EASA, 2006: EASA06: Europe and the world

Bristol, UK, 18/09/2006 – 21/09/2006


Cultures of voting: ethnographies of the secret ballot

Location Wills M
Date and Start Time 21 Sep, 2006 at 11:30


Peter Pels (Leiden University) email
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Short Abstract

Elections by secret ballot are often seen as a universal recipe for democratisation. Recent ethnographies of voting, however, show that its cultural presuppositions require study before such rationality is assumed.

Long Abstract

Anthropologists focus increasingly on the cultural features of modern political institutions' bureaucracy, statistics and individualism that were normally regarded as universal and rational forms of spreading democracy, thus criticising late colonial theories of progress that were resurrected by neo-liberal geopolitics. Since the 1980s, international institutions have defined democratic progress by the ideal of free and unfettered political choice, usually materialised by the technology of the secret ballot. Currently, governance is often legitimated and measured by the extent to which this technology has been successfully implemented. Yet, such policies rarely take the practical history and ethnography of this technology into account. Recent ethnographies of the secret ballot and its surrounding socio-cultural relationships raise serious questions about the universality and rationality of this technology of voting. What cultural embeddings does the secret ballot require? How do different ethno-scapes of familial, corporate, machine-style, or commodified forms of politics deal with the technology of the secret ballot? What does this mean for policies that define the successful implementation of voting by secret ballot as a condition of international aid? What are the cultural and material conditions of the institutions of voting by secret ballot, anyway: electoral campaigns and their expectations of revolution through continuity? The process of registration of voters and candidates? The papers, voting booths and buildings that materialise the public performance of a secret vote? The process of counting and impersonal processing of individual votes? What is the role of fraud, franchise, fealties and foreclosure of voting in this so-called free process? These issues highlight the need for nitty-gritty ethnographies of elections by secret ballot by which to compare its cultural conditions, its material culture, its public performance and its global ideology.


Ethnographic studies of voting among the Austronesian Paiwan in Taiwan

Author: Kun Hui Ku (National Tsing Hua University)  email
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Long Abstract

Some models of "identity" voting treat electoral identities as more-or-less fixed. This paper shows that electoral identities are more contextually mutable than can be accommodated in such models. The analysis is based on ethnographic investigations of Paiwan elections in southern Taiwan. The main finding is that each election sets the framework for people to align and de-align themselves. It shows how the constituency of each candidate may change according to the type of election, the territory defined by the election, and the social positions of a candidate's opponents. Moreover, it examines the ways in which the rhetoric of "tradition" is deployed differently in different types of elections, with a special focus on the ways in which candidates and voters alike strategically manipulate cultural idioms/house histories, and the affiliations they entail. By studying the ethnographic details and institutional conditions of voting, this paper also attempts to contribute to the understanding of voting culture in a broader comparative term.

Capturing democratic standards: the 2005 Somaliland parliamentary elections between plural authorities and claims for recognition

Author: Luca Ciabarri (University of Milan )  email
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Long Abstract

In the current rethoric on democratisation, Somaliland - a self-declared new state emerged from the dissolution of the Somali state in 1991 - represents a very peculiar case: having struggled succesfully against dictatorship during the 80s and carried out later a pacification process which eventually led to the formation of new democratic institutions, its efforts and standards would seem completely in line with international governance discourse. Though, such achievements are not recognized by international community. What does not fit the standard is linked to the present conditions for recognition and acceptance of new political unities in the African arena. The parliamentary elections held in September 2005 thus represented, in the eye of the local ruling class, the last stage of a legitimizing strategy to obtain the recognition as an independent State. The new institutions should replace and at the same time inglobe into the structure of a modern state the beel system (government of the community) which characterised the period from 1993 to 2001. The reality however shows different degrees of compenetration, overlapping and competition amongst different political and social actors where the state cohexists with competing authorities and forms of rule. Familiar and corporate forms of politics intervene and result more incisive than individual participation to the electoral process. Such aspects have always been pointed out as one of the main reason of the historical failure of Somali democracy in the 60s, yet the evidence now shows that they simply work, producing representatives which are legitimized by the people. The paper sets out to analyse such interfaces and multi-level dynamics involving the relationships between corporate logic/individual logic, historical attitudes to elections, the crossing of local and external meanings as well as local uses of this quite specific tool. Particular attention, approaching the socio-cultural embeddings of the secret ballot technology, will be devoted to the selection of the candidates and the mobilization to vote.

Voting in Bengal (India) villages

Author: Mukulika Banerjee (London School of Economics)  email
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Long Abstract

In April/May 2006, state level Assembly Elections were held in the Indian state of West Bengal. These elections mark a change in the way elections have been conducted in the state over the past three decades. In an effort to respond to charges of 'scientific rigging' and the questioning of the continuous dominance of the Left Front (a coalition of 13 Left parties led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Election Commission modified some crucial mechanisms of the voting and campaigning process to address these complaints. Voting was held in five phases, voter ID cards were made mandatory and severe restrictions have been placed on the manner in which election campaigns could be conducted.

