This decade has seen a global wave of democratization -- or at least attempts at it -- on an unprecedented scale. In some parts of the world, the trend is rooted in the decay or fall of communism; elsewhere, nations are evolving from single-party to multi-party states because of related or other factors. Canada supports the process of democratization as one element of a foreign policy concerned with peace-building, human rights, and security. Assistance in organizing and conducting elections is just one form this support has taken.
Free and fair elections often constitute one of the first steps in the democratization process. When the means by which the people can express their collective will freely and regularly on the basis of universal, equal, and secret suffrage is absent, no government can pretend to have the legitimacy required to exercise the powers of a democratic state.
This principle is embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (whose 50th anniversary is being celebrated this year) and elaborated in the 1996 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966. Article 21 of the Universal Declaration states that 'Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives... The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.'
International consensus about what constitutes free and fair democratic elections has formed around at least three principles: participation, fairness, and transparency. Determining whether these principles have been implemented requires a comprehensive understanding of all elements of a country's electoral processes -- from its electoral legislation to the production of voting results. Considering whether an election has been 'free,' for example, involves looking at whether human and democratic rights have been respected; whether electors have enjoyed freedom of speech and assembly, including the freedom to stand as candidates, to form political parties, and to disseminate and receive political messages; and freedom to register as electors and to cast ballots without fear of intimidation or reprisal.
The conditions for a 'fair' election include constitutional and legal protections for universal suffrage; a secret ballot; and the right to vote, to be a candidate, and to form a political party. Fairness also requires a level playing field for candidates and parties contesting an election: equitable treatment under the law and by election administrators and access to the media and to the financial resources needed to conduct a campaign. Rules and procedures governing election administration such as registering electors and parties, counting votes, compiling election results, and resolving disputes -- must also be open and transparent and administered by an impartial authority removed from undue political interference or influence.
Several international organizations to which Canada belongs have adopted these or similar principles, along with standards for ethical and professional election administration. They include the Commonwealth, the Organization of American States, the United Nations Development Programme, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).
The international community, through these and other organizations, has adopted two general approaches to implement the principles: support for the development of rules and institutions and monitoring elections to determine whether principles have been applied in practice. Election monitoring involves examining systems, procedures, and activities before, during, and after an election to see whether standards have been adhered to in all parts of the electoral cycle. The existence of democratic elections is not demonstrated by a one-time event but by a series of conditions and events that, taken together and continuing over time, indicate the presence of a free and fair electoral system. …