MenagerieVignette: Five elections that make a difference
Vignette: Five elections that make a difference
June 11, 2013
June 11, 2013

Election season is, for Filipinos, a time plagued by stigma and accumulated trauma. Heightened rates of violence – unfortunately meriting its own category ‘electoral violence’ – and crime, as well as rampant vote buying and other undemocratic leveraging practices characterize a period that has a negative connotation with the masses, ironically highlighting the fact as to why ‘change’ is needed in the first place. With people only assuming the worst for the country’s aspiring leaders, sullied governance processes are left unmonitored by jaded, more apathetic citizens and watch groups.

The Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security cites several factors that hinder the conduct of more democratic elections, such as the rule of law in substantiating claims to human rights and electoral justice. Competent electoral management bodies must be transparent and merit public confidence; institutions of fair multiparty competition must be in place, just as the regulation of uncontrolled, unaudited political finance and funding must be ensured. Policymakers in maximizing political participation must consider the barriers – legal, administrative, political, economic and social – that deter people from the proper exercise of their rights.

Developing countries such as the Philippines, more often than not, have to contend with these barriers as electoral management bodies and government partners oversee the electoral process. Success is not impossible; in consideration of less democratic and often more violent socio-political environments, some countries have been able to change decades’ worth of stagnation in their electoral processes. In the Philippines, the automation of the 2010 presidential elections marked progress in terms of the efficiency in results processing, albeit retaining the elements of traditional vote buying and other deterrents to fair, progressive elections. The case is not exclusive: for this issue, The Menagerie looks at five noteworthy countries whose electoral processes have somehow risen above their own brands of democracy-stifling traditional politics:


Venezuela: Iron curtain, shocking transparency

The South American state, ironically enough, the bulwark of the late anti-American dictator Hugo Chávez, has been hailed by Forbes magazine as a ‘model for the world’ after its 2013 presidential elections. Even if the context of a popular strongman’s rule might upend any hope for democracy, the way by which elections are conducted in Venezuela are shockingly transparent: through the wonders of technology, Smartmatic – yes, the very same company responsible for automating Philippine elections – provided the automation machines used by constituency members to cast their vote, as early as 2004.

Touch-screen voting, thumbprint recognition equipment, advanced vote audit tools, instantaneous precinct vote counts, smooth transmission of ballots for canvassing, and a receipt issued to confirm the voter’s chosen candidates, shielding ballots from the hazardous rigging of votes: critics would be dumbfounded looking for technical anomalies in Venezuela’s suffrage process.

Venezuela’s electoral transparency – an ode to efficient technology brought on by a vested investment from the public and private sectors in securing joint capital for elections – is the key factor that spurred on a positive international reception of its democratic elections. In fact, the Latin American state sets a standard, even for developed countries, for an ideal voting environment in terms of security and technological currency, regardless of the ruling party’s political compass.


Zambia: Youth vote kills stagnant incumbency

Ever read about the Chinese going off to invest in the entire world? If you have, you might want to look at Zambia, the center of Chinese copper mining investments in the entire continent of Africa. Chinese investments in the country, amounting to roughly $2 billion and contributing to a surge in national growth, have been the subject of great debate between candidates in Zambia’s 2011 elections, as the Chinese mining firms reputedly adopt slave labor like conditions and maintain poor safety protocols in mining sites.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Zambia is a ‘flawed democracy’ that does not encourage sufficient voter’s participation, as the common Zambian would not be incentivized to participate due to a rooted history of electoral violence, the lack of an independent press, and a glacial pace in governance reforms resulting to the incumbent leaders’ preservation of government posts.

The changing factor in the 2011 elections, however, was when a more informed, educated youth participated to overhaul the incumbency of the ruling Chinese-backed cabinet, seating opposition candidate President Michael Sata to power. While violence, poor media coverage, opaque political finance and other common election time transgressions prevailed, the youth vote was a huge factor in instilling a greater civic consciousness in the country’s elections and upturning the expected incumbency of the ruling party. Even as 2011 provided a glimmer of hope for the flawed democracy of Zambia, international observers can only wait and see if a more enlightened voting population can in the next elections bring about more severe, pressing electoral reforms.


