Winning the war against democracy

from NAMFREL Election Monitor Vol.3, No.1
by Amina Rasul, Member, NAMFREL National Council
President, Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy (PCID)
A month has passed since the May 13 midterm elections in the Philippines. While the elections were orderly and peaceful, there have been many reported incidents that have marred the electoral process. For instance, as NAMFREL and other watchdogs had warned, a significant number of PCOS machines malfunctioned. COMELEC Chair Brillantes has said, “we may not pay the entire amount if we can show that the problems and defects were from Smartmatic." 258 out of the 78,000 PCOS machines used in the polls bogged down. The report of the Random Manual Audit (RMA), which should have been done on election night, has not been released yet even though the sample of 234 precincts is a small one. Fears, that the results may be “massaged”, are not allayed by the non-reporting of the RMA results. However, the automated counting system has made wholesale cheating more difficult, particularly the “dagdag-bawas” (adding-subtracting votes from the official tallies) that used to plague the counting of votes.

The decades old problems of crowded classrooms and securing the secrecy of the ballot remain headaches. Turn out among the Philippines' 52 million voters was around 75%. Armed groups still harassed voters in the declared hot-spots, vote-buying remained rampant in many areas.

At the national level, we saw a loose pro-government alliance win enough seats to continue dominating both houses. Despite the reported incidents, most of the electoral results including the national senatorial elections are not being contested. Thus, it can be said that the Philippine elections went relatively well. However, this observation does not negate the need to improve the conduct of our elections, to safeguard the will of the people and the democratic process. Perhaps, we can look to our neighboring countries experiences and gain insights.

The Pakistan elections of May 11 were clearly the triumph of the forces of democracy, in spite of the violence that marred the electoral process.
I was part of the leadership group of the joint election observation mission of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL). The leadership delegation, led by former Prime Minister of Norway Kjell Magne Bondevik, included former Minister of Justice of Ireland Nora Owen, former U.S. congressman for Missouri Russ Carnahan, NDI's Vice President Shari Bryan and NDI Director for Asia Programs Peter Manikas. I represented NAMFREL and ANFREL.

The mission consisted of 48 observers from 18 countries. From ANFREL, the countries included Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, and the Philippines. Our observers were deployed to Islamabad and three provinces - Punjab, Sindh and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK).

Ms. Rasul (4th from left) with international election observers from ANFREL and NDI
Due to security concerns, we were unable to directly observe the process in Balochistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). However, we were able to meet with candidates, parties and nongovernmental organizations in those areas. Hour long conference calls were organized with leaders who could not be in Islamabad due to their campaign.

After five days observing the elections in Pakistan, I can safely say that the process was a momentous victory of the people’s political will against extremist groups that warred against democracy. The elections also resulted in several historic firsts. Allow me to relate what I had observed.

While Islamabad was free from electoral violence, the tension level was high due to daily news about bombings, assassinations and constant threats from the Pakistan Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan). These did not deter the people, particularly the young and women, from campaigning. On Election Day, Pakistani youth and women showed up in record numbers, defying the threats made by the Taliban.

The Pakistan Taliban had targeted political parties associated with the previous government: the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and its main coalition partners, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the Awami National Party (ANP). President Asif Ali Zardari, the husband of the late Benazir Bhutto who was assassinated on December 27, 2007, leads PPP. The United Nations (UN) recorded 196 deaths due to election-related violence, including at least seven candidates, from March 16, when the National Assembly was dissolved, until May 7. The Taliban had distributed a written threat against all individuals intending to vote, stating that elections were un-Islamic. The Taliban threat and the campaign violence resulted to low turnout in the conflict-affected areas of Balochistan and FATA.

At stake were 272 general seats in the National Assembly as well 60 seats reserved for women, and ten seats reserved for non-Muslims. At the provincial level, 577 general seats were contested in the four Provincial Assemblies together with 128 seats reserved for women, and 23 seats reserved for non-Muslims.

The 2013 elections have set the stage for the country’s first transfer of power from one democratically elected government to the next. This will be the first time, after 6 decades, that an administration will have completed its term of office and will be succeeded through a democratic electoral process.. Tens of millions of Pakistanis participated and expressed their support for the democratic process by voting despite the threats of the Taliban. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) estimated voter turnout around 60 percent.

The Pakistani voters’ courage and resolve, particularly the young and the women, reminded me of the political will of our own nation during the campaign and election of our icon of democracy, the late former President Corazon C. Aquino. As our NDI-ANFREL statement noted, “in casting their ballots despite the mounting violence was a victory for democracy and the people of Pakistan.”

I was amazed by the number of women who ran for office, in spite of the Taliban threat against women candidates and voters. A total of 456 women ran for seats in the National Assembly and Provincial Assemblies, which is more than twice as many women candidates from the 2008 general elections. This included the lone female candidate in FATA. Though numerically higher, women candidates constituted only 2.9 percent of the total number of candidates running for general seats.

For the first time in their history, a woman ran for a seat in the conflict-affected area of FATA. Nusrat Begum, the first female parliamentary candidate from that tribal region, knew fully well the overwhelming obstacles she had to face. Ubiquitously accompanied by her son or another male family member, Begum campaigned "to give women their rights, the rights that they deserve." Even though she eventually lost by a huge margin, Begun made her presence felt in a Taliban-dominated region.

More parties and candidates participated in these elections than in the previous general elections. In Balochistan, parties that boycotted the 2008 elections reentered the electoral process and, for the first time in the nation’s history, political parties fielded candidates in FATA.

A crucial factor in the success of the electoral process has been the cooperation of the government and the political parties to improve the legal framework for the elections. Their cooperation resulted in the selection of a Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), a unanimous choice of the parties, and the establishment of a framework for designating national and provincial caretaker governments. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), even as it has been criticized for its actions (or inaction) on several matters including the electoral violence, did enjoy a high-level of public confidence. The ECP cleaned the voters’ list and developed a database of voters, which could be accessed by mobile phone to provide the voter information on their assigned precincts. This innovation is certainly worth emulating by the Philippine COMELEC. Perhaps Globe and SMART can consider following the example of the Pakistani telephone companies, providing free-of-charge SMS for the voters. I was particularly impressed by the excitement and will of the young Pakistanis. In one polling station where I was observing the canvass and taking pictures, a young man asked us to take his photo. He was a watcher for the PTI, the party of Pakistani cricket legend Imran Khan who has attracted the young by his campaign of “Change” (ala Obama). I thought that was a strange request, as election agents normally don't want their photos taken by observers. The young man said he wanted proof of his participation in an election that he believed would change Pakistan for the better.

To him and the millions who braved the threat against their lives, I pay tribute. The Pakistani people have spoken. I can only pray that their political will remains strong and constant, as the electoral process is only the first step on the difficult road to democracy.

On June 6, a smooth and peaceful democratic transition transpired from President Zardari to Nawaz Sharif. As Zardari the oath of the office of Prime Minister to Sharif, the Pakistani people can only hope that reforms will take place to strengthen the democracy they had worked so hard for.

If the Pakistani people will stay united behind their proposed reform of the political institutions, then they will have proved Aristotle right when he said, “In a democracy the poor will have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme.”

If not, and if reforms do not take root, then Bertrand Russell will be proved correct when he observed, “Democracy is the process by which people choose the man who'll get the blame.”

(Read the preliminary statement of the joint NDI-ANFREL international election observation mission to Pakistan here: http://bit.ly/11Xx2yg)