Wednesday

1st Feb 2023

Opinion

Six ways EU can reform its election observation missions

  • Too often, authoritarian regimes use election observation missions as a tool, garnering legitimacy from their mere presence, regardless of their assessment (Photo: electoralcommission.org.uk)

Since the 1990s, election observation has become a primary tool of the international community to support democracy and assess the legitimacy of governments.

It is a highly visible element of EU foreign policy and election observation missions (EOMs) are better resourced and more sophisticated than ever before.

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But even as EOMs are becoming more professionalised, democracy is in decline.

Take two recent examples. In Zimbabwe's historic 2018 elections following the overthrow of president Robert Mugabe, EU observers did precisely the job they were invited to the country to do: they came in large numbers, documented manipulation and violations, and issued strong statements on a deeply flawed electoral process.

All of this will be detailed in a final report, released in Harare this week. The question is - who will read it?

After the Kenyan Supreme Court overturned the results of elections in that country in 2017, many Kenyans felt international observers had been too quick to endorse what turned out to be a compromised vote.

However, without access to the technology used to transmit local results to Nairobi, there is little election observers could have done differently.

Even so, if the purpose of observers is to deter fraud and build trust in the democratic process, they had already failed.

One positive development followed the Kenyan experience: it prompted the EU to rethink its approach to election observation.

This week it convenes a high-level conference on the future of election observation involving key stakeholders such as the UN and African Union to more effectively tackle the challenges of 21st-century election rigging.

Thankless task

Observing elections is a thankless task.

Monitors aren't always welcomed, the work is difficult, and when observers do detect rigging, they can be ignored.

But this exercise is an opportunity for the EU to become more strategic both as a donor and as provider of election observation in order to remain a credible protector and promoter of democracies around the world.

We propose six areas of reform.

We suggest observing the democracy as a whole and not just the election.

Rigging is far more than stuffing a ballot box and happens well before voting day when voter rolls are established, candidates are chosen, and electoral boundaries are redrawn.

Authoritarian leaders have become skilful at organising a 'good enough' election, while devising ever smarter ways to dupe international observers.

A shift in both operations and mindset towards longer-term political processes is needed for international observers to track electoral manipulation before the fix is in.

International observers operate during elections and are unable to monitor activity between ballots. Local observers and civic groups on the ground can be utilised more widely and more smartly, ensuring that the breadth and scope of their knowledge is used to improve election integrity.

If the EU is to rely on local actors between elections, it must help to ensure that a resilient civil society exists to support them.

Civic groups – especially those who work on elections and hold public institutions accountable – are under unprecedented pressure.

Continued and more flexible funding, protection and public support and consultation are needed to promote cooperation between local civil society and the international community.

The use and misuse of social media in political campaigning is growing in importance and sophisticated disinformation campaigns pose a threat to electoral integrity both abroad and at home.

Observers need to be better aware of technological advances, and observation guidelines on media monitoring need to be boosted to include the online space.

Next week's EU conference on election security and digital interference is a first dedicated opportunity to take on these challenges.

It follows that standards and good practices for the deployment of electoral technology should be developed by the EU, and more closely monitored by EOMs and expert missions.

At the same time, the EU should ensure that paying for costly technology does not crowd out funding for civil society and domestic observers.

Too often, authoritarian regimes use EOMs as a tool, garnering legitimacy from their mere presence, regardless of their assessment.

Fixes

Meanwhile, the EU takes into account geopolitical considerations when it decides whether to tone down or play up EOM accounts.

Especially in Africa, anything short of widespread violence will be tolerated for the sake of stability.

The EU should better leverage its relations with third countries by setting more rigorous minimum standards for deployment, and better link recommendations to on-going political dialogue and development programming.

By getting the politics of electoral observation right, the EU can prevent EOMs becoming a tool for regime survival.

Holding an election does not ensure in itself progress toward democracy, and neither does observing it, even if international actors invest heavily in the process.

Updating guidelines and setting new standards is necessary but focusing only on technical 'fixes' of EOMs and operational recommendations misses the point.

The EU conference should begin a much needed broader reflection on how and where the EU's foreign policy can strengthen democracy around the world — and take an honest look at where its policies undermine it.

Marta Martinelli is head of EU external relations, Bram Dijkstra is advocacy specialist, both at the Open Society European Policy Institute

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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