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Home » Elections and Governance, electoral

Political Power

Submitted by on 19 Apr 2012 – 16:05

By Tomasz Blasiak, Electoral Operations Specialist

After the Arab Spring’s wave of political changes, media and governments are increasingly discussing the power of the Internet and the growing influence of social networks that became a powerful political tool uniting those in opposition to governments that usually fully control more traditional electronic media. People learned quickly how to use the freedom of the Internet and how to turn it into an efficient communication tool. The media are criticizing governments which limit freedom of expression in their IT networks, but it is easy to overlook those communities that are still suffering from a lack of electricity. Is access to power limiting citizens’ awareness and influencing freedom of political expression in a much greater way?

The evening noise of operating diesel generators is still characteristic for many parts of the world. In the backyards of houses those noisy machines are generating power for the households when there is an electricity cut or the power grids simply do not exist yet. Families often gather around the television sets connected to satellite receivers, dine and discuss the past day’s events. Thanks to this noisy and often forgotten piece of equipment, the day is extended for another couple of hours and one more family is connected to the “global machinery” of information exchange.

Maybe they will discuss tonight recent political developments in their country or maybe they will discuss upcoming elections. Politics, among money and football seems to be the most discussed subject regardless if it is Afghanistan, Iraq, Nepal or Liberia. In the countries where not so many could afford buying a newspaper and with illiteracy levels remaining high, radio and television are very important mass media, although they wouldn’t be truly “mass” when there is no wide access to electricity. For Europeans this seems to be not a problem anymore, but in many rural parts of Africa or Asia, poor power supply and underdeveloped power grids still pose a serious challenge.

I would like to present an example of a dilemma, which the Afghan Election Commission faced in 2004 and consequently in the 2005 Afghan elections. How to organize civic and voter information campaigns and inform citizens about upcoming polls or even more difficult questions, how election candidates could run their political campaigns in the remote provinces of Afghanistan? With no newspapers in circulation or a widespread illiteracy problem, with no electronic mass media or simply no access to electricity this task starts to be very difficult.  If voters have no chance to learn about elections or even the smallest chance to learn candidates’ names, not to mention their political views or their programmes.

Many of them have never heard the radio before or when they manage to hear something at the village meeting or in the mosque but do not know how to connect it with the string of letters on the ballot paper. You may say, use the picture, but how can the voter know the candidate’s face if there is no television, not to mention the  Internet. How to spread political views if there is no medium that could bring it to the voters? I remember countless discussions on equal access to the media for competing parties and candidates at the Afghan Media Commission meetings in the country where less than 30% of population had access to any form of mass medium. In the end, the Indian model of symbols allocated to each candidate was selected, since it provided an opportunity for candidates to campaign in this challenging environment. In the end, the commission had to take a step back to  picture language in search for the common lowest denominator. I also remember some NGOs that experimented with satellite radios equipped with dynamos powered by a crank that was distributed to every village.

A problem with access to electricity for the general population is also the limiting ability of governmental institutions to operate in an efficient manner. For example election commissions who need to register all voters in all constituencies are often forced to use paper based processes. Often millions of forms that need to be produced and distributed, which are then completed across the country by thousands of election officers, are later retrieved from the field and entered into the system. This is a very time consuming and expensive process, that results in voter registers often challenged and it is far from perfection. Whenever direct data capture is possible, small power generators or solar panels are used to power mobile registration kits used for voter registration and production of voter IDs. Just to give you an example of how large is the scale of such operation -  the Kenyan IEBC requested recently almost 10,000 voter registration kits to be distributed along with the independent charging units. Again electricity could decide on the quality of the electoral process, since the voter roll is an important element of the credible polling process.

In Nepal, country with a poor road network in the north and constant problems with the fuel supply, UNMIN and the Nepalese Election Commission had an idea to utilize solar panels to power a limited number of devices that were required for the operation of election officials. UNMIN have conducted market sounding and a local supplier was selected to supply joint UNMIN and NEC offices with the solar power kits. A local company was building solar kits from the imported solar units, small car batteries, and aluminum frames that were sufficient to power laptops, mobile phone or satellite phones.

This was enough to maintain connectivity with the highly decentralized district structures but not enough to employ any advanced technology in the service of elections. I remember a number of problems with the shipping of kits to the final destination – 75 districts of Nepal – since car batteries with acid were declared as hazardous goods and could not be transported by air. Nepal is a wonderful country and I will never forget my time there, but in terms of logistics and operations management it was a very challenging environment. Limited road networks, electricity problems, no communication infrastructure in many parts of the country created a great challenge to the establishment and operation of numerous offices in this politically significant project of transition from the kingdom to the parliamentary republic.

When we in Europe discuss the various problems of communication and operational effectiveness in the developing world, it is all too often very easy to overlook the basic issues of local, regional and national infrastructure, and the impact which this can have at every stage of the electoral process.