Elections are the only instrument of democratic and peaceful transfer of power with the consent and choice of the majority. Therefore, the rights to vote and participate in elections are part of the basic human rights. Human rights and democratic principles are valued world over as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. This includes the “freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, the right to take part in the government of one's country through freely elected representatives, the right of equal access to public service in one's country, and the recognition that the authority of government derives from the will of the people, expressed in genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot” ( International IDEA on Electoral Integrity).
Elections must be conducted with integrity for strengthening democracy, furthering development, and for social and individual security. Where elections are held and integrity is not challenged, the bedrock democratic principle of political equality is honoured: citizens select their leader and hold them accountable. Where elections lack integrity and politicians, the leaders, officials and institutions are not accountable, the public is denied of “equal opportunity to participate in and influence the political process. In such cases public lose interest in the election and faith in its outcome and the government formed would remain weak and away from public. In that case institutions would render into empty shells deprived of ethos, principle and the spirit of democracy is dampened. Government thus formed would tend to be authoritarian and disconnected with people”, as Pippa Norris endorsed. However, International IDEA and the said scholar define electoral integrity as: “any election that is based on the democratic principles of universal suffrage and political equality as reflected in international standards and agreements, and is professional, impartial, and transparent in its preparation and administration throughout the electoral cycle including during, pre-electoral period, the campaign , on polling day and its aftermath”.
Electoral integrity not only gives boost to social integration and upholds the rule of law, but regularly scheduled elections with universal and equal suffrage, and held in secret ballot, has tangible benefits. One of the benefits is that it empowers women, fights corruption, delivers service to the poor, improves governance and ends political or ethnical conflicts peacefully. Moreover a peaceful transfer of power takes place, which is the essence of democracy.
International IDEA identifies five major challenges which need to be overcome to achieve electoral integrity to meet the attributes of effective electoral governance. These are: 1) Building the rule of law to substantiate claims to human rights and electoral justice; 2) Building professional, competent electoral management bodies (EMBs) with full independence of action to administer elections that are transparent and merit public confidence; 3) Creating institutions and norms of multiparty competition and division of power that bolster democracy as a mutual security system among political contenders; 4) Removing barriers – legal, administrative, political, economic, and social – to universal and equal political participation; and 5) Regulating uncontrolled, undisclosed, and opaque political finance.
To overcome those difficulties, the role of the EMB (Election Commission in our case) is most vital, when the rule of electoral law and right to vote without discrimination is to be ensured, which then would take care of the rest of the challenges. EMB must ensure electoral integrity by conducting the election and administer the entire electoral processes with competence, professionalism in a non-partisan and transparent manner. This would need professional and fully independent EMBs capable of taking independent action. EMBs must conduct the election so that it is technically credible, free, fair and acceptable in the perception of the stakeholders, including the public. EMBs should responsible and guided by the electoral laws and regulations in the whole range of electoral tasks. EMBs also have to be transparent in electoral dispute resolution. The competency and credibility of EMBs can thus shape overall perceptions of, and confidence in, the integrity of the election. The role of the stakeholders in meeting the challenges is as important as of the government of the day. Credible elections at home and its acceptance would boost sustained democracy and increase the democratic credibility as international standard demands.
The next election commission has to face and prove their worth, as it is apparent that we have lost in the field of electoral integrity whatever little was gained in the past few elections. The electoral system after the 10th parliamentary election is under serious strain; people's faith in the system and institutions, particularly the Election Commission, is on the wane. Therefore the selection process of the new commission and people, who are to manage the election and be involved in electoral dispute resolution as one of the important stakeholders, would be very important. The role of the government and political parties would also be important in upholding electoral integrity as envisaged in international human and political rights.
The writer is a retired Brigadier General, column writer, former Election Commissioner and a PhD fellow.