Friday, July 25, 2014

Election Transparency and Citizen Observation

by Telibert Laoc, National Democratic Institute (ndi.org) for the Multi-Stakeholder Conference on Electoral Integrity, 20 July, Yangon, Myanmar

Nonpartisan observation of elections first caught global attention in 1986. The National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), in the Philippines had just exposed manipulation of the election results by the government.  Their reports helped provide evidence that led to the eventual proclamation of the candidate whom the people had truly elected.

For the one million Namfrel volunteer poll watchers who were out on Election Day, the victory was deeper.  Each one felt that they had personally played a role in protecting the will of the voters.  Since then nonpartisan election observation spread around the world, thanks to NDI which spearheaded the effort in spreading this mode of citizen engagement.  There are now close to 100 countries having citizen observers in their elections. (GNDEM, 2014)

Keys to effective and efficient election observation

Election observation as you may have already known is about the process.  It is neither about the outcome nor is it about who wins or who loses.  Observers use a simple but systematic methodology to understand election-related processes, observe how they are carried out and how various stakeholders play their roles, and report the observations.  

Neutrality and independence are key to the observer's efficacy.

Observers are guided by the Declaration of Global Principles for Nonpartisan Election Observation and Monitoring by Citizen Organizations (GNDEM). I am told that you are all familiar with this declaration.  The declaration presents standards and codes of conduct for observers.  There are moves in the offing with election management bodies to adapt or share a similar declaration.  These agreements will improve the standardization of election administration and election observation.

The use of internationally recognized standards to observe elections and report findings is another key to effective citizens' observation of elections.

I look at election observation as a venue for ordinary citizens to get involved beyond voting.  Observing that electoral processes are carried out according to the set rules deepens citizen's confidence in the participative process. Hopefully their experience will encourage them to be more active in nation building and in similar affairs.  Civil society organizations that are  independent and impartial have effectively provided citizens this venue for participation. The training that the observer organizations provide certainly contributes to build capacity among the citizens.  However, the election management bodies are the main enablers for this form of value-adding citizen participation.

Wide and geographic and sectoral representative participation and an free and open space for citizens is key in effective and efficient election observation.

Expert Panel on International and Regional Best Practices in
 Elections and Transparency. (L-R) Dr Richard A Nuccio
(NDI), Vic Butler (IFES), Josh Hills (IRI) and this blogger. 
"Observing to improve"

There are a variety of modes of engagement for CSOs, but for practical purposes let me go into what might be most beneficial, which is "observing in order to improve". For the greater benefit and for the long run, the observation system should be set up to improve procedures, enhance participation, work for robust transparency, and full openness to all stakeholders.  This way every heart and mind is won and right at the beginning everyone is set up to benefit.

Here are a few suggestions along this line.

1.  Establish and agree on metrics or measures of efficiency of carrying out elections.  The adage goes, "one cannot improve that which cannot be measured.
  • Start with the cost of administering elections. What is the cost of registering a voter? What is the cost of delivering the ballot to a voter? What is the cost of every invalid vote? What is the component cost of voter information? To what extent are voter information efforts penetrating rural areas and to all voter demographics? Explore other metrics, set benchmarks and work your way improving from there.
  • Determine the cost of getting elected. What are the component costs for candidates? What is the component cost of the campaign:   organization, materials, transport, communication, and others? Explore what might the state provide or absorb so that the playing field  becomes more level?  Lastly, how should barriers to candidacy be managed so that the elections attract as much qualified candidates as possible?
2.  How should election results be reported so that it is easily audited by the voters themselves, and not require complicated training to understand them? How should technology be used to bring more confidence and credibility especially in the vote counting and aggregating processes?

3.  What should be the strategic approach to full disclosure of political and campaign finance?  How and where do parties get their resources? How should political parties be encouraged to report? 
What roles should institutions, like business and others, play to make the system focus on and reward compliance (rather than on uncovering irregularities)?

4.  Look at how political parties are up-skilling themselves or acquiring competencies and professionals so that it will be ready to govern, when its time comes for them to do so?

