2004 Report (Continued)
The sixth and final session, moderated by Bahman Baktiari, went beyond the previous sessions’ findings about Islam and elections in general to concentrate on the practice of elections in Muslim countries today. Presented with three case studies as well as an international perspective, participants were asked to consider who should be eligible to vote? Who should nominate candidates and regulate political campaigns? What role should be played by elections commissions? And how can these rules be applied to transitional situations in which a Muslim-majority country is, to some degree, occupied by a foreign power?
Moderator Bahman Baktiari introduced the session by suggesting that there are three components to the subject of Islamic elections: structural, organizational, and ethical. The structural component includes the role of electoral institutions. The organizational component covers the procedure of elections. The ethical component takes into account the contribution of Islam—less as a religious system than as a significant influence on the sociopolitical environment in which elections take place. He noted that manifestations of these components could differ according to a nation’s particular culture and history. He then requested that the electoral commissioners present at the workshop discuss the ways in which democratic practices and participatory governance have been envisioned, instituted, and assured in their respective countries.
Speaking on the Malaysian case, Seri Ahmad Sarji began by noting his dissatisfaction with the workshop’s focus on determining whether elections could be “Islamic” and what this could mean. Malaysia’s population is sixty percent Muslim; does this factor alone make the country’s elections “Islamic”? He proposed that elections be defined as Islamic if their outcome is fairly obtained, and he outlined the mechanisms used to ensure electoral fairness in Malaysia. First and foremost, Malaysia relies on laws that clearly delineate electoral procedures, including voter eligibility, campaign procedures, and the counting of votes. He maintained that eligibility criteria for candidacy and voting must be clearly and publicly stated, and that all citizens must be equally eligible. Malaysia currently requires that citizens who vote be at least twenty-one years of age, not bankrupt, and without a criminal record. In addition, election criteria prohibit discrimination on either religious or ethnic grounds—a critical issue in a multicultural, multireligious state. Campaign laws also prohibit hate speech, defamatory statements, and incitation to violence against citizens or against the state.
Seri Ahmad Sarji also noted the pivotal role played by the independent Malaysian electoral commission in guaranteeing the integrity and legitimacy of the electoral process. Although outside observers and poll watchers can be great assets in contested situations, he said, their absence from Malaysia is a testament to the freeness and fairness of the country’s elections. This legitimacy also depends on independent tallying of election results and the active presence of electoral judges. Whether vote-counting is manual or electronic, the critical distinction is between the use of independent enumerators and party representatives. Likewise, an active independent electoral judiciary is necessary to guarantee that the practice of elections meets legal requirements. The functioning of these three guarantees, along with the proven willingness of the government in power to recognize the validity of elections it has lost, has made elections and democratic government in Malaysia “a way of life.” As such, Seri Ahmad Sarji claimed, the Malaysian government has developed both the state and the umma, making Malaysia perhaps a model Islamic nation.
Building upon the remarks made earlier by his colleague Mohammad Abubaker, Sir Abel Guobadia, chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission of Nigeria, noted that Nigeria, like Malaysia, has an ethnically and religiously diverse population spread across the country.22 Nigeria’s 1992 constitution, which establishes a federal system of thirty-six states, works to accommodate this diversity. Although secular by nature, the constitution recognizes Islam and Christianity as the religions of most Nigerians. Sir Guobadia also noted that Nigeria, like Malaysia, provides for an independent electoral commission and judiciary. Elections commissioners are nominated by the president and approved by the senate, after which they can only be removed from office for poor performance. These commissioners not only oversee elections but investigate disputed elections, which are referred to an independent electoral tribunal for adjudication. Tribunal rulings are final and must be respected by the government and all political parties.
To accommodate the nation’s diversity, prevent factionalism, and discourage discrimination, political parties in Nigeria cannot proclaim a religious or ethnic affiliation. Parties nominate candidates to run for office, and these candidates are then vetted by the electoral commission to ensure that they meet eligibility requirements. Voter and candidate eligibility requirements are similar to those in Malaysia: there is universal suffrage for those eighteen and over with no criminal record. Discrimination on the basis of gender, race, or religion is prohibited, and those whose candidacy is denied can appeal to the electoral tribunal.
These procedures, Sir Guobadia explained, reflect both the history and demographic composition of Nigeria. Initial attempts at establishing democratic structures of governance following independence were thwarted by the rise of military regimes. Since 1998, however, the country has consistently focused on reinforcing democratic practices. To ensure that elections are not delayed or suspended, the schedule of elections is stipulated in the constitution. Electoral rules regarding presidential and gubernatorial elections are also designed to guarantee that the victor enjoys broad support: the president must win twenty-five percent of the votes cast in each state, as well as a majority of votes in at least twenty-four of the thirty-six states. If no candidate achieves these numbers, the law specifies a system of run-off elections.
