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Monitoring the Monitors

What Everyone Gets Wrong About Election Observers
John Stremlau and David Carroll; Jens-Hagen Eschenbaecher

This article by Carter Center Peace Program Vice President John Stremlau and Democracy Program Director David Carroll was published Sept. 14, 2011, by

Professors Susan Hyde and Judith G. Kelley ("Limits of Election Monitoring [1]") are correct in saying election monitoring has become "almost universally accepted in media and policy circles," but are wrong to imply that monitors are unaware "of the power and limits of observation." Rather, it is Hyde and Kelley who may be guilty of exaggerating them both.

The Carter Center, where we work, is often invited to monitor elections, including some that are integral parts of still-fragile peace accords -- as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Liberia, Nepal, and Sudan -- and others that take place in countries undergoing difficult democratic transitions -- as in Indonesia and Guinea, and hopefully soon in Tunisia and Egypt. Sometimes, we even monitor elections that mark the birth of new state, as in East Timor and most recently South Sudan.

In transitional elections, where democratic institutions are generally weak, incumbent governments enjoy organizational advantages, and political space for new parties to develop may be lacking. That is why serious election observation increasingly begins many months before voting and counting, and often continues after the elections to monitor the resolution of election disputes. The Carter Center's two largest observation missions, to Sudan for the 2010 general elections and to Southern Sudan for the 2011 referendum on independence, helped ensure that the North and the South upheld their commitments to hold elections as part of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended decades of fighting between them.

Election observers know that peace-building and democratic development rarely come easily and are usually not linear processes. Paul Collier, the international development expert, points out that elections held in the world's poorest countries, especially after a civil war, frequently amount only to a brief pause between rounds of strife. And in states coming out of an era of autocratic rule, even relatively good first elections are often followed by renewed authoritarianism. Hyde and Kelley rightly point to the democratic setbacks faced by many former Soviet States (and they could have listed many more examples) but they confer election monitors with more influence over these results than monitors would ever dare claim for themselves.

International observers are not naïve about the sometimes-corrupt domestic and international political actors involved in transitional elections. And it is certainly true that observers may face political pressure from states, international organizations, and donors to issue reports that downplay problems in flawed elections. For their part, observers are keenly aware of the dangers of renewed conflict or instability after elections and must weigh those concerns while conducting their missions. Still, credible observation organizations know that their most important asset is their record of impartiality. Only by remaining professional and neutral can observers encourage the rightful winners to be magnanimous in victory and the losers gracious in defeat.

Experienced election observation organizations never preach the merits of any particular party or candidate, but are committed to the democratic process and the protection of fundamental human rights and freedoms. Most of them only work where they are formally invited by sovereign authorities. The Carter Center has occasionally even declined to attend elections after concluding that powerful (usually incumbent) authorities would not allow meaningful observation, for example in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, and Gabon. It has also declined funding if the donor's conditions limited the Center's ability to conduct full-scale monitoring operations or to interact with key parties in the elections, such as in Palestine, Lebanon, and Nepal, where U.S. funding would have restricted contacts with Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Maoists.

Hyde and Kelley do not give readers an appreciation of how hard observers struggle when deciding whether to observe each election. As independent NGOs, they have only limited leverage. Their power is growing, however, and their assessments play an increasingly large role in shaping public perceptions about the quality of elections and the degree to which they meet international standards. In a world no longer preoccupied with Cold War alignments, donors rightly view voting rights in troubled states as a key condition for cooperation. Our impartial assessments of elections help inform those decisions.

Hyde and Kelley's concerns about the risk of "pseudo" monitors in Russia and China, who "endorse any election so long as the candidate or party preferred by Moscow or Beijing wins," suggest that pseudo organizations are prevalent in the field. In fact, most major observation missions are run by credible groups that follow best practices.

Over the past ten years there has been major progress in harmonizing approaches in the election monitoring community. A major step came in 2005, when more than twenty observer groups endorsed the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation at the United Nations. The declaration established a set of common guidelines, among others regarding the appropriate size and scope of missions, important preconditions for effective monitoring, and ensuring well-trained observers without conflicts of interest. Now a cohesive community of 35 increasingly professional observer organizations -- not only in Europe and the United States, but also in Latin America, Africa, and Asia -- hold each other accountable, share information, and even coordinate missions.

Hyde and Kelley also fail to note the important progress that the observer community has made in building a consensus on what constitutes "standards" for a democratic election and on corresponding benchmarks that should be used to assess elections. The vast majority of the world's governments have voluntarily signed the UN Charter and a host of other international treaties that comprise international law. The Carter Center has worked with other observer groups to analyze these treaties and develop a publicly accessible database of obligations that apply to elections.

To be sure, the obligations included in most multilateral treaties are quite broad. And leaders often skirt or ignore them, whether for reasons of national, party, or personal security. But it is critically important to hold governments accountable for the gaps between their avowed principles and their actual practices, especially when it comes to elections.

Carter Center observer missions are made up of mostly young women and men from a diverse array of countries. Their commitment to democratic ideals transcends their national and sectarian origins and loyalties. In the long term, these democratic activists will continue to build their own credible networks and election observation groups. Indeed, such groups are already proliferating, including in some of the world's poorest and youngest democracies. There, fledgling civil society organizations demonstrate inspiring determination to hold their governments accountable to democratic ideals.

The rapid growth in the size and sophistication of such citizen networks is probably the single most important development for the long-term spread of democracy. International observers will continue to play a very important role, but domestic actors will be decisive.

John Stremlau is vice president in charge of Peace Programs at The Carter Center. David Carroll is director of the Democracy Program at The Carter Center.

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