ELECTIONS are the first pillar of democracy but democracy is much more than just elections.
These were the parting words yesterday of Shabbir Cheema to Pacific Island journalists and election officials who have been based at Hawai'i's East West Centre in Honolulu over the past week to monitor and, perhaps, learn from the US presidential election.
The Pakistan-born scholar's work with the United Nations is well-documented. He spent more than 18 years at UN headquarters in New York working on issues of governance, urban management and democracy and teaching at various universities and institutions all over the globe.
Dr Cheema, who returned to the East West Centre in 2008 as a senior fellow to head the Asian Governance and Democracy Initiative (AGDI), noted that democracy in each country depended on unique social and economic circumstances.
"There's no one road to democracy," he said. "What happens in each of those countries is different to the United States experience. The governance in each country is different, thus the quality of their democracy is different — democracy is a process." Dr Cheema said he'd learnt over the years that elections featured two perspectives, the first being elections as an event and elections as a process, and that these could further be broken down into six features.
"The first is registration — there can be no electoral process without voter registration. The second is voter education. The importance of this cannot be emphasised enough.
"The third is who conducts the election — this is the issue. Any election commission must be independent and free."
On the fourth issue of election campaigning and finance, Dr Cheema said in many countries elections meant wealth.
"If you're rich, you win," he added, citing the case of the US where money chucked about during elections was a major issue.
The fifth and sixth points, he said, were election technology and infrastructure, which involved polling booths, counting and tabulation, and the elections as an event in which people voted in a process watched over by election monitors.
Then there was, of course, the media. "The media here have a huge set of resources. They appoint analysts and then there's the situation of who reports first and who reports with the greatest of accuracy," Dr Cheema said.
He said that of the estimated $6billion spent on the US presidential election, a big chunk of it went to the media and highly-paid consultants.
"The media plays an important role but the downside is that they spin things and many times, spinning becomes a reality."