Value of election observer missions  

“Building democracy is a complex process. Elections are only a starting point but if their integrity is compromised, so is the legitimacy of democracy….Most countries have agreed to principles that would…lead to credible electoral processes, but too often these principles are ignored because of lack of political commitment, insufficient technical knowledge or inadequate international support.” (Kofi Annan former Secretary General of the United Nations)

Usually but not always, international observation occurs when there are concerns about the freeness or fairness of an election. And remember, it is by invitation of a government. The main thrust of election observation is to promote good (clean) elections as an essential building block to improve democracy. However, often elections around the globe have not met the electoral integrity standards, (agreed to by most states in the global community) and unfortunately, they have been marred by a number of actions that serve to distort the results of an election.

These include exclusion of opponents from the ballot, gerrymandering, muzzling of independent media and bias of some media organizations, intimidation of candidates and electors, violence against voters and election officials, subverted vote count, vote buying, outdated voter registration, padding of voter list, inadequacy of voter education, inadequate and poorly sited polling stations, long lines leading to voter frustration, minors voting (persons under 18), and incompetent election institutions and personnel, just to name a few issues.

While elections in Barbados are generally perceived to be free and for the most part fair, (it is not fair) and cannot be accused of being marked by some of the worst forms of election sabotaging; nonetheless, there are serious concerns which have been raised about the quality and credibility of the electoral environment. This is not unique to this “model democracy”. Indeed, countries which are deemed to have long consolidated their own democracies and who are on the front line of democracy promotion are not immune to notable electoral malpractices. The United States, for instance, which has been a staunch supporter of international observation and who has financially supported many observation missions mounted by the OAS, has experienced a plethora of electoral violations. These include among many others, restrictive voter registration, long hours waiting to cast a ballot, “robocalls”, problems in electronic voting, and problems with overseas voting.

Assessing the work of international observers, Judith R. Kielly concludes that most international election organizations seek not only to inform domestic and international actors about the legitimacy of elections, but also to improve the quality of elections.

What is the value of Election Observation Missions (EOMs)? When conducted by the international community (whether the European Union, the Carter Centre, the Organization of American States, CARICOM, the Commonwealth, the African Union, for example), such missions raise the cost of subverting the legitimate outcome of an election by signalling increased international concern. They can also serve to place greater attention to problems (in the hope of reform), and strengthen domestic critics (beyond opposition political parties), and watchdog bodies, who are calling for improvements in the electoral environment.

As the cost of subversion and manipulation increases, it is anticipated that politicians will cheat less, or “they are more likely perhaps to play according to the rules” (Carter Center). Less likely to cheat! So we note that politicians will use any opportunity to cheat, and this is more heightened under Westminster parliamentary systems, because the stakes are higher than under presidential systems with its greater degree of power balancing. In that regard, according to the Economist, even when observers are present, politicians still cheat blatantly around 17 per cent of the time.

It is also argued that international observers may raise the benefits of honesty by confirming the legitimacy of the outcome of the election. This would therefore make it harder for political opponents to dismiss honest victories as stolen. That of course may not always be effective as the outcome of the 2015 elections in St. Vincent and the Grenadines substantiates. Despite observations by the OAS and CARICOM for example, that the elections were generally free and fair, the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) has challenged the election results in the courts, maintaining that the elections were stolen, and asking the court to rule that NDP was in fact the victor of the 2015 elections.

But generally speaking, when elections are fair, observers can help suppress “sore loser” complaints and confirm the legitimacy of the process thereby promoting greater confidence and political participation. When they are subverted, observers can legitimize and strengthen domestic protests. Negative election reports on Guyana, for instance, led to significant improvement in the overall quality of elections in that country.

The reports of EOMs can therefore contribute substantially to the improvement of the electoral environment.  Observers make detailed recommendations that reinforce the message about what the international community expects that can facilitate better implementation of electoral standards. For example, in St Kitts-Nevis, Dominica, St. Lucia, Jamaica, international observers routinely pointed to the unfairness in the finance system which gives the more established political parties an unfair advantage over others.

