Side Views

Democracy: Bringing integrity into elections — Budi Akmal Djafar

JAN 9 — Indonesia’s road to democracy is no longer an astonishing spectacle. Our reform efforts have long been praised as an epitome of homegrown democracy and a model for like-minded nations.

And about 15 years after the reform movement, we continued to make headway for a transparent, and to a larger extent vibrant, society that celebrates the democratic ideals of accessibility, equality and prosperity.

However good this may all sound on paper, the journey to democracy has no end — a perfect democracy is a purely utopian idea.

Like many, we often find ourselves toying with the notion of democracy and what it actually means. Today, our understanding of the universal values of democracy is continuously finding root and with great distinction; the growing perception of democracy is a mixed bag of universal rights and respect for traditional norms and cultures. And for that reason, or another, we want to reach a common ground that fits best with the way we live.

But just like a competitive runner, we have only cleared the first few hurdles. A number of procedural loopholes and a lack of substantial deepening linger, which can potentially cause us to fall behind.

No wonder public outcry for improvements in our democratic system has been urgent and detrimental in paving the way for the future. And as we gear up for upcoming elections, widening of the scope of our democratic transition is necessary in ensuring a democracy that delivers.

Elections are the gateway to democracy. It is the entry point where people’s aspirations are rightfully channeled. We have heard many urging the importance to move beyond processes and to quickly plant the seeds of substantial democracy. But process can also be more substantial and, similarly, substance can become more procedural. Most of all, they should reinforce one another.

That is why the global commission on elections, democracy and security recently devised an international standard on democratic elections as platform for new democratic countries that aspire to be open and free. Tuning the right balance of process and substance is exactly the premise to upholding “elections with integrity”.

What the global commission outlined is a breakthrough. It states that a mature democracy should embody a genuine liberty to assemble, express and run for office for citizens and, therefore, elections must show periodic self-improvements to exercise these rights. In a way, this ensures that our constitutional reforms and rule of law have the proper boundaries and methods of redress.

More than that, elections with integrity uphold universal participation by way of reducing the likelihood of gender and minority biases. In addition, for a fruitful election, stakeholders also must be active, professional, competent and independent.

This is especially true for existing electoral management bodies (EMBs), like our General Elections Commission (KPU) and Election Supervisory Committee (Bawaslu), which are responsible for overseeing the entire election process.

Electoral drawbacks are everywhere to be found. So, it is not surprising if our democracy is often noisy. But that is because we tend to forget our own achievements.

There were 172 million voters, 600,000 voting booths and other logistical challenges scattered around the archipelago, yet, we managed a free, fair and democratic election.

This is a positive sign and should not stop us from deepening our elections. There are ways to go about it, by simultaneously strengthening our institutions and making use of existing international resources.

First, our national institutions can learn from the global commission to improve our electoral system by empowering EMBs across the board. Doing so would give them the authority to better manage elections and minimize political clout over conflicts.

There should also be a financial guarantee for EMBs, which in the past have delayed our elections. Human resources also deserve an equal amount attention in ensuring EMBs’ competency and professionalism.

Just as important, the global commission urged international agencies to funnel resources to regions without affecting a sense of local ownership of elections, thus allowing for peer monitoring among institutions.

Second, elections with integrity are paramount not only for developing countries but also important today in advanced societies. Campaign financing, for instance, remains largely unregulated and has emerged as one of the main reasons why democracy is increasingly expensive, as evident in Indonesia and United States.

In that regard, setting rules on election financing and appropriate sanctions for violations should be the next step forward. Through the global commission, the facility for sharing of best practices in campaign financing had been extensively laid out.

Finally, since political education remains an important agenda item, we can make use of our international network to empower people. Vote-buying is still a common practice in our society and the only way to eliminate such behaviour is to foster a sense of ownership in our democracy so that what is at stake is clearly understood by all.

Elections with integrity allow us to move away from political and economic entrapment, by which benefits are enjoyed exclusively by those with resources and access.

There is merit in what the global commission intends to do. But there is more to it. With global commission initiatives, international standards for EMBs all over the world can be adopted just like the Paris Principle on National Institutions for Human Rights in the 1990s. National EMBs can make use of a global network to enhance their electoral processes, while at the same time allowing others to learn from our experiences.

Only with a newly improved democratic system can we bring about tangible changes in our democracy. The platforms are there for the taking. We have one full year to carry out these changes. There is more than enough time. — The Jakarta Post

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.


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