Shri J.M. Lyngdoh, former chief election commissioner of India, began his presentation by noting a contradiction: India, the largest democracy in the world, also faces some of the greatest challenges to legitimacy. In India, the election commission alone has the power to determine the dates of elections. Moreover, election commissioners enjoy political immunity; like U.S. Supreme Court justices, they can be removed only through parliamentary impeachment. The strength of the commission stems directly from the fact that the Constituent Assembly at India’s independence was concerned that elections must be fair and that the election commission must be entirely independent of the executive power.
Despite the power and legitimacy enjoyed by the election commission, India still struggles with numerous electoral problems, Shri Lyngdoh concluded. It lacks guarantees of electoral procedures as enjoyed in Malaysia and Nigeria. According to Indian election laws, for instance, only individuals and not political parties, party affiliate organizations, or governments in power can violate the law. This loophole inhibits the commission’s capacity to maintain clean electoral rolls, let alone effect systemic reform. The executive’s heightened involvement has produced a situation in which it is impossible to hold credible elections without the presence of fully armed police, as well as election observers. Finally, in response to the session’s focus on “Islamic” elections, Shri Lyngdoh suggested that any election considered satisfactorily in order should be considered satisfactory in Islamic terms as well.
Following the presentation of these three case studies, the moderator invited Mustapha Tlili to introduce Carlos Valenzuela, senior political electoral officer at the Electoral Assistance Division of the United Nations Secretariat, who was attending the workshop as an observer. Tlili mentioned Valenzuela’s work in East Timor and his current role as a member of the United Nations delegation sent to Iraq under Lakhdar Brahimi, special adviser to the Secretary-General, to assess the feasibility of holding elections there.23
Valenzuela opened by describing the debate that erupted among his colleagues when the workshop materials arrived. The United Nations has never considered connecting Islam and elections as concepts, and officials were eager to discuss the value of doing so. Agreeing with the workshop’s overall position regarding the desirability of developing culturally specific models of participatory governance, Valenzuela presented elections as an exercise that is at once technical and sociopolitical. The United Nations does not advocate importing other nations’ electoral models wholesale, but rather using them as reference points in developing locally meaningful electoral institutions. Valenzuela also distinguished between elections and how they are perceived by the citizenry. The United Nations no longer uses the term “free and fair” as its benchmark, since technically perfect elections still fail, in effect, if the losing parties refuse to accept the results. Instead, the U.N.’s focus is on fostering “credible” elections—elections with results deemed legitimate by all participants. Credible elections are those in which the unwritten social pact between political actors reflects a consensus that will outweigh the individual interests of each actor; this consensus makes possible the legal and institutional framework which delineates political power. Without such a consensus, elections and even constitutions are meaningless. In the case of transitional situations such as those faced by Afghanistan and Iraq today, he said, it is quite difficult to negotiate a meaningful consensus while the occupying military force still exercises authority in the country. Hence credible elections can only be held after the transfer of power is complete. Valenzuela concluded by stating that participants’ comments throughout the workshop had reinforced his impression of the great diversity within Islam and his belief that the particular sociocultural context should remain the primary consideration in devising appropriate electoral models, which is also the position of the United Nations.
A lively debate ensued over the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan and other more general issues pertaining to election requirements and procedures. Participants suggested that context-sensitive (and non-Western) electoral processes may involve not only segregated poll facilities for women, but also mobile poll facilities to reach those unable to travel to central polling stations. They discussed, as well, whether the primary goal is to create recognizably democratic structures or to encourage maximal voter participation. Some participants criticized eligibility requirements regarding conviction records as a means by which repressive governments exclude opposition figures from the political arena. Many endorsed programs of citizen education as a partial solution to the abuses of democratic practices by repressive governments; such programs would familiarize citizens with the culture of elections, so that violations would be perceived as serious crimes.
At the same time, the effort required to make such limitations on government interference real and effective was acknowledged. In response to a point made by Seri Ahmad Sarji regarding the need to balance incumbent and opposition access to media and to limit campaign expenses, Valenzuela noted that such regulations enhance electoral credibility only in situations in which they can be enforced; empty regulations, however well intended, have the opposite effect. Consequently, only those states in which the democratic process is already sufficiently well-established can generally afford to promulgate such detailed provisions. In addition to security concerns, states holding transitional elections already face great difficulties: developing and obtaining consensus on appropriate electoral laws, creating or reforming electoral infrastructure, and marshaling adequate resources to conduct elections.
The session’s three case studies, as well as the discussion regarding the transitional cases of Iraq and Afghanistan, raised several common themes, among them the need to develop local, context-specific models for participatory governance rather than relying on universal formulae; the necessity of guaranteeing electoral processes through independent electoral commissions and the judiciary; and the overarching issue of credibility, whether regarding the results of a particular election, the behavior of a government in power, or the United Nations in its role as elections advisor around the world.Back to the top.