Secretary-General's Remarks at International Conference on Role, Framework and Capacity of EMBs
The Secretary-General of International IDEA, Dr Kevin Kasas-Zamora, gave remarks in New Delhi, India, to talk about the current and future challenges for electoral management bodies, an event convened by the Electoral Commission of India on 31 October and 1 November 2022.
"Good afternoon and thank you to the many colleagues, partners and friends here today. I particularly want to thank the Election Commission of India for your hospitality, collaboration and leadership, not only of this conference but of the broader Elections Integrity Cohort.
I’m Kevin Casas-Zamora, and I am the Secretary-General of International IDEA, which as many of you know, is an intergovernmental organization, with 34 Member States, dedicated to supporting and advancing sustainable democracy globally.
Our work combines knowledge production with capacity development and convening political dialogues with policy advocacy. We have particular expertise in the areas of electoral processes, constitutional reforms, political participation and representation, gender issues, the regulation of money in politics, and the assessment of quality and performance of democracies. We have 19 offices around the world, and we operate in more than 60 countries.
I am especially delighted to be here in India because International IDEA is proud to count the world’s largest democracy as one of our Founding Member States. India remains active in our Governing Council, is represented on our Board of Advisers, and is set to chair the Institute in 2024. International IDEA has a long history of cooperation with the Election Commission of India to share expertise and build global capacity on elections management, drawing on India’s truly remarkable track record in electoral administration. I am glad that the Commission’s experience and expertise is also being leveraged in the context of India’s leadership of the Elections Integrity Cohort. This is the latest installment in a legacy of Indian contributions to global democracy.
I am grateful for the Commission’s invitation to co-chair this session today, featuring two presentations from the Asia-Pacific region. By way of introduction, I want to do three things in these brief remarks. First, I will outline why I think the role of electoral management bodies, or EMBs, is critical for democracy. Second, I will put the challenges facing EMBs in the context of challenges for democracy more generally. And third, I’ll offer some initial thoughts on how EMBs and this Cohort can further support democracy.
The EMBs deliver and protect important social goods. In this sense, they are a public utility. Just as other utilities maintain water pipes and electrical grids, EMBs maintain some of the basic infrastructure of democracy. More than anything, the commodity that EMBs produce is trust. That’s the measure of the success of any electoral authority, and it’s also the measure of the travails of democracy when that trust is lost. Just like other utilities, EMBs support social stability and individual well-being, by ensuring a baseline of service that allows citizens and businesses to get on with other priorities. Indeed, one of the best measures of a successful utility is that citizens take its service for granted.
Yet we must not take EMBs for granted. Those living in fragile or transitional states know well the precarity of this basic social infrastructure, as state institutions, including EMBs, are intermittently incapacitated by lack of resources, corruption, or conflict. But vulnerability is not limited to countries in transition: even stable institutions may be jeopardized by dramatic events. The Covid pandemic is an obvious example, which challenged health, economic, and democratic utilities alike. Likewise, growing authoritarian challenges to political institutions in many countries are drawing attention to the often-ignored importance of electoral processes and democratic safeguards.
Against these pressures stand EMBs. In new, emerging and longstanding democracies alike, EMBs are the guardians of political rights and electoral legitimacy. While democracy is much more than elections, transparent and credible elections are the sine qua non.
Since EMBs are so essential to democracy, their fate is closely intertwined. Indeed, the present and future challenges we are discussing at this conference are being faced not only by EMBs, but by democracy itself.
The next edition of International IDEA’s flagship publication, the Global State of Democracy, will come out next month. Our data indicate that again last year, more countries declined in democratic performance than improved. We are all familiar with the continued assault on democracy in Myanmar, as well as deterioration in Central African Republic, Guinea, Haiti, Nicaragua, Mali, the Russian Federation, and Tunisia, among others. And, of course, Russia’s illegal and brutal invasion of Ukraine is threatening democracy, international order, and self-determination—not only in Ukraine but worldwide.