5.  How should civil society develop and acquire progressive skills so that it could appreciate political and electoral contexts and progressively engage in improving the quality of the elections?

6.  How should political parties develop and prepare to govern? How are leaders within the party prepared for the time when they are elected and take responsibilities at the national and local levels? How should political parties be assisted so that they improve the quality of candidates that voters have to choose from?

7.  On top of all these, how should popular (as opposed to cutting edge) technology be used to support any or all of the above efforts?

Every volunteer of Namfrel in the Philippines take to heart the saying that goes, "It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness".  "Observing to improve", which is the entire theme that I am proposing before you, will require that the different actors work together dynamically and push forward in the same direction.

I wish you all the best in your efforts and thanks for the opportunity to speak before you today.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Coping With Friends Gone



How do you cope with death of a friend when you yourself are trying to make the most out life?

The shooter was waiting in the heavy downpour as Kitz Velasco and his nephew, Cesar, walked home from work. Little did they know that that moment on the narrow path between the plots of verdant idyllic ricefields of barangay Manaol, Pozzorubio, Pangasinan, would be their last. While in Kabul, Kitz came to the aid of compatriots providing temporary work to bridge to their next employment. He had a sweet smile and a deep baritone laugh. He touches me with his selflessness and sincerity to help, a strong sense of the familial, and pursuit of goals working hard for them.

Luis Maria Duarte Gonzalez was excitedly looking forward to Nawrooz the following day, the Persian new year. On the eve young suicide assassins who had already entered the Serena hotel in Kabul opened fire on celebrating diners. He was among those who were shot. Luis was an astute observer of politics and poured over analysts' materials to try to make sense of the complex. We worked together in Bangladesh in 2008, and twice in Kabul in 2010 and 2014. He reminds me of youthful outlook to learning and living. We stood beside each other during one of the daily security briefings when we were told that the Taliban, in a heightened push to disrupt the elections, had planned to put improvised explosives even in toilets. "They should leave these places as sanctuaries", commented Luis. I bursted laughing!

"I worried about you. He was your friend", a work colleague messaged me. We had just been informed through an all-staff email that Tom Barry was found in his home in Washington, D.C. We later learned that it was a heart attack. He visited my program in Timor Leste in 2006 and we worked alongside in the pre-election assessment mission in the Philippines in 2010. Then we opened NDI's first ever office in Papua New Guinea in 2012. He was reserved, deliberate and straight to the point. Perhaps more than others, I saw the wonderful and the man-for-others side of him when he opened up. A privilege. In challenging situations I would sometimes catch myself asking "how would Tom think"?

In trying to answer the question, I came up with another question. Am I too detached or calloused?

Death, and birth for that matter, came and went during youth. My mom owned and ran a small hospital in rural Sibonga in Cebu. Lives went in varied ways from accidents, ending bitter fights through cold vendettas, and other bizarre ways like goring by a water buffalo. Births, too. I would hold up a petromax (gas lantern) with both hands in dreamy state because for some reason they seem to always take place in the middle of the night. Mom would deliver the baby and dad would be around to help her.

I would witness all these, albeit for deaths distanced and fleetingly, and perhaps in instinctual self preservation. To go on and remind myself of the gifts to use them to serve the people of God -- hopefully ready in gratitude for the inevitable.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Contribution to modernizing elections in the Philippines

We have been at this since 1992.  My personal involvement dates back to 1995 when I served as the executive director of the National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections (namfrel.com.ph).

Modernizing Philippine elections continues to be contentious even if the benefits to voters, polling officials, election administrators and candidates are obvious.  I believe this is generally the nature when introducing change.  But modernization alienates and restricts the participative space and threatens to make it exclusive to the techies.  The challenge to us is to widen that space to make way for transparency and accountability, a feature that technology should expedite rather than limit.

Allow me to share with you a short paper that I had the privilege to develop for Namfrel, of which I am a member of the volunteer board.  The board passed it en toto and the paper was shared with the Commission on Elections and members of the suffrage committees of the House of Representatives and of the Senate.

Links: short paper at http://bit.ly/1scvQq8 and cover letter at http://bit.ly/1kozoQP.