Notes from the Field

Shaping Democracy Through Observation

February 18, 2009

Seminal elections in a country’s history, such as those after a period of civil war, military rule or at the demise of an authoritarian regime, are invariably marked by the arrival of troupes of international election observers; their duty: to comment on the overall election environment and whether or not the elections held are free and fair.

There are numerous examples of this from the Asia region, including Cambodia in 1993 and Indonesia in 1999. In 2008, both Nepal and Bangladesh held milestone elections, the former after the then-government and Marxist guerillas signed a peace accord, the latter to end two years of rule by the military-installed Caretaker Government.

The efforts of international observer groups are important to give or withhold the seal of legitimacy for the elections, and to make a valued judgment as to whether or not the elections were held in a free and fair environment, which could reflect the will of the public.

Such international election observer missions are mounted by international organizations including the United Nations, the European Union and the Commonwealth; private not-for-profit organizations, including the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), The Carter Center, and The Asia Foundation; and multinational networks, such as the Asian Network for Free and Fair Elections (ANFREL). Each organization has its own methodology and way of working, but the aim is the same: to set an international standard for the quality and integrity of elections.

These well-seasoned international observer experts provide a crucial role for conferring such legitimacy on elections. In addition, their very presence provides a visible sign of the concern of the international community; the deployment of international observers shows there is no such thing as a local election in this global era. Rather, high quality elections are of concern to all in the global community. This has become even more true over the last decade, as the consequences and specter of rigged elections, such as those witnessed in the Ukraine, Kenya, and Zimbabwe, have had consequences for both the country concerned and those beyond national borders.

While international observation missions are important for democratic transitions, there are inherent weaknesses associated with them as well.

The first is the cost. The price of deploying an international mission is extremely high. Not only do teams of long- and short-term observers need to be ferried across the world, but they need to be serviced by a longer-term support staff. It is this staff that carries out the initial groundwork and preparations for the mission, including obtaining accreditation, developing materials and deployment plans, recruiting translators, and working out the logistics for teams that can include over 100 people. Furthermore, in volatile areas where security is of paramount concern, the cost to provide adequate safety for all team members can be exceedingly high. The cost of such missions can run into the millions of dollars, even for a relatively small mission.

The missions also require six to twelve months of intensive planning. While technically the results of such observation missions are good, with high quality and detailed observation reports about problems and weaknesses of the system encountered, these missions generally only draw on local people in a supporting role. Therefore, once the mission director has returned home, there is no one left to ensure and advocate for further reform.

By contrast, domestic observation missions mobilize local people to get involved and active in their own democracy. If democracy is to be strong, it needs to be valued by its own citizens. The citizens of the country, not the international visitors, can eventually make or break a state, and determine whether a democratizing state succeeds or fails.

Thus, it’s a state’s own citizens that must be concerned about the quality of democratic participation in their own country, not just in the run-up to and on Election Day, but in the months and years that follow the election. Elections are an aspect of advocacy; voters must not be passive citizens, only satisfied with the act of voting. Rather, they need to care about the system in which they vote, and push for improvements if democracy is to take root.

Domestic observation missions are also costly and all too dependent upon international donor support. But for the same price as an international mission of tens to hundreds of observers, domestic observer networks can deploy tens of thousands of local observers. This also allows domestic missions to have a far more comprehensive coverage of polling stations, and to provide a visible deterrence to a wider geographic area.

It is true, the quality of the domestic observer reports are rarely as detailed or well documented as the international election observation reports. However, this is what makes domestic observer missions so important. Around these missions there is a rapid training process taking place, as domestic groups learn how to develop observation checklists, aggregate the results from tens of thousands of observers, analyze the data and learn to speak in public about which issues are important. Furthermore, once the international missions have departed, the domestic groups are still there to push for changes and reforms to the system–something the international observers have no mandate to do.

Jeremy Gross is the Foundation’s Election Program Manager based in the Indonesia office. He can be reached at jeremy@tafindo.org.

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