International election observers: the watchdogs with no bite

Most elections are now monitored by international election observers, whose presence is intended to deter vote-rigging and who report on whether the vote was ‘free and fair’. But after the Kenyan Constitutional Court nullified the recent elections there despite observers having approved them, the value of these missions has been questioned. Sophie Donszelmann (LSE), Cristoforo Simonetta (University of Florence) and Natalia Shvets (Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich) – all of whom have recently served as observers – argue that, when fraud often takes place before polling day and governments like Turkey’s ignore criticism of voting irregularities, the missions increasingly pay only lip service to democracy.

commonwealth observer rwanda

A member of the Commonwealth Observer Group during Rwandan elections in 2010. Photo: Commonweakth Secretariat via a CC-BY-NC 2.0 licence

On election days across the world, it’s not just citizens who head out to polling stations. Delegations of international election observers will also be there to audit election proceedings. They serve as watchdogs, guarding the integrity of the democratic process, and issue reports assessing whether the elections were held in accordance with international democratic standards. Inviting international election observers to audit elections has become the new democratic norm.

Election monitors: The opinions of ‘Hans’ and ‘George’

In a rejection of the OSCE’s election report after the 2017 Turkish constitutional referendum, President Erdoğan claimed that that his country did not need nor care “about the opinions of ‘Hans’ or ‘George’”. But who are these outsiders who come to observe elections?

National and international organisations such as the African Union, the Organization of American States, the European Union, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Commonwealth Nations or Carter Centre recruit, train and dispatch volunteers to serve as international election observers. Election observation missions (EOMs) usually deploy a small core team of experts to coordinate the mission, as well as 5-10 long-term observers (LTOs) and several short-term observers (STOs) who, under instructions from the LTOs, are deployed the last week of the election cycle and do the brunt of the observation. On election day, referred to as ‘e-day’ by observers, teams are dispatched to several polling stations across the country, armed only with an interpreter and forms on which to record their observations. The core team collates and analyses this information and later produces a report determining whether the election truly was ‘free and fair.’

Election observers now monitor around 80% of the world’s elections. Since the end of the Cold War, they have signified the new global norm for elections held in emerging and consolidated democracies. Yet as the list of observed elections grows, so do grievances against the observation processes.

The recent decision of the Kenyan Constitutional Court to nullify the results of the last presidential elections clearly demonstrates the limits of the election observation industry. The 2017 election was heralded by the head of the Organization for African Unity as ‘an example for all the continent’. Organisations such as the African Union, European Union and Carter Center announced there were “no signs of centralised or localised manipulation” in their preliminary reports on the election preparations. Yet the discovery of five million unverified ballots prompted Kenya’s constitutional court to annul the results and set a new election date. It became clear that the EOMs’ earlier praise was severely misplaced.

To some extent these inaccurate judgements can be expected, given that research shows that elections in Africa are significantly more likely than those elsewhere to be praised as free and fair despite evidence to the contrary. But this was neither the first nor only instance in which EOMs have failed to provide an accurate analysis. In 2013 the Council of Europe extolled the presidential elections in Azerbaijan as ‘free, fair and transparent’ despite the fact that the country’s Central Election Commission released the election ‘results’ one day before the actual election.

When organisations tasked with preventing electoral manipulations miss such blatant election fraud, their credibility and value plummets.

But maybe it’s the nature of election observation itself that undermines its own aims.

Election observation methodology stipulates that observers are to do just that, observe election proceedings. Even if there is clear evidence of electoral fraud such as vote buying, voter intimidation or ballot box stuffing, observers are prohibited from stepping in to correct or comment in real time – it can only be recorded and included in the EOM’s final report, greatly limiting the observers’ mandate.

Watchdogs chasing their tails

Another limitation is that observers can only really work with what’s in front of them. Marietje Schaake, head of the EU delegation to Kenya, admitted their mission was limited by too great a focus on the circumstances in polling stations on e-day, with too little attention paid to the digital transmission of election results, which is where most of the electoral fraud occurred. The presence of outside observers is supposed to deter election fraud – when you know someone is watching you, you become significantly less likely to (at least blatantly) transgress. In many instances, observers report feeling respected and, in some cases, even feared by the poll workers when they enter the polling station. Monitors wield this soft power of respect and understanding as their main tool to deter fraud.

However, most electoral transgressions often happen before ‘e-day’, which to a great extent renders observers’ presence on the ground redundant – all bark and no bite.

A slap on the wrist and subsequent worldwide media attention does little to rectify fraudulent election proceedings, when those being condemned aren’t concerned about the outcome. After the OSCE and the Council of Europe criticised Turkey’s 2017 constitutional referendum, the Turkish government rejected their observations, declaring the OSCE’s to be ‘based on biased and prejudiced approaches.’ Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claimed that the country had conducted the most democratic vote in its history: case closed. The most important tool EOMs have in their armoury is the ability to “name and shame”, which is intended to change the transgressor’s behaviour by credibly bringing the violations to light. Yet to those who aren’t concerned about receiving international approval or praise, written and verbal condemnations often fall on deaf ears or are swatted away. Erdoğan felt he didn’t need foreigners – the ‘Hans’’ and “Georges’ of international delegations – to tell him what to do in his country. As the president retorted, “we’ll continue on our path. Talk to the hand.”

However, the real problem is political. EOMs sent to countries still in the process of consolidating their democracies often face the same moral dilemma: even in elections with clear electoral irregularities, EOMs will refrain from reporting on wrongdoings for fear of bringing political instability or being barred from observing future elections.  Too afraid of complicating matters, the mission’s core team concluding reports will classify the election as ‘good enough,’ damming them with fake praise while acknowledging polling station wrongdoings, but stopping short of saying that they were not ‘free and fair’ – the apparent approach of international observation missions in Kenya’s first election. However, the omission of any kind of condemnation imagines these countries will rectify their own errors in due course. This optimism is grossly misplaced and once again undermines the EOMs’ core purpose. The increasing tendency of EOMs to choose this safer option will eventually rob observation missions of their ability to enact change and serve as a democratising force. They are really only paying lip service to the democratic process.

This post represents the views of the authors and not those of Democratic Audit.

Sophie Donszelmann is the Centre Assistant and USAPP Blog Editor in the LSE United States Centre, situated within the LSE’s Institute of Global Affairs. Sophie served on observation missions to the UK’s 2017 General Election and 2017 German Federal Elections. She holds an undergraduate degree in Government from the LSE.

Cristoforo Simonetta is a research student in European Studies at University of Florence. After completing an intensive election observation course in 2015, Cristoforo served on monitoring delegations to the Brexit referendum and 2017 German federal elections. He now works at the Bringing Europeans Together Association e.V. (BETA).

Natalia Shvets is a graduate student of political science and assistant in the Comparative Political Systems department with a focus on CIS and Eastern Middle Europe at Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich. Natalia served on observation missions to the 2014 Ukrainian presidential election and 2017 German federal elections.

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