Globally, democracy faces immense challenges from new and growing threats of disinformation, populist authoritarianism, and efforts to undermine— or simply deny—the legitimacy of electoral processes, often without credible evidence. All democrats have a role to play in countering these threats. At International IDEA, we are thinking very actively about how to better leverage our expertise, our capacity, our networks and our voice to defend democracy in this challenging time. International IDEA will recommit itself to this work through its new institutional strategy, which will be approved by our Member States later this year.
Yet more than ever, it is EMBs that are being called upon to uphold the integrity and the promise of democracy. And more than ever, EMBs are stepping up.
For example, many people are rightly worried about the state of democracy in Brazil. At the same time, I recently returned from Brazil, and I can personally attest to the fact that the election commission there has managed the recent elections with remarkable competence and integrity.
Likewise, I am here in Delhi on my way back from Australia, where I had an excellent meeting with the Australian Electoral Commission. During the May 2022 Australian elections, held amid the continued Covid pandemic, 25 per cent of the Commission’s workforce dropped out due to sickness in the last week before the elections. In some places, more than half of election workers were absent. This staffing challenge was aggravated by natural disasters and attempted disinformation. Yet in the face of adversity, the Commission pulled off one of Australia’s best elections ever. It was truly impressive to hear them recount how they communicated and engaged with citizens in ways that were clear, honest and effective for preserving the integrity of the electoral process.
The same is true of election commissions in countries as diverse as the Gambia and South Korea—and, of course, here in India, where the Commission’s experience managing extraordinary complexity on a massive scale offers lessons and inspiration to the world. Indeed, where our research reveals bright spots in the past year, it was often thanks to the hard work of election commissions—as in Niger and Zambia, which have been reclassified as democracies following free and fair elections. In many respects, the struggles and the successes of democracy are the struggles and successes of EMBs.
And so, to conclude, let me offer some thoughts on how EMBs and those of us in this room can help democracy to meet this critical moment.
First, it will be important to acknowledge that EMBs cannot deliver the precious commodity of trust in election if they are not adequately supported by governments and legislatures. Especially as the pressures on EMBs grow, governments and legislatures must fulfil their own responsibilities to safeguard and deliver electoral processes. This includes providing EMBs with adequate time and resources to prepare and implement effective election administration.
Second, even as governments provide EMBs with the resources to do their jobs effectively, there must be a full-throated commitment to the independence and impartiality of electoral administration, without which democracy perishes. Here, there is value in producing further research and analysis of how best to safeguard EMBs' independence. This includes the formal legal and structural frameworks in which EMBs operate, but what is ultimately most important is the functional ability of EMBs to exercise their mandates free from external influence.
Finally, there is this Cohort and the broader Summit for Democracy process, which represent a great opportunity to encourage meaningful commitments, ensure coherence and unity, and improve electoral management globally.
Yet I will be frank: during the 1st Summit for Democracy, the election-related national commitments were on the whole lacklustre and uncoordinated. Let us not make that mistake again. And let us not lose this chance to make it right.
To meet the challenges of the future, governments must make meaningful and specific commitments to protect the ability of electoral institutions to operate effectively and impartially. But also, and equally important, countries should commit to cooperate on cross-border threats to electoral processes. Increasingly, the issues facing elections do not stop at national borders. Domestic regulation is insufficient to deal with online disinformation, cybersecurity threats, the transnational flow of money in politics, or the democratic implications of natural disasters resulting from climate change. International coordination is required.
This Cohort is ideally placed to establish expectations and guidance ahead of the next Summit to advance coordinated commitments in these key areas of safeguarding democratic institutions and transnational action. International IDEA and many others stand ready to support this effort.
With that, I want to thank you again for your participation in this event. These multi-stakeholder conversations, and the actions to follow, are the heart of the Summit for Democracy process. Indeed, they are the heart of our collective effort to revitalize and reinforce democracy for generations to come. So let us be humble in acknowledging the work ahead—and let us be generous in sharing our own experiences for the benefit of others.
I am grateful to be part of this community of believers in democracy, and I am much looking forward to our continued discussion.