On the basis of studying these elections first hand in this paper I will discuss how the practice and 'techne' of democracy affects the popular consumption of its ideological message. Based on my long-term research in West Bengal since 1998, I will compare how current constructions of the democratic process in 2006 compare with earlier ones. My earlier research has shown how the everyday dominance of the Left Front has transformed people's vocabulary of politics such that notions of citizenship, rights and accountability are widely discussed. In this paper I will show how this sophistication is expressed in popular responses to the proposed changes in the electoral processes in 2006. I will also link micro data from the village level to reflect more general understandings of democracy, as part of my ethnographic approach to the study of democracy.

Technology, power, and resistance: the ethnography of recent balloting in Venezuela

Author: Miguel Montoya (Stockholm University)  email
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Long Abstract

The use of new technology in voting processes can both facilitate and hamper ‘free and fair’ elections. Recent balloting in Venezuela, including the 2004 presidential recall referendum and the 2005 elections to the national assembly, were marked by the introduction of electronic voting machines which caused considerable dispute and distrust. Also, prior to and after votes were held, digital technology and the Internet were used to record and to disseminate peoples’ political preferences, leading to economic persecution. While actual balloting may remain secret other mechanisms that are part of a democratic process - such as petitions and the right to abstention - can be monitored in ways that oblige citizens to make their political position explicit, enabling the exclusion and punishment of non-government supporters. Such events raise questions about how consensus on the use of new technology in political processes might be reached, and how its use can be adequately controlled to guarantee citizens’ rights to the secret ballot, particularly where state institutions are weak or under the control of the executive power. Government incursion on the secret ballot has led to growing resistance in Venezuela and the strengthening of support for civil society organizations, although their future is uncertain.

Secret ballot and clientelistic practices on the MInho border: comparison of two ethnographic cases - Galiza and Northern Portugal

Author: Paulo Jablonski Garcia (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)  email
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Long Abstract

The relation between electoral processes in two ethnographic cases that present different voting models, administrative division, and recent political history with the existence of clientelistic practices and its incidence in the secret ballot voting system is the purpose of this paper.

The ethnographic data that is introduced is the result of fieldwork in two different towns in Galiza and Northen Portugal. Fieldwork was not continuous, but carried out in three different periods of four to eight months long for a total of 16 months between 2003 and 2006. The study cases are sited in the same geographical location, the Minho border between Galiza and Northern Portugal. This data is part of the empiric corpus for my doctorate thesis in Social and Cultural Anthropology about Clientelistic Relations in Formal Democracies.

In the first place, in order to contextualise the comparison, an introductory description of the two cases will be discussed, followed by a description of two local election processes pointing out three main aspects :

1. The confection of the list of candidates, paying attention to its historical frame which will permit an understanding of the particular conception of the political-electoral space in each locality.

2. The electoral campaign, which will address the aspects of the mechanism of the candidates-electorate relation.

3. Election day, which will bring out clues about the connections between secret ballot and clientelistic practices.

This analysis of the electoral process pretends to prove that, in the studied contexts, a secret ballot is necessary but not sufficient as a mechanism for free and unfettered political choice. The variables that are established through personal relations (clientelistic or not), within and outside of the electoral game, act as mechanisms of vote control and, as a result, override the bureaucratic-legal frame of formal democracies.

Apprehending 'culture', rationalising voting: Conservative Party electioneering and the political machine

Author: Alexander Smith (University of Warwick)  email
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Long Abstract

For many months, preparations for the Scottish Parliament elections dominated the agenda of local Conservative Party activists who generally saw themselves as engaged in a struggle for electoral survival in the 'new' political landscape of post-devolution Scotland. After all, at the 1997 General Election, the Scottish Conservatives lost every one of the eleven Westminster constituencies that they had won in 1992 - including the previously 'safe' Dumfries constituency and the neighbouring seat of Galloway and Upper Nithsdale. With their efforts locally drawing on a much-diminished base of support, senior Conservative Party strategists often worked from the assumption that they had endured their own, quite literal 'crisis' in representation, the material consequences of which entailed losses of financial and other resources, legitimacy and local knowledge.

This paper focuses on one particular challenge on which Conservative Party activists focused as they sought to address this 'crisis': to establish the voting intentions of potential supporters in what is otherwise an election by secret ballot. Working within the legal constraints of the Representation of the People Act 1945, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 as well as the Data Protection Act, Conservative Party activists developed a variety of strategies to render the Electoral Roll 'transparent' so that the political allegiances of thousands of local voters could be discerned (imagined). I also explore one particular discursive artefact - the target letter - that was designed to explicitly challenge a political culture that Conservative Party activists perceived as hostile to them. Considered a vital instrument in their campaign's discursive armoury as they sought to 'catch up' and overtake a 'well-oiled' local Labour Party machine, it was hoped that this letter would produce positive electoral 'effects' for local Conservative Party candidates.