Eyes wide shut?

Tazreena Sajjad

Published by the Daily Star on 17 Dec 2008.

IN the expanding business of democracy promotion, election monitoring has become a prominent part of the global project to promote democratic norms and practices. The presence of neutral observers, it is believed, promotes conformity with emerging international standards for the conduct of elections.

The presence of a “neutral” third party illustrates the interest of the international community in the politics of the country and underscores an explicit support for the democratic process.

Second, it is believed that elections observers can have a restraining influence on anyone attempting to break the rules.

Third, election monitoring boosts confidence in the fairness of the electoral process while helping to deter fraudulence in the balloting and counting procedures.

Other arguments highlight the reporting on the integrity of the elections, mediating disputes resulting from the election and creating some semblance of security in polling stations, which also has significant bearing on the participation of minority populations.

Finally, observers issue recommendations for improving future elections.

As the 2008 elections approach, Bangladesh is welcoming several hundred international election observers who will meet with parties, officials and voters, observe polling and the counting of votes. Election observation in Bangladesh has mostly been carried out by the EU, Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), the Carter Center (not involved in the 2008 elections), and the International Republican Institute (IRI).

ANFREL is a regional association of domestic rights and elections groups, while NDI and IRI are political institutes. “Long-term observers” have been in Bangladesh since November reporting regularly on political developments and election preparations. A much larger contingent of “short-term observers” will arrive shortly before election day to observe election day procedures. Bangladeshis and policy-makers on the outside will await issuance of their public reports on the election process and recommendations for improvements in the conduct of elections in Bangladesh.

While the importance of international observers cannot be undermined, some points need to be raised about this practice.

First, it is easy to distribute free trips to Bangladesh but much more difficult to observe the esoteric political and procedural maneuvers that surround elections. Unless observers are committed, well-trained, and experienced, there is a risk that they will be political tourists, not serious observers.

Second, one can challenge observers’ presumed neutrality — election monitors can face a clash of interests stemming from pressure to project and protect the institutional agenda of their organisations.

Similarly, there is a risk of complying with the hegemonic position of specific countries defined in terms of strategic and economic interests, with human rights and democracy being tangential.

Third, without knowledge of local languages and cultural context, and little understanding of local political nuances, the impact of third party presence can be even detrimental, especially if troubled areas are reported as being “free and fair.”

Election monitoring organisations (EMOs) may have institutional motives apart from conducting a professional, high-quality observation effort. NDI and IRI, which conduct programs in dozens of countries, may use election observation missions as a chance to build the capacity of their own staff or that of their partners in other countries. ANFREL’s leadership is drawn from regional EMOs and rights groups, which are often donor driven and are not necessarily models of clean management. While not inherently problematic, observer selection is opaque and there is a risk that observation missions become vehicles for patronage and networking: a chance for EMO officials to give free trips to politically influential partners, who can help secure continued funding and worldwide access.

EMOs receive the overwhelming majority of their funding from governments. While their staffs are professional, their leadership is often political. In the case of NDI, many board members are former officials of Democratic administrations and former members of Congress. IRI presents a more problematic case: some of IRI’s board members are sitting members of Congress, including powerful Republican senators John McCain and Chuck Hagel.

International election observation missions are also vulnerable to donor sentiments; funding cuts can have direct bearing on the size and efficacy of election observation teams.

Also, absent a serious commitment on the part of EMOs to deploy to difficult locations, citing security considerations, means some of the most difficult and dangerous areas can remain largely unmonitored.

Finally, while the spectacle of election day itself might pass by quietly, the overall process might have involved been tainted by cynical political maneuvering, voter intimidation, and purchase of loyalties well before the ballots are cast — all of which are difficult for foreign observers to document, understand, and report.

Despite these criticisms, international observers bring expertise in the more technical aspects of the elections, such as matters of transparency and ballot counting. Internationals are also useful where there is less trust in local observers, who also remain significantly more vulnerable to changing security and political conditions.

Further, internationals continue to have far more leverage than Bangladeshis in persuading the government to respond to problems. Because of the internationals’ potential utility and power to legitimise a critical component of the democratic process, i.e. elections, we must raise the question of their accountability to the Bangladeshi people.

The competing influences on observers and the sheer difficulty of their task make it important that they be open about their methods, strengths, and shortcomings. The EU delegation website (http://www.eueombangladesh.org) is an excellent model of transparency that ANFREL, IRI and NDI should emulate.

From the site, we can learn the names and deployment locations of EU observers, the names and qualifications of the management team in Dhaka, an overview of the EU’s methodology, and the documents governing the conduct of EU observers in Bangladesh.

Much as international observers can improve their transparency, Bangladeshis can also deepen our relations with observers. It is not enough for Bangladeshis to approach observers with only our experiences and views on the electoral and political processes, though such exchanges are a core element of international observation.

We should also engage EMOs in discussion on their recruitment and methodology, applying gentle, sustained, and constructive pressure at the field office and headquarters levels for the focus to remain on conducting a professional observation mission, not on distributing patronage or giving in to possible political pressure from the boards of the party institutes or from embassy officials.

Ultimately, election observation and monitoring should go beyond being a symbolic gesture. While we would like to believe that EMOs are singularly devoted to conducting professional and sophisticated observations, there are simply too many competing influences for us to take that for granted.

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