Electoral Integrity in Southeast Asia

Partyforumseasia: The 2016 report of the Electoral Integrity Project (PEI), an academic research project under political scientist Pippa Norris, Harvard and Sidney, is being introduced with the headline “Fraud, rigging and corruption – the world’s elections this year”. From the Scandinavian and some other European countries on top, via the USA ranked no.53 out of 153, and the usual suspects in Africa at the bottom, Southeast Asia, unfortunately, does not do very well:

pei-seaStarting the Asia-Pacific comparison with New Zealand and South Korea with scores over 70 on top, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Cambodia come dangerously close to African score levels.  Yellow means Moderate Electoral Integrity (50 – 59), and Red signals Low to Very Low Electoral Integrity (less than 50).
The PEI – project uses 11 criteria and pertinent questions for each of them, namely: 1. Electoral laws, 2. Electoral procedures, 3. Boundaries, 4. Voter registration, 5. Party registration, 6. Campaign media, 7. Campaign finance, 8. Voting process, 9. Vote count, 10.Post-election, and 11. Electoral authorities.

For Southeast Asia, with the exception of the Communist one-party states Laos and Vietnam, many of the formal criteria are not the problem. The institutions are in place, party and voter registration are acceptably fair, the vote counting works fine, and the days of ballot-box-stuffing are definitely over. But there are serious weak areas nevertheless. The following “performance indicators“, used by PEI as positive or negative (the negative ones underlined below), are telling:

  • Boundaries:  1. Boundaries discriminated against some parties,  2. Boundaries favored incumbents,  3. Boundaries were impartial.

    See e.g. the ongoing and rather controversial discussion about the blatant gerrymandering in Malaysia! 

  • Campaign media: 1. Newspapers provided balanced election news, 2. TV news favored the governing party,  3. Parties/candidates had fair access to political broadcasts and advertising, 4. Journalists provided fair coverage of the elections, 5. Social media were used to expose electoral fraud.

    Indonesia is not the regional front runner by accident, but maybe the freest country in terms of press freedom and number of media.

  • Campaign finance: 1. Parties/candidates had equitable access to public subsidies 2. Parties/candidates had equitable access to political donations, 3. Parties/candidates publish transparent financial accounts, 4. Rich people buy elections, 5. Some states resources were improperly used for campaigning.

    Finance is by far the most problematic area in the region. Like in the First-past-the-post slogan “winner takes all” it is safe to say that ruling parties take all the money or nearly all. Finding money for running an infrastructure or for election campaigns is most difficult for opposition parties, apart from other legal and de facto impediments. Rich people can buy a promising candidacy and their own election, and they can choose the party they like more often than not. And above all: Politics in Southeast Asia is big business and makes many politicians rich.The 2016 Report is available here (LINK)

“Southeast Asian Elections Worst in the World” ?

Partyforumseasia: Max Grömping, researcher and co-author of the Electoral Integrity Project (see our last post) has published an article on elections in our region in University of Sydney’s New Mandala (Link here). El. SEA 1

We take it up as an important follow-up, though the headline “Southeast Asian Elections Worst in the World” sounds a bit too bad to be completely true. The 2013-2014 survey is covering only 107 countries, so the worst performers in Africa and Latin America are not in and drag Southeast Asia to the bottom of the comparison.

El. SEA 2Even with this caveat the Perception of Electoral Integrity (PEI) index for Southeast Asia is certainly disappointing enough and cries for reform and improvement in order to match the growing economic weight of the region.
Please read and evaluate Grömping’s assessments and conclusions yourself. Unfortunately, there is nothing much to add in favor of the five countries covered and the local electoral shortcomings. As Partyforumseasia repeatedly highlighted, the political finance or money politics issue is probably the most important Achilles’ heel, where even top rated Western Europe is not fully in the green area.

But Max Grömping offers some hope in his conclusions as well: “But if nothing else, the post-election protests in Malaysia and Cambodia, the small but continuous signs of discontent in Thailand, as well as the vibrant civil society efforts to strengthen electoral integrity in the Philippines and Indonesia show that citizens across the region are fiercely protective of their vote. This demand for democracy is currently met with an under-supply. But it does not need to stay that way.”

Clean Elections in Southeast Asia?

Partyforumseasia: Political parties, when in power, make vital decisions on behalf of their countries and populations. But not surprisingly, they also keep an eye on their own interests, especially regarding their re-election. “Free and fair elections” is a nice promise, but many political parties are not too keen on creating or maintaining the level playing field which could make it more difficult for themselves and more fair for their competitors. From grey areas in the electoral legislation to more or less visible gerrymandering and hundreds of other  tricks to manipulate the outcome of elections, nothing is unknown to Southeast Asia.

The Electoral Integrity Project at the University of Sydney, Australia, (www.electoralintegrityproject.org) has published a very relevant report called “The Year in Elections, 2014“, subtitle “The World’s Flawed and Failed Contests” (Link here).

Electoral Integrity 2014 map

Similar to the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) by Transparency International, the project has compiled a database which allows to measure the level of fairness in elections, the Perception of Electoral Integrity (PEI) index.
The list covers 127 countries, led by, no surprise, the usual champions in Northern Europe with Norway on top (PEI 86.6). The criteria applied are: electoral laws, electoral procedures, district boundaries, voter registration, party and candidate registration, media coverage, campaign finance, voting process, vote count, results, and electoral authorities.
Where does Southeast Asia fare with the last elections? Here are the results for 2013 and 2014:

Nr.                                       election date                    PEI index

51  Indonesia                        9.7.2014                          68.1
82  Indonesia                        9.4.2014                          62.3
88  Thailand                          2.2.2014                          60.6
91  Phillipines                      13.5.2013                          58.8
114  Malaysia                         5.5.2013                         48.4
120  Cambodia                     28.7.2013                         45.6

Surprise? Not really, but chances for improvement…

Voter Turnout in Southeast Asia

Partyforumseasia: IFES, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, offers a broad choice of reference material. We have selected the countries in Southeast Asia for easier reading. But the world-wide comparison is helping us to avoid prima-vista conclusions. If a higher voter turnout would mean more democratic legitimation, Vietnam and Laos were twice as democratic as the United States of America. Doubts about the USA’s political system are allowed and widespread among Americans, but there is no comparison here with the remaining Communist regimes in Southeast Asia.

As IFES points out at the end of a recent article on“Global Measures of Electoral Credibility: Voter Participation and Political Finance”By Ayesha Chugh and Hani Zainulbhai,September 17, 2014 – IFES ( Link ), “While variables like voter turnout and political finance are useful, electoral credibility is ultimately a nuanced concept that requires consideration of the full context of an election.”

Indeed, but it is certainly useful to compare the different systems in the region in light of the voter turnout in the last years. The following charts are due to IFES on www.ifes.int/vt/

The regional overview (Last parliamentary elections) Compiled by Partyforumseasia
vt WS

and world-wide:
Voter turnout

Detailed voter turnout statistics for the ten countries of Southeast Asia (Brunei has no parties) see the following page in the Partyforumseasia database:
Voter Turnout in Southeast Asia