Understanding Electoral Violence in Asia

2011 19 Jul 2013


Emerging from the Cold War at the end of the 1980s, a number of Asian countries were catapulted from communism or conflict to democratic elections. The collapse of totalitarianism as a viable and sustainable mode of governance was accompanied by a push for democracy. Demonstrations in Mongolia led to the first post-communist legislative elections in 1990, while in Cambodia in 1993, following decades of war and political upheaval, the United Nations was called in to administer elections.


Reflecting this rapid growth in democratic systems, between 1990 and 2010 the number of electoral democracies in the world, as reported by Freedom House, increased from 76 to 116, rising from 41 percent to 60 percent of the world‘s nation states.


During this time though a view developed within the international community that elections were the ultimate goal of democratic development, an end-point that could beacon exit strategies for democratic and military involvement in fragile states. In this case, while the number of nominal electoral democracies was increasing, many states were not achieving broader democratic reforms such as widening political participation, improving representation, increasing accountability or utilizing elections as a legitimate political change management strategy.


Accordingly, electoral democracy has come at a high price in many countries. Each year hundreds of people lose their lives in connection with competitive elections. Electoral violence can suppress voter turnout, affect voter registration, prevent candidates from running for office, acerbate divisions in society, or even postpone an election or prevent it from taking place at all. While electoral violence is a longstanding phenomenon, ballots such as those in Afghanistan in recent years have brought attention to the challenge of establishing a secure environment that can facilitate free and fair democratic elections. But electoral violence is not the preserve of transitional or fragile states. Established democracies in Asia all report some electoral violence: from street protests in Thailand that have gained international attention since the 2006 coup that disposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, to the 2009 Maguindanao massacre in the Philippines that saw 57 people killed, including 34 journalists, as they drove in convoy to register a candidacy for the 2010 elections.


These examples serve as reminders that in order for elections to be successful and non-violent, the goal of democratic development must go beyond the electoral ‗event‘. Instead, seeing elections as a test of democratic development, rather than a goal in themselves, provides a better conceptualization of the processes that are needed to ensure free, fair and peaceful elections. For electoral processes to achieve these objectives they need to rely on the preparation and engagement of key stakeholders including electoral management bodies, political actors, government agencies and security bodies, civic and media groups, and national purveyors of justice to play positive roles in the process. Accordingly, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has become increasingly involved in moving electoral assistance from a focus on periodic elections to one on sustained planning and implementation that places elections within a framework of democratic governance.


This report highlights this approach by investigating electoral violence in Asia through analyses of case studies commissioned by UNDP for seven countries in South and South-East Asia: Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand. The ultimate objective of these publications was to draw empirical lessons from each country as helpful guides for policy, legislation and institutional change to promote greater democratic governance.

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