Policy
May 7, 2012

A fundamental right: Canada’s contribution to global elections

CGE Vol.13 No.4 April 2007

For the past 17 years Jean-Pierre Kingsley has been Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer – he did not set out to monitor the world’s forays into democratic governance, but was the right person at the right time. As the Iron Curtain collapsed and electoral processes came to the fore, Kingsley and Elections Canada made a significant contribution to democratic development by helping to build electoral practices from Asia to Africa, from former Soviet republics to Latin America, and most recently in Iraq and Haiti. This achievement is bookended by an early career as a hospital CEO and his upcoming role with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. Kingsley reflected on his career and its international role.

When I became Chief Electoral Officer, I had no inkling of the international roles this organization would be called upon to play. I’m amongst the many who did not foresee the fall of the Iron Curtain. It changed how democratic development was taking place around the world, giving it a major spurt forward. Many countries caught between the two main powers, as well as countries that had been behind the Iron Curtain, were now asking, “Where do we go with this?”

At Elections Canada, we found ourselves in a position to effectively participate in this movement. We had been involved in Latin America in the 1980s, but we now had a new impetus to aid these emerging democracies. Canada had a reputation as an outstanding democracy. Many recognized that Canada had achieved something quite significant by bringing together people who had been fighting one another to the death in Europe for centuries. They also saw how we were able to act as a beacon for immigration to groups affected by crisis all over the world. Canada accepted these waves, and to the rest of the world that was something remarkable. That is a significant achievement we in Canada don’t always appreciate fully.

Every country in which we work has its own history, its own culture. Canada offers the ability to share experiences and underlying values, rather than to prescribe a particular system. Our past is not of a colonial power. Our size does not make us an empire. We value the right to democracy as fundamental. But we also recognize where a country sits on the human scale of progress. People know they can invite Canada and we will not force-feed them; we’ll lend a hand and they’ll make the best decisions for themselves in light of their cultural values, their political past and their history.

Initially, we were invited by different organizations such as the Organization of American States and the United Nations to assist in various types of “missions,” where we would assist in establishing a particular electoral system or a particular facet of an electoral system. There were many examples of that, but one that shone was South Africa. Elections Canada deployed a lot of people from within its own ranks, and by hiring others as well. Ron Gould, who was the assistant chief electoral officer at the time, did an outstanding job and was honoured both by South Africa and Canada for his contribution.

We were also invited by the Mexican authorities to accompany them as they were redesigning a system to meet the test of impartiality; they needed to bring credibility to their electoral process following problems that had occurred during the 1988 presidential elections. By 1994, they had succeeded in establishing the machinery for a two-party election – a very good system that was impartial, credible – but they had not addressed how to control the money and how to assure equitable access to media by the parties. This they turned around by 1997, and it was well in place for the 2000 election.

There are many other examples of our involvement in developing or emerging democracies but it went beyond that. We were meeting with western European countries – established democracies such as Spain, France and Britain – to share advances in electoral systems. I’ve appeared before British parliamentary committees to explain how we handle certain issues. We are seen as being at the forefront of electoral management.

A novel approach
Iraq and Haiti were significant departures from what had been happening around the world. Elections Canada had participated in many electoral observation missions by selecting and sending staff, and helping organize international missions run by the UN. But in Iraq, the UN was actually part of the election machinery so it could not act as an observer. The senior UN person on the ground, Carlos Valenzuela, was a member of the board of the commission.

On top of that, other international bodies like the National Democratic Institute and IFES [formerly the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, now known by its initials] were already working with the UN and could not be considered objective observers.

I was approached by a senior director at IFES to organize a group of independent electoral commissions to assess what observation could be done. Because of the violence, we anticipated that we could not deploy electoral observers on the ground at polling stations as one traditionally would.

In December 2004 representatives from a dozen independent commissions – including Indonesia, Australia, Bangladesh, Ghana, Hungary, Mexico, Panama, Romania – met in Ottawa to discuss how a model could work. As a result, we adopted the six-point Ottawa Protocol at a conference in London in January 2005 to create the International Mission for Iraqi Elections. We organized a secretariat to be deployed in Amman, Jordan, and Baghdad, and established linkages with national Iraqi observers who were considered credible on the international scene.

We also retained the services of a dozen experts who went into Baghdad to review facets of the electoral process. How good was their legal framework? How good was voter registration? How good were voter information and education – what were their efforts to reach out to the average Iraqi? How were the ballots being handled? How was security at the polls? This was quite original for a group of people who could not do observation at the polls. These reports became part of the evaluation process by the committee of electoral management board members from around the world, which Iraqis were able to take into account and build into the final structure.

Credibility is extremely important. It’s very hard to make this model work otherwise. Sixty percent of eligible voters came out – a tremendous turnout considering that the Sunnis were effectively boycotting the election and people were actually facing the dire prospect of violence on polling day. Credibility of the Iraqi Electoral Commission as a truly independent body was equally important.

For the second election in 2005, the Sunnis had changed their minds about not participating, but they were quite disenchanted with the process and were mounting serious protests. In Canada, we were in the middle of our election campaign; after consulting members of the committee, I made a decision with the Arab League to deploy a group of four persons with international reputations to delve into the Sunni complaints. One was Doug Rowland, former MP and president of the Association of Former Parliamentarians. Another was Rafael Lopez Pintor of Spain. The two others were senior members of the staff of the Arab League. They were able to reduce the pressure by offering a sounding board to all Sunni groups that had indicated they were unhappy with the process. They

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