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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 2 .


Pollwatching, Elections and Civil Society in Southeast Asia
William A. Callahan

Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000
214pp. Index. Biblio. Hb.: 45.00; ISBN 1-84014-474-2.



Corruption in domestic politics is currently a central issue in the study of good governance and democratic change. William Callahan studies political corruption in Southeast Asia by undertaking systematic empirical investigation into the electoral systems of Thailand and Philippines, compared with electoral practices in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. He noticed that economic growth in the 1980s and early 1990s fuelled electoral corruption and helped to institutionalise vote-buying culture in the region.

'PollWatch' is an electoral organisation established in January 1992 by Thailand Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun to monitor the Thai General Election of March 1992. William Callahan uses 'PollWatch' as a main case study for the examining of anti-vote-buying culture and popular responses to electoral fraud in Southeast Asia. Callahan took the risk of ascribing faith to an election monitoring institution which has been widely regarded as bias, not the least because it receives its budget from the government. However, Callahan argues that the 'PollWatch' organisation secures state funding for independent electoral projects. In his view, interaction between governmental and non-governmental institutions is inevitable and there are no clear dividing lines between civil society and the state. Callahan has skillfully related the empirical experience of pollwatching activities by domestic organisations in Southeast Asia to theoretical discussion on the issue of civil society.

Ethnic and religious diversity in the region provides a rich source for the accumulation of cultural and educational materials encouraging people to use their voting rights in the electoral process. William Callahan then discusses the monitoring of election in a wider context as grassroots social activity, which contributes to the establishment of an alternative political culture.

The book is divided into two main parts. In the first part, Callahan presents detailed analyses of the activities of 'PollWatch' in Thailand and the subsequent issues of independence, neutrality and effectiveness. In the second part, he discusses the civil society in Southeast Asia and the relation with the state. The Book concludes by exploring possibilities of an alternative political culture and prospects for anti-corruption reform in Southeast Asia, however it is up to the civil society and public opinion to guarantee and maintain the process of political change.


Dr Mohamed Awad Osman, The London School of Economics



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