PARTICULARLY since the end of the Cold War, it has generally been taken for granted that democracy is the best political system, almost regardless of the circumstances. Once warring sides have reached a ceasefire, democracy is seen as uniquely suited to provide a peaceful means of competition for power and influence. However, opting to go the electoral route is not without risks. An important advantage can go to those who win foundational elections. The stakes may seem extremely high in future elections as well, providing strong incentive to opt for extra-legal means to ensure victory. It is in these delicate situations that election monitors can play an important role.
Monitoring is important because elections are the cornerstone of creating a democratic political system.
As such, monitoring can assist democratic consolidation by instilling domestic and international legitimacy. Peaceful elections may also promote reconciliation between former adversaries. Post conflict societies, however, are often poorly equipped to conduct elections. Despite a formal end to the fighting, instability often persists. A continued lack of security makes campaigning difficult, to say nothing of actually conducting a vote. Institutions needed to conduct elections are often nonexistent, or damaged by the conflict. Where contentious elections present fears of vote tampering and other irregularities, the presence of election monitors may serve to prevent shenanigans and give parties greater confidence that the vote was free and fair. The key to achieving this outcome is monitors who are seen by all sides as neutral. Because of this, monitors are often foreigners that arrive prior to the vote at the invitation of a sovereign state.
Monitoring can enhance the credibility and legitimacy of elections, thereby helping to reduce electoral violence. It can help maintain a working peace agreement because losers lack the ability to shout “fraud!” and disrupt a country’s democratization. One way in which monitors do this is by taking independent vote tallies, which prevents governments from manipulating the vote. Even before this, some monitors arrive long before the vote to observe campaigning and voter registration efforts. In addition, foreign funding contributes to planning and conducting the vote. What is more, it can provide technical expertise and training for locals who may never have conducted an election before. As such, in the long-term, monitoring can assist in building and strengthening domestic electoral institutions. For example, over 50,000 Cambodians were trained as election officials by the UN Transitional Authority for the 1993 elections. Finally, it can also help in the long-range development of political parties and civil society.
History of Election Monitoring
The idea of foreign monitors observing elections actually has a fairly long history. The first election with international monitoring was in 1857 when French, British, Prussian, Russian, Austrian and Turkish representatives supervised a plebiscite in Moldavia and Wallachia.
Although there certainly were other cases in the interim, the post-World War II world provided more opportunity and the practice developed more quickly. Fast upon its creation, the United Nations was asked to monitor elections in Korea and Germany. As decolonization accelerated in the 1950-60s, so too did the UN’s “first generation” involvement in founding elections to ensure they were free and fair. So-called “second generation” election monitoring missions are more comprehensive and have become more common with the end of the Cold War and the growing global consensus on the value of democracy. Beginning with Namibia’s 1989 vote, election monitoring has often become part of a broader mandate of peacekeeping. Here, election observation is part of a multi-faceted international effort to support a peace agreement and help with the reconstruction of political systems and economies.
Who Serves as Election Monitors?
Many international actors have taken on the challenge of monitoring elections in these difficult circumstances. States, both bilaterally and through international organizations (IGOs), have been frequent participants as have a growing number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with an interest in spreading democracy and human rights.
Building on its historical participation in election monitoring outlined above, the UN has accelerated its important contribution since 1989. In that period, it has received over 140 requests for electoral assistance from member states
The UN maintains a roster of election experts that can be called upon on relatively short notice. It provides not only technical assistance to help governments conduct their elections, to major operations to essentially conduct the elections as part of a broader peacekeeping operation. In these sophisticated operations, the UN takes on roles normally fulfilled by national electoral authorities. It often requires creating an entire system of laws, procedures and administrative measures in order to hold the election and then actually conducting the entire process.
This more extensive mission is, of course, costly and has only been applied to perceived “unique” circumstances. For example, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) was responsible for the organization and execution of national elections there in May 1993 as part of a comprehensive peace plan. In the Balkans, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium (UNTAES) was asked to organize elections for all local government bodies in April 1997 in cooperation with Croatian authorities.
Other IGOs have become actively involved in election monitoring as well. The Commonwealth Secretariat, European Union (EU), Organization of African Unity (OAU), Organization of American States (OAS), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and the Council of Europe, amongst others, have all been involved in election monitoring in recent years. The OSCE, for example, offers its members Needs Assessment Missions, long-term observation in the weeks prior to the election, and a coordinating office. Long-term observers are sent into the field several weeks before an election, in order for the OSCE to properly evaluate developments leading up to the election. Then, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly sends parliamentarians, generally for short-term missions at critical points to provide political leadership to the monitoring operation. It seems likely that countries prefer the UN to regional bodies, as it is more likely to be seen as impartial and detached from regional and local politics.
NGOs have rapidly expanded their work in democratic assistance and possess a number of advantages.
Their independence leaves them relatively free from political pressure. They are seen as unbiased. Because they typically have more limited resources, they are often more shrewd in using funds. They are smaller and more flexible to meet the unique challenges presented by each election. They also often have more connections with grassroots organizations helping to increase the long-term benefits of monitoring. Some of the more important NGOs involved in election monitoring are:
International Human Rights Law Group
National Endowment for Democracy
National Democratic Institute for International Affairs
International Republican Institute
International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA)
The Carter Center
International Foundation for Electoral Systems
La Federation Internationale des Droits de l’Homme
International Commission of Jurists
Inter-Parliamentary Union
Center for Democracy
Centre for Electoral Promotion and Advice (CAPEL)
Problems with Election Monitoring
Outsiders are often ignorant of local circumstances related to history, culture, and the like.
Monitors often arrive shortly before the vote and usually lack language or cultural training to allow them to effectively evaluate the vote. To compound the problem of ignorance, monitors often forego working with domestic observers in order to avoid the appearance of bias. Monitors are also not entirely independent, but have a number of important limitations. For instance, monitors have ties to the entity that has funded their mission. Reports may be tailored to the demands of the funding, source rather than fulfilling the mission of monitoring the election. It has been tempting, particularly for IGOs, to verify most elections as to do otherwise would be destabilizing, and it would be politically and tactically difficult to “re-do” the election.
The fact that IGOs are made up of states means representatives cannot entirely ignore the interests of other nation-states in the election. Many NGOs also are not entirely independent, so it is beneficial to draw NGOs from a variety of countries. Some are tied to national parliaments or in other ways receive government funding. Others have connections to particular political parties, trade unions, or religious-affiliated organizations. Although this has begun to change, NGOs early on were predominantly American, and could be accused of serving American interests.