The Commonwealth promotes democracy by deploying election observers, offering practical assistance to electoral commissions, and providing hands-on training to junior election officials, writes Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland.
Most of us remember the first time we voted. It is a rite of passage which marks political empowerment and passing into adulthood. With a pencil and a ballot paper, we help shape the future of our nation.
Few among us, however, will remember the hard-working officials who make an election happen.
Those charged with educating and registering voters, managing polling stations and overseeing the counting of votes and declarations of results are in the frontline as custodians of democracy. The integrity of an election is often judged according to how they perform and discharge their duties.
At the Commonwealth Secretariat, we provide practical technical assistance, peer-learning and hands-on training for the staff of election commissions. We do so as part of our mandate to deliver on the first article of the Commonwealth Charter, which recognises: "the inalienable right of individuals to participate in democratic processes, in particular through free and fair elections in shaping the society in which they live."
One of our flagship electoral programmes is the Commonwealth Election Professionals Initiative, which is working alongside leaders of election officials throughout the member countries of the Commonwealth.
Launched in 2013, the initiative is delivered through the Commonwealth Electoral Network which connects electoral commissions in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Americas, Europe and the Pacific. It is an exemplar of multilateral Commonwealth cooperation, with global reach and influence, which has been made possible through the financial support of the Australian government.
Already nearly a hundred junior election officers in more than 40 countries have benefitted from the regional training and professional development events, peer-to-peer learning and online networking made available through the programme. Ninety percent of those who have participated say it increased their knowledge of good electoral practices, and almost half say their commission has since made changes to procedures and practices based on their recommendations.
The initiative is supporting people like Abdul Qayyum Khan of the Election Commission of Pakistan, who has gone on to promote training on women's inclusion in elections. It is aiding officials such as Vishnu Persaud of Guyana's Elections Commission, who attended the inaugural training in 2013 and is now his country's deputy chief election officer. It is helping officials like Dorcas Crentsil from the Electoral Commission of Ghana, who says it taught her to "aspire to be the best".
I am delighted therefore that the government of Australia has announced an AU$1.5 million extension in funding, which will mean the initiative will continue for at least another three years. Small island states in the Caribbean and the Pacific will be among those to gain with targeted training for small and non-permanent election commissions.
Australia's renewed commitment is a testament to the Commonwealth's success in developing the next generation of electoral administrators. It also complements the direct assistance the Commonwealth Secretariat provides to electoral commissions. In the Pacific, for example, our experts have been working closely with the island nation of Nauru first to establish, and then strengthen, the national election commission. We have also assisted Vanuatu's elections office to reform its voter registration system.
Our work here builds on decades of Commonwealth experience in observing elections, stretching back 50 years to a referendum we observed in Gibraltar in 1967. However, it was not until the early 1990s that our elections programme began in earnest. The spark was the 1991 Harare Declaration, agreed by Commonwealth heads of government, which committed our member countries collectively to "work with renewed vigour" on promoting democracy and democratic institutions. More than thirty elections in countries as diverse as Antigua and Barbuda, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Papua New Guinea were observed in that decade.
We have now observed close to 150 elections in nearly 40 countries. Commonwealth observers offer straightforward and unbiased recommendations on how to improve the credibility and transparency of the electoral process. Composed of former heads of state, electoral commissioners and parliamentarians, and gender, human rights, civil society and media specialists drawn from all regions, these independent experts provide valuable scrutiny, and their status and integrity brings positive pressure to bear when they make recommendations for electoral improvements.
Our experience in observing elections tells us that even countries with a successful track record of holding them can encounter challenges. Whether through planning and logistical challenges or malfeasance, such challenges can shake the confidence of voters. Strengthening the capacity of the staff of electoral commissions to uphold and defend national and international electoral standards therefore has to be a shared priority.
Nelson Mandela, who became President of South Africa in an historic multi-racial election in 1994 observed by Commonwealth election observers, reflected years later that "the commitment to democracy, principled and unflinching, had been the foundation of all the Commonwealth's achievements since 1990".
"It remains the basis of its potential for the future," he added. These words still speak true today when describing the Commonwealth's mission to promote democracy.
We are committed to helping all our member countries, wherever they are on their democratic journey. In doing so, we aim to justify the sense of hope and optimism which all voters deserve to feel on election day.