Statement by UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative on the Occasion of the Arab States Regional Practice Meeting on Electoral Cycle Support
Welcome to Cairo! It’s great to see so many of you here this morning, from the UN (UNDP and the Electoral Assistance Division (EAD) of the Department of Political Affairs (DPA) , as well as partners from Mexico, India, South Africa, Palestine, Tunisia, Jordan, Bahrain, Yemen and Lebanon, our regional partners (IFES and IDEA), and partners here in Cairo – the National Council of Human Rights, Ministry of State for Administration Development, as well as the Governments of Spain, Japan, the United States, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Australia.
The recent political developments in the region and Egypt in particular, have attracted the world’s attention. The political transition has become a subject of much interest and concern, particularly as events developed without much forewarning and took most if not partners, whether national or international, by surprise.
In the transition process, the future electoral processes have attracted keen interest and a certain degree of controversy in the Egyptian political arena. It is an understatement to say that elections will play a key role in political developments here in Egypt, and all their example will resonate throughout the region, over the coming months.
It is clear that holding credible elections does not mean that the democratization process is complete – there are too many other dimensions of democratic governance that need to be addressed in order to fulfill the democratic aspirations. Nevertheless, the electoral process is an essential and vital step in the transition process that can either consolidate the path to democracy or derail it. Elections are a vital element of democracy building and consolidation – certainly not the end of the process, but clearly a watershed step.
When planning for the elections, and for that matter any other aspect of the political transition in Egypt, it is important to keep in mind that the unexpected transformational change in Egypt has been, and will continue to be, very much an internal affair – it was not externally induced and the popular nature of the political developments need to be clearly respected and taken into account.
In this context, in the wake of the popular revolt that led to the ouster of the Mubarak regime, the credibility of the forthcoming elections is of the utmost importance. Following the events in Tahrir Square including the sacrifices of so many, the Egyptian people need to feel that the elections, an essential element of the transition process, are better than in previous years and that the vote will effectively and accurately reflect their political will. It is therefore not surprising that everyone is carefully following how the next electoral processes will be credible and successful, resulting in installing elected bodies that will be perceived and accepted as legitimate and representative, in particular the parliament.
The referendum held in March 2011 saw major gains in terms of the perception of credibility, which is extremely encouraging. The referendum, despite the very clear logistical challenges, again dictated by the tight timetable, was widely accepted by Egyptian society as being a very credible process, a much improved electoral exercise from what the country had previously experienced. Above all, everyone highlighted the broad and unprecedented voter turnout, a big contrast to previous elections characterized by skepticism and low presence at the polls.
Nevertheless, a number of technical and operational issues and concerns were identified during the March referendum, issues that need to be addressed in the coming exercises, as the next elections, in particular the parliamentary elections, are of a much more complex nature than the referendum, and the timeframe – just a few months – is very tight.
The forthcoming elections are likely to include a number of new elements that differentiate them from previous exercises. One major factor is the wider participation of voters. As the Egyptian electorate feels that the elections will be meaningful and will reflect their political will, there is a highly increased motivation to take part in the elections. Here the authorities have been expressing their will to ensure that participation in the polls is increased and are taking steps to ensure that this is the case. This bodes well for the political process, but creates additional challenges for the logistics and overall operational management of the process, to ensure that all willing voters will be efficiently taken care of.
Another related issue is that of allowing Egyptians, residing abroad to take part in the elections – out of country voting poses a number of challenges in terms of management and operation that need to be dealt with appropriately. Many other technical issues need to be addressed, not least, for example, the delimitation of constituency boundaries for the parliamentary elections. Last, but not least, is the area of public information and voter education, which is critical to the substantive success of the process.
The political events of the “revolution” in Egypt highlight the importance of having elections that meet international standards and, more importantly, that meet people’s expectations in terms of credibility. Perfect elections do not exist anywhere in the world, least of all in transitional contexts but, as previously mentioned, elections that are credible and that result in bodies that are representative of the people’s will (and are perceived as being so) are an essential part of the process.
One fact is clear and undisputable – the elections, as much as the whole of the transition process, is absolutely an Egyptian affair. As highlighted earlier, the political developments have been internally induced and managed. The transition period is also a national process, including elections. There are few things more national and nationally-owned than elections, and their preparation and management is in the hands of the national electoral authorities. Having said this, and as has been the case in dozens of other countries, national management of the elections does not exclude support and facilitation from development partners, including, but not limited to, the United Nations.
Indeed, the provision of electoral assistance is one of the critical roles which the UN plays in promoting democratic governance. UNDP has strong experience and expertise in supporting and consolidating capacity in electoral institutions and practice. The UN has a wide range of electoral assistance modalities – and while there are no “recipes” in this area, UNDP has the luxury of benefiting from extensive experience and lessons learned. The international community, and the UN system in particular, have expressed their will to support the electoral processes, within the realm of what the national authorities deem is necessary and feel comfortable with. Such electoral assistance should be provided in paying particular attention to the Egyptian context and conditions, but should benefit from the experience of the assistance provided by the UN in many other countries around the world.
This is why this community of practice meeting is so pertinent and useful. The transformational changes around the region will ask of all development partners to respond to very fluid situations in a flexible and creative manner. Reassessing how electoral assistance is conducted is extremely relevant and necessary in order to be better prepared to face the challenges and support the leap to democratization and democratic governance that we all hope will become increasingly prevalent in this region and around the world.
I wish all of you a most fruitful meeting.