Erle Frayne D. Argonza

ASEAN is surging ahead economically and no veteran analyst will deny this development. It has three (3) emerging markets with it—Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam—while its member states Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Thailand have already made it to the wealthy economy status.

That done, ASEAN ought to address too the matters of institutions, governance and culture. Building strong institutions, good governance, and inclusive multi-culture domains are sine qua non in shoring up business confidence and strengthening consumer purchasing power (i.e. redistributing wealth).

In the matter of elections for instance, too many areas in the ASEAN are like cave man dwellers’ era yet, where electoral cheating and violence hold sway as normal patterns. Electoral reforms, in consonance with human rights reform agenda of ASEAN, should be addressed by the entire bloc.

Gladly for observers and especially for ASEAN’s folks who suffer the brunt of warlords’ dirty political maneuverings, ASEAN has included electoral reforms on its table plates of urgent agenda. Below is an update concerning the subject.

[Philippines, 15 October 2011]

Message by Dr Surin Pitsuwan, Secretary-General of ASEAN, at the ASEAN Electoral Management Bodies’ Forum, ‘Inspiring Credible ASEAN Electoral Management Bodies’
Jakarta, 3 – 5 October 2011
H.E. Dr Nur Hassan Wirajuda, Former Foreign Minister of Indonesia
Prof Dr Hafiz Anshary, Chair of the Election Commission of Indonesia Commissioners of the Election Management Boards of ASEAN Member States
Dr Andrew Ellis, Director for Asia and the Pacific of IDEA
Ibu Sri Nuryanti, Member of the Election Commission of Indonesia
Election Commissioners of ASEAN Dialogue Partners
Distinguished Participants
Ladies and Gentlemen
Good morning,
As someone who was elected as a member of parliament in Thailand eight times in the last two decades, I feel a great sense of affinity with all of you here who are dedicated to the management and conduct of fair and free elections.
I am told that this is the first time that the Electoral Management Bodies from the ASEAN Member States have met at the regional level. This is a result of the far-sighted initiative of the General Elections Commission of the Republic of Indonesia (KPU) and of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA). Let me compliment these two organizations for conceiving the idea of this seminar. While the Election Commission of Indonesia has provided leadership, IDEA has been a fervent supporter of work to promote electoral assistance and democracy in ASEAN. Let me thank both KPU and IDEA, as well as the Government of the Republic of Indonesia for their commitment and support of these processes during their chairmanship of ASEAN.
Let me take the opportunity to welcome all the distinguished officials and participants from the ASEAN member States, and ASEAN’s Dialogue partners.
As you are aware, ASEAN Member States have a vision to create an ASEAN Community by 2015. The ASEAN Charter, which was adopted by the ASEAN Member States in 2007, commits ASEAN to the principles of “adherence to the rule of law, good governance, democracy and constitutional government”. The ASEAN Political and Security Community (APSC) Blueprint provides details on the measures which the ASEAN Heads of States have agreed to, in order to translate these principles into real and practical life.
The APSC Blueprint commits ASEAN to evolving into a”rules-based” Community of shared values and norms (A.12). These shared values include promoting the principles of democracy – for example by “convening seminars, training programmes and other capacity building activities for government officials, think-tanks and relevant civil society organizations to exchange views, sharing experiences and promote democracy and democratic institutions” (A.1.8.ii); and by “conducting annual research on experiences and lessons-learned of democracy aimed at enhancing the adherence to the principles of democracy” (A.1.8.iii).
While the APSC Blueprint specifically covers the issue of democracy, the Blueprints of the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community and ASEAN Economic Community are no less relevant to building the social and economic foundations of a democracy.
How can ASEAN’s stakeholders help the ASEAN governments realise the vision of the ASEAN Community? I would like to introduce you to a number of key ASEAN organs who make policy at the ASEAN level.1 Some of these organs were created when the Charter was adopted:
Here is a list of some of the key ASEAN bodies who perform work at the ASEAN level:
• ASEAN Summit – this body comprises the Heads of State of the ten ASEAN countries;
• ASEAN Coordinating Council – this body coordinates policies from the three pillars of the ASEAN Community before the decision by the Summit;
• ASEAN Community Councils – this body makes decisions on political-security, socio-cultural and economic issues;
• ASEAN Committee of Permanent Representatives – these are ambassadors from the ten ASEAN Member States who coordinate national policies at the regional level;
• ASEAN National Secretariats – each ASEAN member state has a national secretariat which coordinates policies at the national level.
• ASEAN Secretariat – the ASEAN Secretariat facilitates the work of the member states which covers all issues affecting the ASEAN Community;
More specialised ASEAN government bodies related to your work include:
• ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR)
• ASEAN Commission for Women and Children (ACWC)
• ASEANAPOL – a network of chiefs of ASEAN police who handle matters of law enforcement and crime control
• There are also a host of other ASEAN bodies and working groups which deal with specific issues such as trafficking, trade, disabilities, labour issues, finance and economic integration, and others.
Other non-governmental entities who undertake ASEAN work include:
• the ASEAN Inter-parliamentary Assembly (AIPA)
• ASEAN-ISIS network of think-tanks across ASEAN.
• ASEAN Law Association
