The Secretary-General of International IDEA, Yves Leterme, during his speech. Photo credit: International IDEA
On 2-3 September 2017, the Secretary-General of International IDEA, Yves Leterme, attended a high-level conference entitled “Democracy in Southeast Asia: Achievements, Challenges, Prospects” in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, jointly organized by the Kofi Annan Foundation and the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM).
At the conference´s opening ceremony, Leterme gave a keynote speech focusing on “Democracy and the Global Challenge of Electoral Integrity”. Other notable speakers included Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the sixth President of the Republic of Indonesia, and Surin Pitsuwan, Secretary-General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and former Foreign Minister of Thailand,
In his remarks, the Secretary-General highlighted the progress democracy has made in both Southeast Asia and around the world, but also warned of the multiple challenges and threats it still faces.
Starting on a positive note, the Secretary-General stated that democracy has proven resilient over time, and emphasized that a historical perspective makes clear that the popular view that democracy is in decline, is not substantiated. The number of democracies worldwide has grown substantially since 1975, and recent democratic transitions, including in Southeast Asia, represent important achievements for democratic progress. In the region, important gains have been made in the representation of women in parliament, and the region´s social media penetration has the potential to reinvigorate civil society´s participation in politics.
However, Leterme warned that the challenges global democracy is facing are real and pressing, and include corruption, armed violence, deepening social and economic inequality, and the dangers posed by populism.
The Secretary-General moreover specifically singled out the challenge presented by problems of electoral integrity and weak systems of electoral justice, globally as well as in Southeast Asia. “Conducting elections is not sufficient for ensuring genuine democracy. Elections need to be credible, and rules of the democratic game have be upheld before, during and after elections” he stated. This requires that the five fundamental conditions for this integrity, as outlined by the Global Commission Report on Electoral Integrity, are met, including respect for the rule of law, a removal of barriers for full political participation, and regulated and transparent political finance.
The Secretary-General concluded his intervention with a plea to all nations in Southeast Asia present at the conference to ensure that the democratic gains made in the region over the past decades are maintained. Several countries of the region will organize elections in the near future, and it is essential that these forthcoming elections help further strengthen and deepen the region´s democracies.
The conference also included a panel on ”Financing Elections without Undermining Legitimacy”, moderated by Leena Rikkila Tamang, International IDEA's Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, which discussed issues related to sources of income, spending, reporting and disclosure, enforcement and sanctions, in Cambodia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Currently, Malaysia has no regulations or limitations on what it comes to sources of money for elections campaigns or political parties. The civil society organizations and government panels alike have put forward recommendations for a regulatory legal framework. There is however, no clear timeline and no changes are expected before the next general elections, which need to take place before August 2018. The Panel emphasized the importance of both political and functional independence of the oversight agencies, and agreed that in all three countries, a holistic approach is required, which recognizes that political finance is one piece of the puzzle in the broader anti-corruption landscape.