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Democracy

Clear rules and methods

by Cathrine Schweikardt

In brief

Electoral Justice: The International IDEA Handbook

Electoral Justice: The International IDEA Handbook

Free and fair elections require an effective justice system, and voters must get sufficient information before the event. Otherwise, elections will only lead people to doubt their government's legitimacy, warns the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).

According to a new IDEA handbook, electoral justice systems must ensure that every action, procedure and decision pertaining to an election complies with the law. Such systems must also safeguard that all citizens can exercise their democratic right to vote. For this purpose, the procedures of an election must be spelled out clearly and enforced either by a specialised independent electoral management body or by administrative and judicial officials that act on the basis of clear laws, possibly with international assistance (such as from the European Court of Human Rights).

Electoral justice systems must fulfil the following requirements:
- Democratic governments, human rights, and electoral processes must be based on a proper constitutional and legal foundation.
- Key actors from society and political parties should have input into the legal framework for these processes.
- The political culture has to help inform citizens, for instance about democratic rules, the rule of law and human rights.
- Several parties must be able to run for office (pluralism).
- Equal criteria must apply to all candidates in terms of campaign funds and media support.
- Civil society must be allowed an active role.
- Everyone involved must comply with a code of conduct based on the rule of law, objectivity, independence, transparency and impartiality.

Legal frameworks that fulfil these conditions help to prevent improper conduct during elections, such as the purchasing of votes, voter harassment, confiscation of voter registrations or illegal campaign funding. The IDEA handbook makes proposals for how to respond to rules being breached. Options include nullification of an election and penalities for wrongdoers. Various sanc­tions are possible, for instance the suspension or termination of political office, party registration or candidacy, discontinuation of financial funding, loss of media
coverage and financial penalties.

In its Electoral Justice manual, the Sweden-based institute takes a look at a number of election laws, such as those of Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Burkina Faso and Mexico. IDEA's goal is to point out which tools will serve democratic reforms.

The first parliamentary elections in Bhutan in 2008 are cited as an example of good election management. At the outset, Bhutan's election commission distributed an informational brochure, thus spreading the word about which methods are admis­sible – and which are not – during the campaign and raising awareness about election rules in general. The paper was sent to administrations in all 20 districts and their 205 subdivisions. It was also used for public presentations.

Cathrine Schweikardt