Response to: The Declaration of Principles of International Election Observation and Code of Conduct for International Election Observers

This is an unprecedented development. Those involved deserve praise and congratulation.

However, I believe that we have reached a point at which the whole basis and raison d'être of election observation is under threat. The value of undertaking international observer missions needs to be re-assessed in the light of the developments of the past five years. Unless there is a frank examination of the present situation, no amount of international co-ordination of principles and policies will be more than fine words on paper.

In the course of some forty-seven pro-democracy missions in thirty-one countries over the past fifteen years I have seen the value and effectiveness of international election observation eroded bit by bit. We are in serious danger of carrying out these missions for their own sake rather than for any effective influence they may have on the quality of the democratic process in the countries involved.

There was a period when the status of international observer missions was widely recognised and when their reports could be influential - the leverage of the Carter Centre in Guyana in 1992 is one clear example - but it is significant that recent reversals of illegitimate election results, such as in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, have come through opposition leaders and parties being able to mobilise mass protests and a continued occupation of key buildings in the capital, rather than from critical reports of international observers.

There are. I believe, six key points that increasingly undermine the viability of, and the rationale for, international observer missions:

  1. The lack of "clout" of such missions: authoritarian regimes increasingly simply ignore their adverse findings, secure in the awareness that, however much they may criticise and threaten, major donors will not abandon aid to the poor and needy. Aid may be suspended for a time but, as the evidence shows, it is fairly soon reinstated. Zimbabwe is the most blatant example of this, but others include Zambia in 2001, where I was the EU's Chief Observer and where all the observer missions, international and domestic, issued highly critical statements on the lack of legitimacy of the electoral process, all of which were simply ignored. The present situation in Ethiopia is another example. Without some form of commitment to respect the findings of accredited observer missions they may well be increasingly impotent.
  2. The Declaration of Principles speaks of the electoral process "legitimising governments" and so it does. However, where, as is all too often the case, political parties are based on tribes or religions, the electoral process then simply legitimises domination by one tribe or one religion over another. The late Professor Claude Ake (of Port Harcourt University, Nigeria) drew attention to the dangers, arguing that elections in such circumstances could actually make the situation worse. Even in the UK, in the "tribal" case of Northern Ireland, elections are not permitted to legitimise the domination of the unionists over the nationalists. Why then, in terms of observation missions, is there such a narrow concentration on elections which may have a less influential role in the development of democracy than the requirements of a broader political settlement?
  3. In most new democracies the concept of opposition simply does not exist. Elected representatives are either in the government or have virtually no role at all. Governments buy off opposition representatives they regard as dangerous to them and, given that there is rarely a philosophic basis to parties, there is no underpinning ideology to keep people loyal to a party. In Zambia an Indian MP who was fiercely and vocally opposed to the regime and, remarkably, was able to get elected as an independent, became a government minister a few years after the election. What is the point of elections, however well run, when their outcome is vitiated by post-election manipulation - not to form a coalition to ensure a working majority but to bring all politically effective representatives into the government?
  4. Where independent domestic monitoring organisations exist, international observation teams must, of course, as stated in the "Principles", liaise and co-operate with them. The role of NAMFREL in the Philippines revolution of 1986 was, for instance, crucial. However, there is a growing problem in that the more established and effective such organisations are, the more they attract capable and politically aware men and women who are thus lost to the mainstream political process. The paradox is that the more effective a domestic monitoring organisation is in reporting the shortcomings of the electoral process the more it is likely to have contributed to the situation. It is significant that key individuals from FODEP in Zambia and FEMA in Bangladesh have made the switch to the party political sphere.
  5. In a sense the days immediately after elections are more important than the weeks before them. Often the new executive is inexperienced and, perhaps more importantly, most if not all of the members of the new legislature have never sat in a representative assembly before. And yet there is very rarely any follow up to electoral missions. Even when it is built into the ToRs it does not happen in practice. To take the example of Zambia again, a follow up component was in my contract and I prepared a paper on it before polling day. This was discussed and agreed by the local co-ordinating committee, comprising representatives of the donor community, diplomatic community, major observation teams and key NGOs. After the election, despite my reminding the managing agents and others, there was no enthusiasm for a return to the country. There was no follow up. Considerable sums are expended on international observer missions and the return on this public investment is often diminished by the events immediately after the elections.
  6. The quality of elections in the UK and in the USA has been seriously compromised in recent years, with the Supreme Court having to determine the result in 2000 in the former and with the severe criticisms of postal balloting in the latter. The ongoing public attention given to apparent defects in the process in the two countries, plus the miserably low electoral turnouts in each, are widely publicised and noted in new and emerging democracies. In my experience this feeds criticism of international observer missions.

None of the above is intended to undermine the electoral imperative nor to demean the eternal quest for high quality elections. Indeed, I hope that my 47 year record of involvement in electoral politics demonstrates a commitment to the process. It is rather intended to make the case that the electoral process is only one aspect of the much greater challenge of assisting the establishment of viable and healthy democracy. The totemic status often accorded to the electoral process can at times inhibit attention being given to other crucial components of democracy.

11 December 2005