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Elections are one the most visible and one of the important ways in which citizens can participate in decisions that affect their lives and hold their representatives accountable for results. Significant effort is made by national and international organisations to ensure the process by which citizens select their political representatives - both at the parliamentary and presidential levels - is free and fair. For if political leaders and institutions are to have any legitimacy and, in turn, are able to continue the development of a country, the process by which they are elected must also be legitimate in the eyes of the citizens they are chosen to represent.

However, in order to ensure a democratic state, the political institutions must operate effectively. Investments in long-term democratic development, in particular the consolidation of governing institutions like parliaments, is required in order to realise the promise of elections and minimise the risk of public disillusionment with the democratic process. More than the act of periodically casting a vote, democracy relates to the entire process of participation and representation of citizens in the decision-making process.  

To start, it is important to understand the electoral cycle. Many organisations have adopted an approach to electoral assistance that moves beyond an election as an "event" to one in which support is ongoing and reflects the realities of pre-election, election and post-election management issues in order to ensure the effective delivery of free and fair elections.

Accordingly, parliamentary development can find several entry points within the electoral cycle.

The parliamentary function of lawmaking seems to be the most obvious point of entry for elections into parliaments. In fact, a range of laws, as well as boundary delimitations for example, need to be settled and adopted in accordance with internationally agreed standards in order to hold respected elections. By the adoption of a set of electoral laws, including the regulation of political parties, their financing and the role of media and CSOs, parliament is adopting a political consensus that will ensure the actual event - an election - is more legitimate for all political factions.

With regard to oversight, there is a role to be played by parliament in monitoring the independent electoral management board (EMB) that is established to implement an election. Though one must be cautious with regard to such oversight, to avoid any perception of interference, parliament does have a legitimate role in ensuring sufficient resources are allocated and the appointment and management of staff of the EMB is done so in a non-partisan manner.

There are two particular areas of development in which electoral assistance and parliamentary development crossover - support to political parties and women's political empowerment. In the case of the political parties, parties are the only organisations that are directly engaged in and crucial to the success of the work with EMBs and parliaments. At the same time, parliaments and EMBs are also tasked with the regulation of parties, including the adoption of legal frameworks for their operation and the auditing of their finances. This results in a complex and highly dynamic situation that must be managed carefully and in coordination between those implementers working in both fields.

Women's political empowerment and the ultimate goal of equal representation in political institutions and leadership are well supported by many local, national and international organisations. The support, encouragement and development required to increase the number of women elected to political leadership roles requires engagement before during and after elections and while those elected sit in parliament. Cooperation between electoral assistance and parliamentary development experts is critical to ensure a well-coordinated effort to empower women to seek political office and to succeed once elected.