1997: Elections as key to democratisation – The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL)

 – By Ichal Supriadi, ANFREL and Bettina Stuffer, FORUM-ASIA – 

The establishment of the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) goes back to a time, when people were gathering ideas to start advocacy for human rights in Asia on different terms, and a period of rising consciousness about the high significance of elections as the key to democratisation.

New wave of democratisation in Asia

The establishment of ANFREL was in response to the emerging need for  a broader advocacy movement on democratic elections in Asia at a time when many countries were still under the control of authoritarian regimes. The founding was inspired by the success story of the Philippines, after the snap presidential elections in the Philippines in 1986. The elections were observed by the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL), a pioneering effort. The observation process exposed electoral manipulation committed by the ruling party, which was one of the crucial factors for the formation of the People Power Movement that eventually caused the removal of Ferdinand Marcos from power.[1]

This was an outstanding example of the significance of electoral observation, as well as the possibilities  of the influence of civil society on the regime of a country. It inspired solidarity among civil society groups across the region.

Learning from the success of NAMFREL, the region saw a growing consciousness of the importance of demanding free and fair elections. Other election monitoring groups were established in neighbouring countries. In this context, the People Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) was established in Sri Lanka in 1987 and the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (COMFREL) was founded in Cambodia in 1993. At the same time, in Indonesia in 1996 one of those networks developed into the Komite Independent Pemantau Pemilu (KIPP). These were just some of the examples of numerous election monitoring groups that were emerging across the region.

The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) 

Part of these developments was the establishment of ANFREL in November in 1997. Initially it was coordinated and accommodated by the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA). ANFREL was envisioned as a network of national civil society organisations (CSOs) from across Asia, who based on solidarity activism supported the upcoming election monitoring organisations in the struggle for democratic elections. ANFREL further expanded its mission and scope of work, and eventually registered as an independent foundation in Thailand in 2007.

ANFREL has established itself as a prominent non-governmental organisation (NGO), a network in Asia that works on elections. It is currently supported by 22 member organisations, which are based in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Timor-Leste.

ANFREL’s main mission is to promote and support democratisation at the national and regional level in Asia through a focus on elections and election monitoring. Its work is focused on observing pre- and post-electoral processes to promote fair, free and democratic elections, as a significant part of the promotion of human rights.

The electoral process is considered one of the basic needs for citizens of a country to enjoy their freedom and be able to exercise their political rights in choosing representatives to organise and manage the country’s democratic political system. Elections play a significant role in determining the future direction of a country since there are strong connections between politics, economics and social justice.

Since its formation up until the time of writing[2], ANFREL has conducted 47 elections observation missions in 15 countries across Asia.

Additionally, ANFREL undertakes capacity building efforts, which it sees as a crucial contribution to democratisation efforts, and works on strengthening electoral stakeholders that are actively working on democratisation in their home countries. In this context, ANFREL provides trainings and workshops on issues related to election observation, voter and civic education, electoral reform and public awareness on good governance.

More so, ANFREL conducts research and advocacy on good governance in Asia. It creates platforms for dialogue between civil society and Governments. Through the observation of elections and the production of publications that assess the status of electoral procedures in various countries in Asia, ANFREL tries to highlight the challenges to and process of the electoral system.


Election observation missions in Afghanistan

Among the most successful and consistent missions ANFREL has undertaken in the past years have been the electoral observation missions to Afghanistan. ANFREL was the largest international observer in the presidential elections in Afghanistan in 2004 for which it was accredited by the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) of Afghanistan.[3] ANFREL continued its work on promoting democratic elections in Afghanistan through the observation of all parliamentary, provincial council and presidential elections in 2009, 2010 and 2014.

The observation mission of the first parliamentary elections in 2014 was the first time an international elections observation mission was conducted in the provinces outside of Kabul, after the fall of the Taliban regime.

Besides electoral observation ANFREL provided a series of training and capacity building activities for national Elections Monitoring Organisations (EMOs). It facilitated electoral study visits for the Afghan elections stakeholders to Indonesia, Thailand and South Korea to study various aspects of elections related to interfaith and democratic institutionalisation.

