Tone from the top and the view from below: building institutions over time

THE LAST TIME I walked into the Palacio del Gobernador building was seven years ago. It was always a bit of a challenge to go the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) main office. Not only did one need to brace oneself for Manila traffic but the foot traffic in and around the building was also a challenge. The place was teeming with all sorts of people and characters, engaged in all types of discussions and activities related to elections. It was all very crowded especially after the infamous fire gutted the old COMELEC building in March 2007, just weeks before the mid-term elections. Seven years ago, the COMELEC was trying to recover from a tarnished image. It was a bruised and weakened institution. And many of its honest and hardworking civil servants were quick to talk about their frustrations and disappointments.

Last August 2014, I walked in the COMELEC office pleasantly surprised at the palpable change in the air and atmosphere. The staff were quick to assist, the Commissioners upbeat about initiatives and there was a lot of looking forward on how COMELEC can be the Constitutional Commission that it ought to be. I can only describe my recent experience at the Commission as the transformative impact of those managing from the top. Tone from the top is a common phrase among those engaged in Business Ethics and Principles. The ethical example comes from leadership which cascades it to all levels, a trickle-down effect that becomes obvious to outsiders.

That the year 2014 was not an election year may account for the improved perception I have of the Commission. And I am sure the looming 2016 elections will be a challenge for both the capacity and autonomy of the COMELEC as it is already manifesting itself in the controversial, if not contentious, en banc decision to award the 300 million diagnostic contract to Smartmatic. Both COMELEC insiders and election observers will agree that much still needs to be done in order to make the Commission an election body that meets international standards and election management expertise. But modest reform gains need to be acknowledged in order to encourage those serving in the front lines of public service that their efforts do and will continue to yield the fruit of change.

Institutional reforms can be sustained and can transform key agencies, especially agencies that play a major role in the democratic process. I was in Korea in June 2014 when the country held local elections and the National Election Commission (NEC) of Korea showcased its well-organized and well-oiled election management body. The NEC prides itself as an independent commission that has contributed to strengthening the democratic institutions.

Korea’s National Election Commission according to its official brochure was “re-established by the fifth revision of the Constitution of Korea as an independent constitutional agency on January 21, 1963.” The NEC’s institutional history is replete with issues of weak capacity and poor autonomy. As election expert Aurel Croissant put it, “the NEC was used as a tool by the authoritarian regime for demonstration elections.” The description that an election commission is used for demonstration elections is as unflattering as it gets for any election management body. Yet today the NEC is leading in the field of election administration founding and providing leadership in the Association of World Election Bodies. The unintended consequences of demonstration elections were an end to authoritarian rule and the creation of a democratic space. According to Aurel Croissant, “on several occasions elections developed an unintended political dynamic which forced the authoritarian governments to violate their own rules of the electoral game. After a while, the strategy of legitimization in semi-competitive elections failed. This failure, in turn, was the beginning of the end of the authoritarian rule…” The unintended consequence is that the NEC evolved into a credible election commission.

The NEC as far as electoral processes are concerned has gained headway and has exhibited a high level of capacity in election management. It is a credible election commission but it still has some frontiers to conquer. One of these frontiers is that of campaign finance. Others argue that the issue of electoral outcomes in Korea can still be improved given that money politics and campaign finance issues remain an issue raised by civil society and election administration experts.

The COMELEC is one of the oldest election commissions in the region. It can play a key role in reforming our political landscape by being an advocate for the people to ensure that electoral rules and enforcement attract genuine elected public servants. Creative rules and implementation can turn the COMELEC into a body that serves as a gatekeeper to protect the voting public from those who will only use their office for personal gain. The commission can be the constitutional commission that it ought to be. But it will need sustained reform efforts that include good leadership, creative solutions, and a strong sense of purpose and initiative to level our election playing field. Given the number of other agencies and institutions deputized, a synergy of reforms with other institutions needs to happen. The Philippines is in a position to pursue reforms on bureaucratic efficiency and it can pursue reforms on corruption and campaign finance.

Cleo Calimbahin is the executive director of Transparency International Philippines and has published on issues of electoral integrity.

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