agreed to establish a working group on best practices and dialogue with stakeholders, and to build a database for election data sharing in lusophone countries.
Nobel Laureate Dr. Jose Ramos-Jorta lauded Timor-Leste's electoral assistance to Guinea-Bissau as a positive example of South-South cooperation. The Timorese commission had helped the West African country with the logistics of voter registration and other issues of electoral administration in its May 2014 election.
As representative of the EIP I discussed the findings of our annual report ‘The Year in Elections, 2014’. While pointing out problems of electoral integrity in a range of Asian countries, in particular Southeast Asia, positive developments were also highlighted in the panel discussion, such as the peaceful turnover or the Presidency in Sri Lanka, or high levels of electoral integrity in other third wave democracies such as Mongolia.
The joining panelists discussed challenges of electoral integrity in their respective countries. The U Aung Myint, election commissioner from Myanmar recounted his country's preparation for the election in late October/early November 2015. Holding the first broadly competitive election since 1990 in a climate of rapid socio-economic change, remaining areas of armed conflict, and anti-Muslim violence present a challenge for the Union Election Commission.. The upcoming polls will serve as a test for the country’s fledgling electoral institutions.
Commissioner Fawzy vividly stressed the challenges of holding elections in a situation of ongoing insurgency in Afghanistan. The country scored among the five 'worst' elections of 2014 in the PEI Index, partly due to stark allegations of electoral fraud and the following complete audit. Electoral security was highlighted as the country’s main concern – a topic on which the Independent Election Commission had previously engaged with the Electoral Integrity Project and UNDP during the Secure and Fair Elections (SAFE) workshop in September 2014.
Pakit Prommayon, Deputy Director-General for Electoral R&D of the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT), highlighted his institutions struggles of dealing with violent anti-election protests in the run-up to the February 2014 election. He made reference to the EIP annual report which had drawn some media attention in Thailand due to its low ranking of the country's electoral authorities and their handling of the results announcement. Khun Pakit stressed that Thailand's overall score in the PEI Index locates the country in the midddle range of countries - well above several other Southeast Asian neighbors. The ECT had previously refuted the results of the survey.
|L-R: Bidhayak Das (ANFREL), Hon. U Aung Myint (Union Election Commission of Myanmar), Com. Kwaja Aminullah Fawzy (IEC Afghanistan), Pakit Prommayon (Election Commission of Thailand), Com. Dasho Kunzang Wangdi (Election Commission of Bhutan), Adilur Rahman Khan (ODHIKAR), Max Grömping (Electoral Integrity Project)|
Commissioner Dasho Kunzang Wangdi of Bhutan presented electoral activities undertaken in the mountainous South Asian country. Although the youngest EMB in the region, the Bhutanese commission conducts a host of voter education and mobilization activities, and foreign observers have often lauded the country for its peaceful transition to an electoral regime. Bhutan scored 68 out of 100 in the PEI Index, placing the country at the top of South Asia in terms of electoral integrity.
The challenges of electoral integrity in Bangladesh were recounted by leading civil society figure Adilur Rahman Khan, chairperson of the human rights organizations ODHIKAR. Khan - himself previously incarcerated for his work as a human rights defender – remarked in a somber tone on the fact that 153 out of 300 seats were won uncontested by the ruling party in his country’s latest election. He argued in favor of a caretaker government, able to see through the next national election in order to prevent a repetition of widespread violence and fraud in the next polls.
In sum, ANFREL and the CNE did a tremendous job bringing together such a diverse group of participants. In particular, the effort of bridging the gap between EMBs and civil society is very worthwhile, as other observers noted as well. The ongoing debate on regional standards, best practices and lessons learned will hopefully draw in the participation of more state bodies in future iterations of the Forum. Several intriguing opportunities for deeper engagement resulted from this meeting for the Electoral Integrity Project. These will be reported in due time on this very blogspot.
Sydney, 20 April 2015
Max Grömping is a researcher for the Electoral Integrity Project at the University of Sydney. His current research focuses on the impact of social media and domestic observers on electoral integrity. Prior to this, he lectured at Thammasat University, Thailand.