ANFREL’s work is a significant contribution to the development of Afghanistan, and is supported by civil society within the country for that. At the same time, the involvement in the process in Afghanistan has provided new insights and learning for ANFREL, particularly when it comes to cultural and political processes.

Afghanistan remains a volatile place to conduct international observation missions in due to security concerns, particularly in the most rural areas that are under control of Anti Government Entities (AGEs). ANFREL and national partners faced restrictions and limitations in their attempt to support the democratisation process in this fragile democracy. Still, the presence of international observers does help to deter fraud and encourages the electoral stakeholders to conduct all democratic procedures freely and fairly. It motivates the national EMOs to take up their responsibility of guarding the sanctity of elections.

More needs to be done to defend the democratic progress in Afghanistan as the security situation is getting more intense. Respect for democracy and the protection of human rights are at risk. In that sense, ANFREL’s contribution to the democratisation process through support for electoral integrity is of great importance.

Lessons learnt

Since its establishment ANFREL has learnt some important lessons which have to be considered in future electoral observation missions. They relate to the context of the work, the support for democratisation and good governance, and more, including:

ANFREL sees as one of its important roles to not just compile reports, but to speak out and engage in a dialogue with Governments and other stakeholders as international observers. In many countries where ANFREL has worked national monitoring groups are facing a very difficult situation in which they cannot publically express their findings out of fear for the safety of their families. Therefore ANFREL sees its own role as giving moral support to these domestic monitoring groups whereby the focuses is on sustainability of support to create long-term impact. The work of ANFREL thus not only includes conducting independent observations, but simultaneously the empowerment of national civil society.

‘The most important thing is, what many people forget, to give an impact. It is not only about writing a report and leaving after, you have to bring it back to the society.’ Ichal Supriadi, Executive Director of ANFREL

Even though international electoral observation missions are very important for national monitoring groups, it has to be considered that they in fact have very limited mandates. After the assessment of the electoral process and compiling the final report, the mission in the concerned country is over. This indicates the significance of building networks to connect national electoral monitoring groups to continue to convey the value of fair, free and democratic elections. The long-term effect and sustainability of international electoral observation missions can only be realised through networking and are based on effective cooperation and coordination between national and international electoral monitoring groups.

The current situation of political and economic change indicates that the new generation of human rights activists once in charge will have more options for participation than in the past. At the same time the implementation of more creative ways of advocacy for human rights in an attempt to reach the Asian leaders is one of the most important challenges for the future of human rights in Asia. Therefore it is important to increase the consciousness of young people of the high importance of democratic elections as a tool for political successions to ensure stability. The key for progress in the promotion of human rights is the creation of effective strategies to reach the young generation, to encourage young people to use the options that are available to them and become part of political change in the region.

Long-term changes

Currently Asia is seeing a change towards greater democratisation in various countries across the region. Elections in some countries, such as Indonesia, are becoming more democratic in terms of the participation of parties of multiple political affiliations. In 2015 (This chapter was written before the elections of 8 November 2015 took place in Burma) Burma is holding the freest elections in 30 years and civil society is more involved in the process than ever before. A bigger platform for expression can be seen in many countries too. There is visible progress in terms of free expression of the press and media, and of the development of balanced political systems through the division of legislative, judicial and executive powers.

In spite of this progress and the improvements in the recognition of the significant role of civil society, there are still many challenges in the context of democratisation in Asia. In many places in Asia, elections are affected by corruption, which is detrimental for the democratic process. Choices of candidates in elections are often very limited. And even though there are, as mentioned above, positive developments in some countries, civil society continues to face restrictions and limitations in their participation in election in many other countries in Asia.

However, the current generation of human rights activists and CSOs do have more choices in shaping the regimes of their countries than in the past. This is important, and has to be used to proceed on the way to democratisation across the region. Elections can be a turningpoint and provide a critical possibility to participate in reshaping the political structure of a country. This highlights the significance of fair, free and democratic elections to which ANFREL makes a crucial contribution.


This story was written based on an interview with Ichal Supriadi, Executive Director of ANFREL, by Bettina Stuffer, FORUM-ASIA Information, Communication and Publication Programme Intern.

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