The 1990s saw a worldwide trend of democratisation in Asia, often referred to as “the third wave”, and countries like Nepal, Indonesia and the Philippines served then as role models in a region still dominated by autocratic governments. The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) was established in 1997 as a network of election monitoring and human rights organisations across Asia. It was designed to encourage free and fair elections and ensure that more people would be empowered with universal suffrage, a fundamental right recognised in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Democracy in Asia has unfortunately been affected by serious setbacks in the past years. Indeed, the region is the worst performer in The Economist’s Democracy Index for 2017. Among others, states such as the Philippines or the Maldives are plagued by human rights challenges, while Thailand has not held elections since 2014. Democracy depends in large part on a regional and global dynamic which seems to have stopped in its tracks. The trend is made even more visible as Asian nations tend to pivot towards China which, unlike Western states, does not condition delivery of its foreign aid packages upon progress in reaching international human rights standards.
ANFREL’s mandate is to promote democracy in Asia by assessing the integrity of electoral processes and advocating on issues of good governance. We regularly send missions to monitor national and local elections, for which we draw observers from a web of member organisations across the region. To date, we have been in present in nearly 60 elections across 17 countries, making us the biggest and most prominent NGO working on electoral democracy in Asia. We strive for independence and are proud of our experience in deploying missions across very diverse political and geographical landscapes.
Another main aspect of our work is to provide training to civil society groups working towards democratisation in their home countries. This capacity building is fundamental in raising public awareness about good governance practices beyond electoral deadlines. We believe that involvement from civil society at large is necessary for democracy to flourish.
Our main challenge over the years has been that many people in Asia still regard universal democratic standards as norms emanating from Western states, which should not have to apply in this region. To address this and entrench a culture of democracy seen as more locally developed rather than externally imposed, we have produced our own set of standards that would be perceived as “more palatable to Asian taste”.
Since 2012, ANFREL has regularly invited electoral stakeholders from all over Asia to convene at the Asian Electoral Stakeholder Forum (AESF) and discuss guidelines for good electoral practices. The first such event produced the Bangkok Declaration on Free and Fair Elections, a groundbreaking document affirming the commitment, from civil society organisations and election monitoring bodies, to strengthen democracy in the region. Given that only a few years before these actors would often be bickering rather than sit at the same table, the progress made in election-related dialogue must not be understated. The second and third AESF expanded this growing Asian set of procedures that has since received endorsements from organisations beyond the regional level. The next iteration of the AESF will be held on August 27-28 in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and will be the biggest gathering of Asian electoral stakeholders yet.
Significant progress in electoral transparency and integrity can be witnessed throughout all of Asia over the past two decades. ANFREL is oftentimes the first organisation to go into countries where there is severe political strife, ahead of elections to help organise a democratic process that did not exist previously. Our contribution can be seen as these nations begin to embrace peaceful power sharing and good governance. States like Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, or most recently Myanmar, have made great strides in building democratic institutions and norms, even though improvements are still desirable and possible. For instance, Myanmar still fails to fully recognise the political rights of several ethnic minorities, and Nepal severely restricts freedom of association.
ANFREL’s assistance to domestic election monitoring organisations has resulted in the proliferation of a vibrant civil society activity in Asia, with most of its members actively pursuing reforms in the country they are in. The most compelling success story to date in southeast Asia is probably that of Timor-Leste, which has successfully transitioned from a very politically unstable situation to become what is now recognised as the most democratic nation in the region. ANFREL has been present there since the 1999 popular consultation on independence and has collaborated with all stakeholders to ensure that voters’ choices are properly taken into consideration.
Other initiatives of ours include the Asian Electoral Resource Center (AERC), a database compiling all available information on politics and elections, and training workshops for election monitors in Malaysia, Myanmar and others. Through our training, ANFREL was able to help produce generations of election workers and advocates who now work in various capacities, either as members of independent NGOs or management bodies.
An issue we are faced with is that independent review of electoral processes is often subject to negative feedback from governments, political parties, or other stakeholders. The most recent example of such criticism has to do with the current political situation in Cambodia, a country currently rated as “repressed” when it comes to civic space, by the CIVICUS Monitor. Following the 2017 local elections, and ahead of legislative elections to be held on July 29 of this year, the state of democracy in the country has severely worsened as Cambodian government and judicial institutions have clamped down on civil society activists, rival political candidates, and “undesirable” news outlets. ANFREL has highlighted these negative developments, as well as other factors detrimental to a healthy electoral climate, in a pre-election assessment report.
In the days following the release of our report, whose findings are in accordance with other NGOs in the country, the Cambodian government attacked us harshly through two of its front organisations, a youth group and an online media outlet. They branded our work as “baseless and deceptive”, accusing ANFREL of “fabricating fake news” and “planning to destroy democracy in Cambodia”.
Far from taking personal offence in such brazen confrontation, such assaults on our work prove that we are useful and needed at times when governments stifle dissent among their population. We maintain the highest standards of independence and protect sources willing to talk to us openly, in accordance with the 2005 Declaration of Principles and Code of Conduct applicable to international election observation. We will do everything in our power to combat disinformation and empower voters with access to reliable information about electoral processes and the broader political landscape in their countries.
Amaël Vier is program officer for capacity building and international election observation at ANFREL. Follow them on Twitter @Anfrel
This article is part of a series to celebrate CIVICUS’ 25th anniversary and provide perspectives and insights on citizen action around the world.