In this second of two parts on elections around the world, we visit Hungary, Greece, France, Burma/Myanmar, Taiwan and Saudi Arabia, with a nod at the end to the impact of social networking on the voting process. As was noted in Part One, Americans are so focused on their electoral issues in 2012, that it is easy to forget that other nations are facing challenges too.
A new Constitution took effect in Hungary on January 1st and many Hungarians are livid about it. They are marching in the streets to protest a host of new laws and reforms introduced by the government of Prime Minister Victor Orban. Orban is also in trouble with the EU and the IMF (International Monetary Fund). The European Commission is now analyzing how some of the reform measures square with existing European treaties, specifically those pertaining to financial practices. At issue is how the new Constitutional reforms will influence the operation of the Magyar Nemzeti (central Hungarian) Bank. Like so many other EU countries, Hungary needs financial assistance, so if the new Constitution is not revised, Hungary could find itself on the edge of insolvency.
Note that Hungary did not abandon its own currency for the Euro Hungarians managed to maintain dignity and beauty in their culture during the decades of Russian oppression. Freedom must seem like both an illusion and illusory now. Consider the following New Year’s message issued by former Hungarian political dissidents:
“The undersigned, participants of the erstwhile human rights and democracy movement that opposed the one-party communist regime in the 1970s and 1980s, believe that the Hungarian society is not only the victim of the current economic crisis, but also the victim of its own government. The present government has snatched the democratic political tools from the hands of those who could use these tools to ameliorate their predicament. While chanting empty patriotic slogans, the government behaves in a most unpatriotic way by reducing its citizens to inactivity and impotence.”
Already insolvent Greece was going to hold elections as early as mid February 2011, but postponed them until April 15th, the time of Greek Orthodox Easter celebrations. The argument for the delay was that the newly appointed Prime Minister, Lucas Papademos, needed more time to work out the details of a crucial deal to restructure the Greek national debt.
The administration of President Nicholas Sarkozy has been assailed for its deliberate failure to encourage new voter registration in time for the upcoming French Presidential and parliamentary elections. Those who have reached the voting age of 18 or who have moved to a new district were required to register at town halls by the end of December if they wanted to cast their ballots. The Sarkozy administration held off on the traditional (and budgeted) TV voter registration advertising campaigns and did only a minimal outreach on the internet. Politicians from parties which oppose Sarkozy, especially those who attract young and poor voters who tend to lean left, say this was done to disenfranchise their natural constituencies. This will benefit Sarkozy’s center-right UMP party come election day. A spokeswoman for Socialist Party estimated that 9% of the country’s eligible voters had not registered, including nearly 30 percent of 18 year-olds and 13 percent of 18-22 year-olds.
In another voter related story, the French lower house has approved a law which will make it illegal – with fines and jail time – to deny that the 1915 massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks was anything less than genocide. Sarkozy’s Party gave strong support for this piece of legislation which earned it an accusation of pandering for votes from the estimated 500,000 French citizens of Armenian descent. They are considered a key electoral demographic group. The Turkish government was so offended by passage of this legislation that it recalled its Ambassador to France.
After 20 years of suppression, the National League for Democracy has been given the right to participate in elections in Burma aka Myanmar. The NLD party won a clear electoral victory in 1991, but these results were rejected by the government. During last year’s general elections, a new nominally civilian government came to power and has set about steering new national policies in the direction of increased freedoms. A week ago, many political dissidents were released from jail.
The NLD is headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, so famously held under house arrest for a very long time. She is now free to run for office. Candidates must officially register with authorities by January 31st. The by-elections will be held on April 1st.
At the opening of the new term of the Shura Council, the formal body which advises him, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced that women in Saudi Arabia are to be given the right to vote and run in future municipal elections. He said they would also be eligible to be appointed to the consultative Shura Council. This was hailed as a major victory for women’s rights activists.
In a very close race, the President of Taiwan, Ma-Ying-jeou won re-election a week ago. Taiwan’s independence from China is a delicate political matter and many fear that Ma’s pro China policies put their sovereignty at risk.
Social Networks, the Media and Elections:
Just over 1 million 18 year olds in the UK are signed up on Facebook, which is twice the number who are registered to vote. Although it raises a question about personal privacy, the names of teenagers on the electoral rolls are accessed by banks and other lenders who send out offers for credit cards and loans to the young new voters.
In an article for globaljournalist.org, Anthony Clive Bower examines the relationship between what he calls a “free media environment” and current state of the electoral process around the world. The connection is obvious. A media which is at liberty to report openly on issues, candidates, and elections is able to help prevent voter apathy and keep politicians as honest as possible.
The Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) has produced a statement of “Standards on Democratic Elections.” It is written in political speak and is idealistic if nothing else.
Another “legal guarantee” designed to protect and define the role of the media during elections is the Copenhagen Document of 1990. Its stated purpose is to “ensure that the will of the people serves as the basis of the authority of the government.” It also admonishes any non state media to be fair, understandable, and capable of objective application and state controlled media to be neutral, unbiased and nondiscriminatory.
As this two-part review of international elections has shown, the objectives of The Copenhagen Document have never been fully achieved. Rather it is the upraised voices of protesters and social media which have changed the game and brought the ideals of free and fair elections closer to a realization.
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