Another critical issue which has often been flagged is the quality of the electors list and the disenfranchisement of legitimate electors. This has led to substantial changes in the election administrative machinery in several Caribbean jurisdictions. Of equal concern is the abuse of incumbency and the bias which is often manifested in media coverage. Increasingly too, international observers raise concerns about the level of negative campaigning undertaken by political parties and individual candidates.

Further, gender has become a major focus of international observation missions and the OAS, for instance, has developed a rigorous gender methodology for assessing the credibility and integrity of elections. Given the acceptance that equality and non-discrimination, the rule of law and full respect for human rights are cornerstones of democracy, it is important that gender inclusiveness be incorporated into the conduct of elections. As members of the hemispheric Organization, Commonwealth Caribbean States have not only signed, but they have ratified a number of international treaties under which they have agreed to promote gender equality, and they are also signatories to the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

The OAS therefore uses its methodology to assess the compliance with the commitments made by OAS member states like Barbados, in both national and international legislation, to promote the political participation of women. Gender equity is of prime importance so that among the issues assessed by the OAS when undertaking an EOM are the following:

·      Are women nominated to stand for elections and contest?

·      What is the gender composition of political parties in terms of both rank and file?

·      What are the direct and indirect public financing designated to female candidates?

·      Do men and women have equitable access to the media in promoting their campaigns and publicizing their platforms? Do the media engage in stereotypes and the use of “sexist or discriminatory language” that may have a negative impact on the chances of female candidates of attaining leadership positions?

·      Do norms exist guaranteeing men and women may, under equal conditions, obtain identity documents and register on the electoral roll or voters’ list?

·      Can men and women, pregnant women, men and women with children cast their votes relatively easy?  This is critical for the lack of accessibility, whether due to structural, legal, or logistical reasons, creates difficulties thereby negatively impacting the effective exercise of the right to vote.

·      How many men and women have voted in the election? Is there a gender gap? What are the possible explanations for that gap?

·      What are the policies or programmes of public institutions aimed at promoting the right to vote from a gender perspective? Are there equitable conditions in registration, access to polling places, and the casting of ballots?

·      Are the elections clean? Norms and practices that affect integrity in the expression of the preferences of women voters in particular are critical.  What informs decisions? Do decisions benefit from adopting a gender lens?

·      Are EMBs or election related bodies defined by gender equity? What are the norms, policies, and practices determining conditions of gender equity in institutions responsible for guaranteeing impartiality in the electoral process, namely the electoral body, poll workers, and election supervisors, and in those areas where the legality of the voting process is monitored?

·      Integrity in the recording of voter preferences: Restrictions on free and secret voting enable other people to influence and determine the expression of the right to vote, thereby undermining the integrity of voter preferences. Are there any potential restrictions on the exercise of the right to a free and secret ballot, as well as external pressures exerted through violence of any type?

·      Is there gender equity in the EMB’s? A gender balance in the composition of EMBs is seen as one way for guaranteeing impartiality in the electoral process.

·      What is the composition of polling stations?  Is there equitable gender composition within polling stations? What are the positions held by mean and women?

·      What is the composition of party representatives at the polling stations as well as those representing national observation missions?

It is important that there be no dissonance in walk and talk. Barbados for instance, prides itself on acknowledging the importance of women and was probably one of the first Commonwealth Caribbean countries to celebrate international women’s day. Yet there is not only a serious gender pay gap in the country, but women continue to bear the brunt of society’s unpaid and unappreciated care and household functions, and politically, women continue to be marginalized and attacked.

 Monitoring has become the flagship of democracy promotion. And while the debate still rages on a country’s right to self-determination and the potential for the infringement of that right by international election observation missions, the human rights and democracy promotion agenda has been used to defend the legitimacy of international observation. (to be continued)

Source: (Cynthia Barrow-Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill)

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