Election monitoring is about more than just election monitoring
Contribution by Krzysztof Bobiński, head of the elections sub group of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, to a Council of Europe seminar on “Reporting on elections” in Vilnius, Lithuania on 14 November 2013 This meeting has been talking about the right way of reporting on the results of election observation but I want to widen the subject and look at the dilemmas which face election observation in the Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries. A couple of years ago the Civil Society Forum (CSF) decided to make election observation one of its main priorities as a key area for the whole programme of democratizing the six member countries of the EaP. But given the number of election observation initiatives there are already the question is what can the CSF add in value to the effort which is being made to try and make sure that elections are free and fair in the region? I am by no means an experienced practitioner of observation monitoring and base what I am saying on two years in the CSF steering committee during which I took a keen interest in the elections which took place in the EaP countries. During the presidential election in Georgia last month I had the pleasure of working with a group of six very professional observers from the EaP countries who made up the CSF election task force there. Observing my fellow observers including Sergiy Tkachenko from the Committee of Voters of the Ukraine and Nicolae Panfil from PROMO-Lex in Moldova taught me a lot and showed me how important training, sticking to methodology and professionalism is, in election observation. But I think that election observation is more than just concentrating on arriving at the truth about an election – whether it was free and fair. For me, it is a political process which is about involving people in defending the principles which underlie a fair election and who as a result of their experience will propagate those principles in other elections in which they may be participants, as voters or candidates or election officials and not necessarily observers. It is about building a widespread constituency in the EaP countries for free and fair elections. For monitoring is vital but in the end what is important is not merely to observe the process but to change things for the better. For, I think there is more to election observation than just watching elections at first hand filling in check sheets, making sure that the election administration and the contestants don’t cheat and declaring that an election reached or didn’t reach the required standards. I believe that the process of election observation also requires the observers to reflect on the political background against which an election is taking place, to reflect on the reasons why politicians cheat and to actively seeks ways of ensuring that cheating does not take place in future.
For example I am fascinated by the question as to why authoritarian leaders work so hard to cynically construct the façade of a democratic election while at the same making a huge effort to make sure that the election is not democratic. I am also interested in the question of whether a fraudulent election does bestow the legitimacy on authoritarian rulers which they appear to crave. And if a ruler owes his post to a fraudulent election then has he really gained that legitimacy. Are the laws passed by fraudulently elected legislatures really legitimate laws and are the citizens who have had their democratic right to a free and fair election stolen obliged to obey such laws? And do fraudulently elected rulers and legislatures deserve the respect they are accorded by freely elected rulers and freely elected legislatures abroad? Why is it that these rulers want so much to be seen to be elected democratically when the reality is so often different? And I am also interested in why the citizens take part in what they suspect is a farce but do so anyway. Is it a habit of participation in elections with its origins in the communist past or is it a sign of apathy and resignation or do they not understand what elections are all about? These are questions which go beyond the mechanical procedures of election observation. And I think that observation of these procedures have to be supplemented by a spirit of enquiry into the social phenomenon of elections in EaP countries. Otherwise it would be quite enough to leave everything to the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) whose professionalism is beyond question and whose election reports are credible. And to leave it at that. However I would argue that we need many local observers as possible taking part and we need international missions from the EaP countries such as ENEMO and the European Platform for Democratic Elections (EPDE) and from the EU member states. And that we need efforts such as that proposed by the CSF which seeks to combine both observation from other EaP countries and an analysis of what is happening before, during and after an election. And we need people from the various EaP countries working together so that they can exchange information and opinions on electoral fraud with the people they meet during election missions so that the body of information and experience on elections grows across the EaP where I think you will agree that many election phenomena are similar. But there is a problem with my suggestion that the concept of election monitoring should be extended to include an analysis of the political situation during and election and reflection on what is actually happening during an election conducted by others than trained election observers. Organisations such as ODIHR are credible because they stick to methodologies and are professional in their election observation and because they stick to facts and run shy of opinions. Nevertheless they are criticised quite brutally by politicians from various European parliamentary assemblies and from ad hoc groups of observers who are also public personalities who visit for a few days during elections and then issue statements on whether an election was free and fair. These politicians argue that as practitioners they have first-hand experience of elections and are better placed to assess the whether an election is fair. Both recently in Azerbaijan and in the election in Armenia in February and before, there have been serious
differences of opinion between these parliamentarians and ODIHR on the assessment of elections. But if the truth be told the motives of these politicians are not entirely honest and there are reasons for this. First the politicians from the EU who visit various countries to observe have their own motives in assessing the conduct of an election. One is that they have political allies who are contesting these elections and are keen to support those allies against their political rivals. This has been the case in Georgia 2012 and in Armenia earlier in 2013. Secondly, some have simply been wooed and cosseted by EaP governments and they come not to observe elections but simply to support the governments which have done them favours in the past or from whom they expect to get favours for themselves or their country in the future. The European Stability Initiative (ESI) has written convincingly in its reports on this. Then there are those who have convinced themselves that they are players in a geopolitical game and that it is more important to bend the truth because there are ‘higher’ geopolitical reasons for issuing mendacious verdicts than to simple to report on how things are. This is sometimes the case in Azerbaijan where it is argued that the country is a pro western, secular bulwark and thus has be supported however its government behaves to its citizens. The most notorious recent case is that of the election in Azerbaijan in October 2013. The positive report which the delegation from the European Parliament gave after the election (in marked contrast to the negative ODIHR report) has caused and continues to cause a row in the EP. However there are hopes that, as a result, future parliamentary observers will seek to perform their duties in a more professional, honest and unbiased way. Because it seems that people in these assemblies are beginning to understand the harm these practices are doing to the image of their institutions and to the very cause of parliamentary democracy. Nevertheless I would still argue that election observation should not be left just to the monitoring of election practice as vital and important as it is. Politicians should be encouraged to come to elections and to bring their experience to bear but only if they are prepared to be unbiased. Election monitoring should also engage the monitors themselves in also thinking about what is happening as well as social scientists such as sociologists and politologists and social psychologists. All should work together not only to observe election fraud but also to think about how to prevent election fraud and to reflect on the reasons for election fraud and the effects of election fraud. For election fraud is just as corrosive as corruption and it threatens the prospects for democracy not only in the EaP countries but is beginning to threaten the very basis of European parliamentary institutions as well.