What is a ‘free and fair’ election?
Dr. Kurt Campbell (right), the United States assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and US embassy Rangoon chargé d’affaires Larry Dinger, meet Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (centre) at a government guest house in Rangoon on Monday, May 10, 2010. The US envoy had expressed his concern over the junta’s unfair laws governing political parties and elections in a meeting with Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy executive members. Photo: Mizzima Archive
Chiang Mai (Mizzima) – In one of its opening salvoes against the Burmese junta’s elections this year, the country’s most powerful opposition party, the National League for Democracy, announced in March it would not re-register as a political party, thereby guaranteeing it would not take part.
The party released a statement at the time saying they had “decided not to register … because the election laws … are unfair and unjust”.
Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi also said she “would not dream” of entering the race because of its illegitimacy. Since the Burmese military regime released its new electoral laws, the election has been widely criticised as a sham. Many international governments and individuals within and outside Burma have called for all of Burma’s political prisoners to be released before the elections take place, in order for them to be considered democratic.
The following is the first in a series of reports in which Mizzima will examine what constitutes a “free and fair’ election by international standards.
The components can be divided into 16 different categories according to International IDEA, (the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance) and various other intergovernmental organisations that promote sustainable democracy and efficient, “free and fair” elections around the world. The following points are a compilation of what they feel is required for a country to meet these standards.
International standards for free and fair democratic elections have their foundations in the fundamental freedoms and political rights within various international conventions such as the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The legal framework is the basis for the regulation of the election process. It comprises the electoral law regarding voter registration, political parties and candidates and the media. The framework for elections should be transparent and understandable and approach all the issues of an electoral system necessary to create democratic elections.
The electoral system in place within a country should guarantee political inclusiveness and representation. It should provide a clear electoral formula for transforming votes into legislative seats.
The most important elements of a free and fair election lie in the independence and impartiality of a country’s electoral watchdog or election commission to monitor the efficiency, effectiveness, professionalism and transparency of the electoral processes.
The duties and functions of such a body are:
To ensure that election officials and staff are well-trained and are independent of any political interest,
To ensure the voting public are educated about election processes, voting procedures and contesting political parties and candidates,
To ensure the registry of voters and upkeep of voter registers.
To ensure the integrity of the ballot via maintaining the secrecy of the vote, by insuring against fraudulent voting and by ensuring a transparent process for lawful collection and counting of the votes.
Right to elect and be elected
There should be no discrimination on account of colour, race, sex, language, religion, political views, ethnic minority status, property or birth that could eliminate an eligible citizen’s right to vote or right to contest the elections. All eligible citizens should be guaranteed the right to equal voting and the right to contest the elections without any discrimination.
Voter registration and registers
Voter registers should be maintained with transparency and accuracy. The right of an eligible voter to register should be protected, and the prevention of unlawful or fraudulent registration or removal of voters, enacted. The voter register must be comprehensive, inclusive, accurate and up to date, and the process, fully transparent.
Political parties and candidates
All political parties and candidates should be treated equally while competing in elections. The legal framework of a democratic election should clearly provide notification of the dates for beginning and end of registration for political parties. The requirements and procedures for party and candidate registration should be based on reasonable, relevant and objective criteria.
Democratic electoral campaigns
Each political party and candidate has the right to freedom of expression and freedom of association and access to the electorate.
The electoral system should ensure:
There are no unreasonable restrictions on the right to freedom of expression and whatever restrictions there are that they be set out in the law,
Every party and candidate has equal access to the media to undertake their campaign,
Every party and candidate should have equal access to finance for a credible election campaign,
No party or candidate should be favoured, financially or through other resources,
No party or candidate incites or threatens violence to another party or candidate,
All parties and candidates should cease campaigning one or two days before polling day.
Media access and freedom of expression
The legal framework for elections should ensure that all political parties and candidates have access to the media and equal treatment in media owned or controlled by the state. Freedom of expression should be upheld in election campaigns and no party or candidate should be discriminated against in terms of access to the media or freedom of expression. The ruling party should not have unfair dominance of media coverage.
Campaign finance and expenditure
All parties and candidates should be treated equally by the institute governing campaign finances and expenditure. If public funding is distributed among parties and candidates it should be proportionately and equally distributed. Limitations on funding of campaigns should be reasonable and equal among each party and candidate. Political finance laws should be adequately and effectively enforced.
Polling stations should be accessible and there should be accurate recording of ballots. The secrecy of the ballot should also be guaranteed. Sufficient provisions for the security of all ballots and voting materials before, during and after voting should be provided by the legal framework. Safeguards should be put in place to prevent fraudulent voting or double voting. The routine entry of police or armed forces into the polling station should be prohibited except when they themselves are voting.
All votes should be counted and tabulated accurately, equally, fairly and transparently. A democratic electoral system should ensure that the entire process for counting and tabulating votes is conducted in the presence of representatives of parties and candidates as well as election observers.
Role of the representatives of parties and candidates
For the election to maintain integrity and transparency, the legal framework must provide for independent observation by representatives nominated by parties and candidates contesting the election to observe all voting processes. These representatives are not permitted to campaign within the polling station or designated area around the polling station.
For an election to be credible and transparent, independent electoral observers should be permitted to observe all processes of the election.
The legal framework for elections must set forth detailed and sufficient provisions protecting suffrage rights.
Every voter, candidate and political party has the right to lodge a complaint with the competent electoral watchdog or a court when an infringement of electoral rights is alleged to have occurred.
Defining/delimiting boundaries of electoral units/constituencies
There are three universal principles to guide the delimitation process: representativeness, equality of voting strength and non-discrimination. The ideal international standard is to attain equality of voting power for each vote, therefore providing effective representation.