The Future of Election Monitoring in Southeast Asia

by Paul Pryce. Paul Pryce is a Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Canada. With degrees in political science from universities on both sides of the pond, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a Research Fellow with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces. His current research interests include African security issues and NATO-Russia relations.

ASEAN member countries

ASEAN member countries

In 2007, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Charter was signed by representatives of all ten member states at a summit held in Singapore. A statement of principles by which ASEAN should be governed, the Charter includes the member states’ commitment of “adherence to the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy, and constitutional government”. As ASEAN member states pursue deeper integration and the formation of a Political-Security Community by the end of 2015, greater attention is being paid as to how to make ASEAN’s democratic principles enforceable in the member states.

One possible avenue is for ASEAN members to undertake “democratic audits” through the deployment of international election observers. Election monitoring has indeed become a common practice among multilateral institutions elsewhere in the world. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) has become the international “gold standard” for election monitoring, although the Council of Europe (CoE), the European Union (EU), and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) also engage in such activities across Europe and the former Soviet Union. In Africa, the African Union (AU), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and other regional organizations are responsible for election monitoring, while the Organization of American States (OAS) is the leading authority on this in the Americas. Wherever it is implemented, election monitoring is intended to ensure that elections are being held in line with regional and international standards, and the process of neutral outsiders assessing the degree to which a vote was free and fair may go some way toward discouraging post-election violence.

To date, the ASEAN approach to election monitoring has been disjointed, in part due to the lack of a formalized system for carrying out such activities. The ASEAN Political-Security Community Blueprint refers only briefly to the need for ASEAN to survey the best practices of other international bodies that engage in election monitoring. When it has come to actual implementation, in some cases, such as the 2012 by-elections in Myanmar, the ASEAN Secretariat fielded an election observer mission. In other cases, such as the 2012 parliamentary election in East Timor, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) conducted the monitoring. At first glance, this may seem like a reasonable division of labour: the Secretariat observed in Myanmar due to its status as a member state, while the ARF handled the deployment to East Timor as it does not hold full ASEAN membership.

Voters cast their ballot in during East Timor's 2012 Parliamentary Elections (Photo: Sandra Magno, UNDP TL).

Voters cast their ballot in during East Timor’s 2012 Parliamentary Elections (Photo: Sandra Magno, UNDP TL).

But the ASEAN Secretariat has limited resources with which to observe elections on a regular basis or on a sufficient scale. The Secretariat in Jakarta has 51 international staff and 153 locally recruited personnel, none of which is assigned to a department specializing in election monitoring or electoral administration. By contrast, the OSCE/ODIHR deployed 8 core team experts, 100 long-term and 900 short-term observers for Ukraine’s 2014 presidential elections.

Through the support of ARF countries which do not enjoy ASEAN membership, such as Japan or Canada, election observer missions from that body would have access to a greater pool of financial and human resources. The ARF also enjoys deeper institutional partnerships as far as election monitoring is concerned. For example, the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) actively supported the ARF on its deployment to East Timor, in particular through know-how and supplementary personnel. A non-governmental organization formed in 1997, ANFREL operates in 15 countries across Asia, either engaging in direct election monitoring or assisting local civil society groups with their own capacity building. The existing partnership between the ARF and ANFREL seems mutually complementary, enhancing the effectiveness of both organizations’ activities in Southeast Asia, and could not easily be matched by the ASEAN Secretariat.

There is ample evidence that non-ASEAN ARF members would be willing to contribute to a formalized role in election monitoring by this body and its civil society partner. Japan has provided considerable financial support to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) since its inauguration in 2009. Efforts have also been made to forge close ties between Australian civil society and its counterparts in ASEAN member states, as well as between the aforementioned AICHR and the Australian Human Rights Commission. The mandate of the AICHR includes the promotion and protection of human rights, capacity building, advice and technical assistance, information gathering, and engagement with national, regional, and international bodies (Terms of Reference of ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights). The mandate of a dedicated election monitoring body under the ARF would approximate that of the AICHR, albeit substituting the focus on the promotion of human rights with the advancement of democratic principles in Asia.

Under the status quo, Southeast Asia suffers from a cluttered toolbox, where different institutions make occasional efforts at election monitoring while domestic non-governmental organizations endeavour to pick up the slack. The status quo is clearly not helping matters. According to the ASEAN Democracy Scorecard, which surveys the public in several ASEAN member states, there is little confidence in member states’ democratic institutions, even in the Philippines or Indonesia. In Thailand, a boycott of the 2014 general election by the Democrat Party and widespread allegations of election fraud led the country to civil unrest. Restoring credibility to democratic institutions throughout the region will be a long and arduous process, but there is certainly a role to be played by the ARF or ASEAN in that process, placing pressure on local authorities to ensure elections are free and fair while also demonstrating to opposition groups that there are alternatives to violence in voicing protest.

About Paul Pryce

Paul Pryce is Director of Social Media at the Centre for International Maritime Security and also serves as a Research Analyst with the NATO Council of Canada's Maritime Nation Program. Holding degrees from the University of Calgary and Tallinn University, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a diplomatic aide with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.
This entry was posted in English, Paul Pryce, Security Policy.

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