As you can see, the network of policy-making organs working at the ASEAN level is flourishing. Three years after the ASEAN Charter entered into force, the regional policy-making organs are still evolving and finding ways of working with their colleagues from the other ASEAN Member States. They will need time to find their feet. Depending on the nature of the issues you are confronted with at the ASEAN level, you may find it useful to approach some of these bodies. One of these bodies will likely be working on the very issues of you are concerned with.
Democracy is not only about elections – but credible elections are at its core. Credible elections require a commitment to transparency and to an election environment which enables the voices of political parties and candidates to receive a fair hearing. Credible elections also require effective electoral management– which is both about creating and ensuring a level playing field for political participants, and about organising highly complex events well in a manner which follows the rules. Effective electoral management relies on the independence of electoral management bodies. This applies to all electoral management bodies, whether they are functionally independent or whether they are executive government agencies (or even if they are a mixture of the two).
A General Election is often the most comprehensive activity a country undertakes in peacetime. Electoral administrators and managers have to make a large number of decisions under heavy time pressure and with a lot riding on the political outcome. Their job is not simple. While many of these decisions are technical, most have political implications.
A large amount of money is also needed to organise a credible election. Huge numbers of people are involved, especially on polling day, and the procurement of equipment and supplies also involves very substantial sums of public money. Spending this money with transparency and accountability matters – not only because it is right in itself, but also because the honesty and financial integrity of the electoral authority affects the confidence in the political outcome of the elections.
The challenges of logisticsin elections across the ASEAN Member States can on their own be daunting, and the costs of failure in lost credibility can again be high. For instance, in archipelagic countries like Indonesia and the Philippines whose population collectively are spread over more than 20,000 islands, managing elections are a mammoth logistical and political challenge. If the ballot box, papers and materials have not arrived in time for a polling station to open on polling day, all that can be done is damage minimisation.
Elections are only highly visible during campaign periods and until results are declared, and that is when electoral managers are under most scrutiny. However, good performance by electoral managers is necessary almost all the time – because the cycle of elections goes on all the time. Tasks such as the drafting and updating of electoral procedures, the registration of electors, training, and the resolution of disputes and complaints under an electoral justice system which follows the rule of law are done at other stages of the electoral cycle – and all have a major impact on the credibility of elections. New challenges such as ensuring the opportunity to vote for all adult citizens, including migrant’s in-country and citizens abroad, require inventiveness. Information technology can increase credibility if used well, but can cause more problems than it solves if badly handled – and it is another area in which the role of money and of vested interests needs careful oversight.
We must harness the power of technology to activate networks of likeminded citizens to create a momentum to realise our vision for our future, since we all have a stake in it. The social media has radically transformed the nature of electoral contests and how they are viewed. Information technology is also having a liberating and empowering influence on our community of disabled people in many ways including political inclusiveness even as ASEAN builds a community based upon inclusive values.
Election bodies should therefore continually keep pace with technological advances. As you know, it is also no longer necessary for candidates to meet face-to-face with their voters. Technology will continue to make electoral contests more inclusive. Social media has also allowed people to meet online, and form networks and partnerships to realise common ends. Electoral management is a task that will increasingly require greater professionalism.
This seminar is therefore a valuable platform for professionals from the ASEAN nations to share knowledge, expertise and experiences among themselves as well as with colleagues from dialogue partners. It will create a network of electoral managers within the ASEAN Member States who can work together to face the challenges of organising credible elections at all levels in their countries.
Your task as managers of the election commissions is of utmost importance. I would like to encourage you to maintain the contacts you have made here to improve your work in your own countries. This is a highly significant and powerful network of likeminded people. I would also urge you to understand the ASEAN Charter and ASEAN processes so that you can better contribute to “inspiring credible ASEAN election management bodies”.
Let me reiterate the commitment that our governments have made at the very highest level to “strengthen democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law”, and to “promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms”. It will take time for us to achieve these noble objectives, but our Leaders have taken an important step towards this end. With your knowledge, commitments and expertise, I believe this Forum will accelerate momentum to realise the vision of the ASEAN Charter and the development of a people-centred ASEAN Community based on shared and free values.
1 For a list of the ASEAN organs, and entities associated with ASEAN, see Chapter IV and Annex 2 of the ASEAN Charter

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