THALIF DEAN: UNDP Calls for Reforms to Deter Violence, Fraud in Asian Polls
North Korea officer
UNITED NATIONS, Jul 5, 2011 (IPS) - When the longtime dictatorial president of an authoritarian regime in Southeast Asia eventually agreed to hold nationwide elections, he ensured the polls were rigged favouring his ruling party's victory. And a bitingly sarcastic cartoon that appeared in a local newspaper the day after the polls reflected the farce that masqueraded as a national election. "I promised I will hold elections," the president was caricatured as telling his constituents, "but I didn't say anything about counting the votes." In most countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, both presidential and parliamentary elections are often deemed flawed because of widespread fraudulent practices.
And in a new study released here, the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), which places a high priority on global governance and economic development, warns that countries in South and Southeast Asia are at risk of electoral violence which can be "driven by real and perceived fraud, corruption and patronage".
"Massive cheating or fraud such as conspiracies to bribe voters, tampering with ballots, dishonest counting or rigging voter lists can be the stimulus for a violent reaction by those, including the general public, who believe they have been cheated," it says.
The study, titled 'Understanding Electoral Violence in Asia', says it is not necessary for such fraud to be proven because the mere suspicion or allegation of fraud is often enough, in democracies lacking confidence in authorities, for people to react violently,
The 20-page investigation covers electoral processes in seven countries in South and Southeast Asia: Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand (which held a presidential election over the weekend).
According to a Bangkok-datelined report in the New York Times Tuesday, the Thai government's electoral commission was planning to investigate "accusations of fraud and other violations" that could disqualify some winning candidates and reduce the margin of victory claimed by the Pheu Thai party.
Asked what role the United Nations or UNDP plays in monitoring elections or providing electoral observers, Linda Maguire, senior policy advisor at UNDP's Democratic Governance Group, told IPS that U.N. electoral observation requires a specific mandate from the General Assembly or the Security Council.
She said the United Nations now rarely observes elections.
"This is partly due to the fact that the U.N. should not observe an electoral process it is giving technical assistance to, in order to avoid a conflict of interest," she said.
However, Maguire pointed out, when an observation mission does take place, the Department of Political Affairs/Electoral Assistance Division takes the lead role in design, staffing and implementation, in cooperation with Resident Coordinator/Resident Representative and UNDP Country Office.
The last official observation mission by the United Nations was in Fiji in 2000.
In its report, UNDP says that established democracies in Asia all report some electoral violence: from street protests in Thailand since the 2006 military coup that disposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to the 2009 Maguindanao massacre in the Philippines that saw 57 people killed, including 34 journalists, as they drove in convoy to register a candidacy for the 2010 elections.
And in Bangladesh, the political crisis of 2006-2007 was precipitated by high levels of violence and a lack of public confidence in the electoral system.
The collapse of the election process in January 2007 revealed that 12 million voters were illegally on the electoral roll.
These examples, says the study, serve as reminders that in order for elections to be successful and non-violent, the goals of democratic development must go beyond the electoral "event".
Instead, seeing elections as a test of democratic development, rather than a goal in themselves, provides a better understanding of the processes needed to ensure free, fair and peaceful elections, according to UNDP.
For electoral processes to achieve these objectives, they need to rely on the preparation and engagement of key stakeholders, including electoral management bodies, political actors, government agencies and security bodies, civic and media groups and national purveyors of justice, to play positive roles in the process.
As the world's largest democracy, India is seen as delivering the world's largest exercise in voter participation "and is fast becoming a source for advice on free and fair elections across the globe."
Still, beyond recognising quotas for women, the political atmosphere in India makes it difficult for women candidates to contest against men.
As one example, says the study, political parties that wish to win a larger number of seats do not want to risk their chances by nominating women as candidates.
Asked what type of assistance UNDP provides, Maguire told IPS that UNDP electoral assistance focuses on much more than the institutional framework within countries it has projects.
UNDP takes an electoral cycle approach which moves electoral assistance from a focus on periodic election events to a focus on sustained planning and implementation that places elections within a framework of democratic governance.
This means that projects have diverse purposes depending on the country context, including for example: TV shows to promote civic and voter education; creating forums to bring political parties and electoral commissions together to develop codes of conduct for an election; training of electoral officials on gender; and assisting in the creation of electoral dispute resolution processes, so that if fraud or corruption has occurred in an electoral process, it can be rectified.
These, she said, are just some initiatives that are designed to take positive action on the prevention of fraud, corruption and patronage.
Meanwhile, the study points out that another contributing factor in election order or disorder is the state itself.
In instances where security forces are seen to be partisan or corrupt, there is a higher chance they will be purveyors of violence rather than protectors of peace.
"In addition, when media is controlled by special interests it can have a destructive role in promoting narrow interests, inflammatory political rhetoric and retarding democratic processes," it says.
The study concludes that the key to prevention of electoral violence is the strengthening of election credibility.
Political parties have a crucial role to play in countries where electoral fraud and violence have become institutionalised.
Among the measures recommended to strengthen election credibility are strong oversight and enforcement powers for election commissions in, for example, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan, and wide-reaching dispute resolution mechanisms in, for example, Indonesia and Thailand.
The study says that systems to track party political spending, as for example in Nepal, should also be put in place, as well as ensuring perpetrators of electoral violence in, for example, the Philippines, are brought to justice.