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- Historical Origins
- Types of Election Observers
Election observation entails “the purposeful gathering of information regarding an electoral process, and the making of informed judgments on the conduct of such a process on the basis of the information collected, by persons who are not inherently authorized to intervene in the process” (UN Code of Practice quoted in Harris, 1997, p. 27).
Thus, election observation is not only central to but also has become part of the electoral process worldwide, especially in emerging democracies. The purposes of electoral observation are to promote transparency and encourage free and fair elections. Openness is an essential element of ensuring confidence in the election process. Election observation helps strengthen the democratic process and institutions, enhances the value of elections, and instills confidence in the outcome of the election (John Dugard, 1998). Election observation is expected to be nonpartisan, so that all interested parties can accept the election observers’ findings on the observed elections. For an election observation to thrive, it has to be credible in the eyes of contesting parties. This trustworthiness comes from the election observers’ refusal to take sides and the impartial and fair-minded nature of the observation endeavor.
Transparency in the electoral process is of critical importance in ensuring public confidence in the election system and recognition of the election outcome (Carl Dundas, 1994). Election observers might persuade some citizens and politicians to take part in the electoral process rather than to resort to violence, as was the case in Angola and Mozambique. In Zambia, in 1991, observers calmed intense disagreements over electoral rules and regulations by asking for concessions from government and electoral officials on areas of disagreement (National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, 1992). Thus, as Gerhard Totemeyer and Denis Kadima (2000) note, election observation can perform a constructive function in generating an environment favorable for everyone to take part in general elections. Election observation adds value to the electoral process and thereby gives it legitimacy. Moreover, the involvement of observers may also encourage a government that has lost power to recognize the outcome and therefore step down. Nicaragua in 1990 under President Daniel Ortega and Zambia in 1991 under President Kenneth Kaunda are cases in point. In this way, election observation helps promote stability. International observers may be asked to arbitrate disagreements among contesting political organizations in an attempt to lessen hostilities prior to, during, and in the postelection periods. According to the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (1992), for an election outcome to be acceptable to all interested parties, it should not only be seen as free and fair but should also not be marred by allegations of fraud. Thus, although free and fair elections are not a sufficient condition toward democratic consolidation, they are central to democracy development because of “their ability to jump-start the process of democratisation and boost the morale of prodemocracy forces” (Neil Nevitte & Santiago Canton, 1997, p. 51).
Previously, journalists, academics, and embassy staff observed elections in foreign countries. However, following World War I, political participation in government came to be accepted as a fundamental right of all citizens; since then, election observation has been institutionalized internationally. The United Nations initially took part in election observation in South Korea in 1948, because monitoring the elections in countries coming out of dictatorial military regimes or authoritarian rules was considered essential. Since then, election observation has become common and is used in developed and developing countries. Subsequently, a number of organizations, such as the Commonwealth in 1971 and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1990, became involved in election observation. There has been an increasing acceptance of the contribution observation makes to the election process not withstanding its limitations.
As M. Kupe (2000) has noted, participation of observers could help decrease propensities toward improper practices by overzealous political parties or government administrators in charge of elections. The involvement of observers during voting and at the count can help calm down volatile election environments and is thought to encourage the openness of both the polling and counting of the ballot papers (Dundas, 1994). The presence of international observers is intended to promote confidence in the process, to discourage electoral irregularities, and to give an account on the impartiality of the elections to the international community. Election observation ensures that the electoral outcome is credible internationally in the light of specific democratic conditions imposed by donors who provide economic assistance and other help. This explains why election observation has become so important in recent years, especially in countries undergoing political change.
In established democracies, election observation seeks to act as an example to emerging democracies. Election observation is not merely about verifying the fairness of an election; instead, and more crucially, observation efforts strengthen the legitimacy of democratic norms and procedures to thousands of people and, thus, help in building and strengthening a culture of democracy. It is in this context that election observation has come to be accepted as a key part of the democratic process because such efforts seek to promote transparency and accountability—the central tenets of democracy.