Armenia: Diasporans, civic groups contest electoral fraud

Former Soviet republic and emerging democracy Armenia held its presidential elections this year, amidst the common trend of incumbency, electoral violence, and massive electoral fraud that led to the proclamation of its incumbent President Serzh Sargsyan as the winner of an election that is painted by local and foreign observers as a product of vote buying and bogus voters. Armenia’s background as a state with many diasporans or exiled citizens does not prevent these citizens from voting for candidates despite being abroad. Upon hearing of a fraud that found almost 700,000 bogus voters voting for the incumbent, offshore Armenian civic groups and onshore pro-democracy groups flooded Armenia’s Freedom Square, Yerevan, and sent protest messages upon protest messages to the incumbent clamoring for a reconsideration of the results, and for the incumbent to accept the victory of popular opponent Raffi Hovannisian.

Hovannisian and the diasporan groups went so far as to stage a massive hunger strike on-site, making a strong statement of disapproval for the questionable integrity of the Armenian elections. The fact that even diasporans shared such strong sentiments and went so far as to take their crusade back to the homeland goes on to show the crucial role offshore nationals play in watching over the state of the nation, distant as they are from hearth and home.


Myanmar: Economic embargo pressures freer elections

Hermit state Myanmar has suffered from a decades old military junta that resulted from a nationalistic coup d’etat in 1962. Since then, the country has been on the spotlight for human rights violations and has been considered by the United Nations as the ‘choking point for freedom’ due to widespread genocide, systematic rape, child labor, slavery, human trafficking and a muted press. In 1990, Myanmar held an election that saw civilian democratic visionary and human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi and her coalition win 392 out of 498 seats in government, but the military promptly disregarded the election results and maintained autocratic rule of the isolated state.

Economic embargos in the form of investment bans from the United States and the European Union, however, slowly forced the military government to give way to more democratic processes, culminating in freer by-elections in 2012 that permitted international observers to oversee the eventual election of Suu Kyi as winner of the township of Kawmhu, as well as the victory of Suu Kyi’s party by 43 out of 44 seats in the irregular by-election. Foreign governments had then loosened the economic leverage and sanctions after failing to observe retractions and other anomalous reactions from the ruling party, although the US, the EU, Australia and East Asian countries remain wary and refuse to totally abolish the investment bans levied against the dictatorial nation. Small steps might have been taken, but democracy engendered by outside pressures did work to see citizens better represented where the promise of suffrage has long been seen as an ineffectual joke.


Pakistan: Church, citizen lobby foists progress

The world’s fifth largest democracy has long been suffering from the problems brought on by a transitioning democracy: the lack of a free press, independent judiciary, and a lack of transparency in its electoral process, with its National Assembly managing the elections instead of its official electoral management body, the Election Commission. Citizen and clerical lobbying through long marches and protests, however, paved the way for the shifting of electoral reforms and greater autonomy to the Electoral Commission, which led to immediate access of voting machinery to the Election Commission while allowing for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems to support the printing computerized electoral rolls in its general elections held this 2013.

The improved transparency in the elections led to the discovery and subsequent elimination of 35 million bogus voters. Pakistan also witnessed its highest voter turnout in history – 46.2 million voters – and a responsible means of conduct from political parties, according to a statement from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. The Pakistani Tribune also points out to more reports of electoral fraud and rigging from ordinary citizens, a testament to the fact that Pakistanis, who had been accustomed to rigged, more violent elections actually expected a fair election this time around.


While mere analysis of these countries’ election processes may be able to become a guide for others in extracting points and values needed to conduct more successful and more democratic elections, it can be inferred that simple means of widening the dispersion of information by the utilization of media and technology go hand-in-hand in improving the electoral process. Beyond this, the roles of sectors such as the youth, offshore nationals, as well as foreign governments and investor groups shape the manner by which states conduct their elections.

It is vital that obscurity in electoral processes be addressed to be able to bridge and start preventive measures. Adequate access to the right sources of media, to some degree may help clear the heavy fog of information disparity among citizens, promoting transparency, improved safety and a higher participation from voters during elections. In our context, electoral management bodies such as the Comelec have a lot to learn in considering how to best manage the status of elections in the country. With 2016 just three years away, the pressure is on.