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Safeguarding elections with integrity in Southeast Asia – by Alan Doss

The Kofi Annan Foundation and the Malaysian Human Rights Commission co-hosted the regional conference “Democracy in Southeast Asia – Achievements, Challenges, Prospects” in Kuala Lumpur, in September 2017. We now published a report summarising the key take-aways from the two days of deliberations in the Malaysian capital. President of the Kofi Annan Foundation, Alan Doss, shares his thoughts on safeguarding electoral integrity in Southeast Asia. 

The Electoral Integrity Initiative originated with Kofi Annan’s observation that while elections have become almost universal, the quality of many elections if often highly questionable. As a result, we see countries going through the charade of elections that lack integrity. Election with integrity means elections that are free, fair and above all credible. Elections with integrity confer legitimacy on the winners but also protect the rights of the losers. Legitimacy is vital to elected governments because without it people may be unwilling to accept their leadership after the elections.

So how do countries bolster electoral integrity?

Like democracy itself, there is no single universal model. However, the Global Commission on Elections chaired by Kofi Annan did recommend  several measures that can be taken to reinforce electoral integrity; let me mention four:

  • Build professional and independent Electoral Management Bodies;
  • Develop norms and practices that create a level playing field for multi-party competition;
  • Remove barriers to universal and equal political participation;
  • Regulate political finance in a transparent manner.

All democracies face challenges to electoral integrity but the Kuala Lumpur conference last September captured some of the particular hurdles facing the countries of Southeast Asia. On the positive side, the region’s phenomenal economic development over the past few decades has created a large, educated and urban middle class that can provide a firm foundation for the development and entrenchment of democratic practice. On the less positive side, we know that while some countries have made successful transitions, others have slid back to authoritarian, or even military, rule. In other words, political development has not always kept up with economic progress.

Rigid authoritarian systems may – for a time – produce rapid economic growth but they are ill-equipped to manage rising expectations and the demands for inclusion and choice that come with development. That was the point Surin Pitsuwan, our respected and admired colleague who recently passed away, made at our conference: only elections with integrity will ensure Southeast Asia’s progress to the next stage of its development. I sincerely hope this report will make a contribution to the achievement of that great goal of human endeavour, which Surin so eloquently and passionately embraced.

Let me conclude by saying that democracy is always a work in progress. We see new challenges not the least those unleashed by the digital revolution. At the Kofi Annan Foundation we are preparing a high-level commission to look at the implications of those developments for electoral integrity. As was once remarked, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”