Election observation missions take different shapes. Their diversity depends on the type and size of the organization involved, the organization’s period of stay in the country holding elections, and the kind of report the organization produces after the elections. Nevertheless, there are certain experienced and credible election observers—the Commonwealth, the European Union, and the Carter Center for Democracy in Atlanta, Georgia—that have greater resources for observation than others. Generally, election observers oversee the administrative arrangements; preparations of the electoral authority; the behavior of election officials, police, party agents, and voters; the sealing of ballot boxes before and after voting; the escorting of boxes to the counting center; and counting (The Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, 1994). The observers are expected to produce a report, which highlights the problems noted, and make recommendations. They are also expected to determine whether the elections were free and fair. As Kupe (2000) states,
Election observers are “watchdogs working for the electorate and the political parties involved in the elections. It is their business to make sure that elections are conducted properly during the prescribed times and at the designated venues. It is the observer who reports directly or indirectly to the outside world regarding the fairness, or otherwise, of the election process. (p. 102)
Types of Election Observers
There are two main types of observer groups: local and international groups. Local observers, who are normally citizens of the country whose elections are being monitored, have an advantage over international observers in that they are familiar with the country concerned. However, although local observers promote transparency in the electoral process, they are often treated with suspicion as having a different agenda and thus not seen as impartial. On the other hand, international observers “have added a new dimension to election transparency” (Dundas, 1994, p. 45). Nevitte and Canton (1997) observed that “public confidence in internationally driven [observation] efforts characteristically hinges on the reputation and legitimacy of the international or regional organization involved, and derives in large part from the multinational membership of the observation team in place” (p. 50). For Phiroshaw Camay and Anne Gordon (1999) “international observers bring an added credibility to the monitoring and assessment of elections, in that they are able to refer to their experience elsewhere and apply international standards of good practice wherever they go” (p. 259). Such observations demonstrate that international observers act as a stamp of approval.
Moreover, observer groups can use different approaches to observe elections. These can take the form of regular short visits, permanent groups, mobile teams, or stationary teams. Nevertheless, election observers face a number of limitations. First, as Dundas (1994) noted, “there are limitations to the extent to which observers generally can impact on the transparency of the system, since they are not in charge of the machinery which runs the election.” Second, the other limitation faced by election observers is that “they have a limited time to see only the final days of the campaign leading up to the polls, and sometimes many leave before the final results are known” (p. 45). This limit on the time available for observation compromises the role of election observers in promoting transparency and accountability in the electoral process.
Election observation is common in countries undergoing political transformation from autocratic regimes to multiparty systems. The uncertainty and confusion in these countries create concerns about whether election administrations can deliver accurate and impartial electoral results. International observation of elections in Africa initially occurred as nations made the transition from colonial rule to independence (in Zimbabwe in 1980, Namibia in 1989) or when there was no centrally controlled authority, as in Uganda in 1980. In 1991, Zambia became the first independent African country to ask for international election observers. According to the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, local and external election observers can help ensure that elections are free and fair, which in turn can contribute to the development of accountable, effective governance. International election observation provides evidence of the extent to which a regime is committed to a variety of democratic values and procedural norms. It also gives voters a critical opportunity to challenge authoritarian governments (Nevitte & Canton, 1997). Such observation occurs primarily in cases where there are doubts that a free and fair election can be conducted (Ananias Elago, 1999). As Bojosi Otlhogile (1994) notes, these transitional countries are attempting to reconstruct themselves politically and seek affirmation from observers that elections were fairly conducted and that they meet the minimum requirements of an international standard. Such validation can help these countries regain their places in the international community.
As Otlhogile notes, countries undergoing transformation attract international observers because there is unease surrounding an election in such a country. Observation is meant to reestablish confidence among those contesting such an election as well as among foreign investors and the international community generally.
Notwithstanding the importance of election observation in promoting transparency and accountability in the electoral process, a few observations can be made about election observers. Although election observers are widely appreciated and at times overemphasized, their findings have never resulted in a reelection in any country, regardless of the assessment. The April and December 2003 elections in Nigeria and Russia, respectively, are cases in point. In fact, election observation has become a standard institution that is expected to contribute to the democratic process, especially for the reasons discussed above. Moreover, even if they are expected to be impartial, an element of bias cannot be ruled out. However, their reports might indirectly prompt people to revolt, resulting in a new election.
- Camay, P., & Gordon, J. A. (1999). The people have spoken . . .: A review of the 1999 South African election. Johannesburg, South Africa: Co-operative for Research and Education.
- Dugard, J. (1998). Current issues in election management. In C. W. Dundas (Ed.), Discussion of election issues in commonwealth Africa. London: Commonwealth Secretariat.
- Dundas, C. W. (1994). Dimensions of free and fair elections. London: Commonwealth Secretariat.
- Kupe, M. (2000). Does election observation improve the confidence of political parties and the public in election results? In C. W. Dundas (Ed.), Rules of elections in Commonwealth Africa. London: Commonwealth Secretariat.
- National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. (1992). The October 31, 1991 national elections in Zambia. Atlanta, GA: Carter Center, Emory University.
- Nevitte, N., & Canton, S. A. (1997). The role of domestic observers. Journal of Democracy, 8(3), 47–61.
- Otlhogile, B. (1994). Observing for democracy: A note on the practices of the commonwealth observer groups. African Journal of International and Comparative Law, 6(2), 293–296.
- Totemeyer, G., & Kadima, D. (2000). Handbook for election observer missions. Auckland Park, South Africa: Electoral Institute of Southern Africa.