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Elections

“Observers, not diplomats”

by Alexander Graf Lambsdorff
Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, head of the EU's election-observation

Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, head of the EU's election-observation

In December last year, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a member of the European Parliament for Germany’s Free Democratic Party, directed the EU’s election-observation mission in Kenya. Earlier that year, he had led a similar mission in Bangladesh. On the base of such experience, the politician argues that much progress has been made in international election monitoring, but more progress is necessary for observation to become a strong instrument for promoting democracy. [ Interview with Alexander Graf Lambsdorff ]

After several multiparty elections in Kenya, the last round of voting was quite turbulent. In your final report, you state that these elections did not comply with international standards. Why not?
As observers, we found critical shortcomings. For instance, the results for several candidates did not add up at the local and national level. In Nairobi, where the election commission had its headquarters, much higher figures were suddenly reported. Such discrepancies are impossible if the election procedures are run appropriately. The second problem was that the elections were not transparent, as one of the most important principles would demand. Transparency was not upheld in terms of access provided to observers. Especially in Kenya’s central province, our teams were kept out of the central offices where ballots from polling booths were counted. Third, the turnout was far too high in some places, allegedly reaching 98.9 % or even 99.2 %. Such high figures cannot typically be explained by political enthusiasm alone.


The core team consisted of 11 people stationed in Nairobi for two months. In addition, we had 38 long-term observers in Kenya for four weeks. They were stationed in all major provinces, where they spoke with all kinds of people. And shortly before Election Day, another 100 short-term observers were flown in, bringing us to some 150 in total.

International observers have been criticised for working in countries they do not know with cultures they are not familiar with and languages they do not speak.
The real question is whether our methods are appropriate. But I should point out that we had very good people on our core team – Kenya experts, and some of them do speak excellent Kiswahili. In selecting long-term and short-term monitors, we made sure that some of them were familiar with Kenya. In the end, however, elections are a rather technical process. Of course, it’s about politics and the strengths and weaknesses of the democracy in question. But during an election process, we are looking at technical things like lists of candidates. Ballots must be printed, and polling booths have to be installed in time. The ballots have to be counted, and the results have to be published. You don’t necessarily need observers with an understanding of local specifics to check all that. What you need is election experts. And aside from the OSCE, the European Union does that best.


They were very open and friendly. They were happy that people were there to take a look at the elections. On my form for entry into the country, the purpose of my visit was indicated as “election observation”. The border guard smiled and said: “Oh, it is good that somebody is watching.” The little skepticism we encountered was that of the ruling party.

Violence broke out after the elections. According to reports, more than 1500 people were killed. Did you see any of this coming? Were there any indications? A lot of people abroad were surprised because Kenya’s 2002 elections had been exemplary.
There had been an indication or two. But before the elections, they had not solidified into a pattern. In retrospect, things seem clearer. For instance, the police found 60 machetes in an undersecretary’s SUV before the elections. But that was an exception, in the sense of being one of the few incidents that were discovered. There are rumours that there were many more such incidents, but I don’t want to spread rumours. In any case, there was some violence even before the elections. Nonetheless, the extent of the unrest afterwards was surprising. Even people who had observed Kenya for years were shocked at how brutal things became. Experts did not expect that to happen.

Let’s say you, as a foreign observer, are given information, or you sense that people are scared. Is there any way for you to do something, or do you stick to your mission of strictly observing?
Election observers do just what their name says, they observe elections. We do not have any executive authority. We only write down and report what we see. On that base, we compare events with international standards and assess a country in the terms of standards it has committed to itself. If none of this does any good, entire missions are called off. That is exactly what we did when I directed the EU’s election-observation mission in Bangladesh in January last year. It was clear there that the will of the people would not be adequately represented in those elections. So we suspended our mission. Afterwards, the elections were called off. I think the political purpose of election oberservation missions is exactly that: their presence certifies that the prerequisites for fair and free elections are met before the event. Whether they are met in the process, is another question. We answer that one in our final report. But if there is no chance of elections being free and fair, you will rarely see an observing mission. For instance, there was no such mission in Zimbabwe from the US or the EU. That government did not invite us. But if they had, we probably would not have gone.

What makes a mission successful?
Credibility is essential. The main thing is not to get carried away, especially in such a politically turbulent setting as is common before elections. The political atmosphere heats up quite a bit wherever a moderately democratic election is held. Under such circumstances, we observers have to bear in mind that our mission has a limited mandate, and is only one of several instruments that promote democracy. We have to stick strictly to our mandate. We must only report things we have evidence of. Once you start speculating, you become part of the political process – and we must not do that. You really have to be a neutral observer. Personally, I did not care at all whether Mr. Kibaki or Mr. Odinga won the elections in Kenya. And I think that is necessary for a mission to be accepted.


Whenever election-observation missions come to different conclusions, you have to take a look at the reasons. I do not intend to sing the praises of the EU, but differences do matter. Missions’ levels of financing vary, and so do staff compositions and the seriousness and depth of their engagement. The EU spends a lot of money on its election observations. A mission like the one in Kenya costs around € 5 million and involves a team of 150. And when this group publishes a report, that document is based on sound findings. Some other missions pop up with a few people shortly before the elections and leave immediately after the event. So you really have to consider who is saying what on what basis. One should also bear in mind that, in spite of the unrest, all missions drew the same conclusions in Kenya. I believe that the EU has a role to play thanks to its relatively strong missions: we act in support of the other missions and facilitate coordination. In the end, it obviously has a bearing on the credibility of observers when different missions come up with different results. It is okay to disagree in some detail, but there should be a lot of common ground in the general assessment.

You come up with a final report, which basically is a statement on whether or not elections were free and fair. What happens next? Are you satisfied with what follows?
That differs from case to case. Sometimes, I would unequivocally have to say no. I think it should make a difference in political and diplomatical terms when elections are viewed critically. For example, our missions were extremely critical of elections held in Ethiopia and Nigeria. Nonetheless, policy towards these countries did not change; but I think it would make sense to adjust bilateral relations accordingly. On the other hand, the role of election observers is not to play chief diplomat. On my team in Kenya, there was some disappointment that we did not become involved in political negotiating after the elections. But the simple fact is that any mandate related to an election ends with that election. Afterwards, we return to foreign affairs as usual, and in the case of the EU that is mainly the jurisdiction of foreign ministers.

If you look back on your experience, where do you think EU election-observation missions should be improved?
I think a lot of things are working very well in our missions. But I think that the missions should be scaled up in a number of countries. Even 150 monitors are not enough in a country with 34 million inhabitants.
I also think that we have to continue working on the methodology we use to analyse the various components of an election. And then – and this is a decisive factor – we must improve capacity building in line with our election monitoring. With an eye on subsequent elections, we have to strengthen democratic mechanisms as part of our development cooperation. At the moment, however, the recommendations made by the election-observation mission are not always taken into proper consideration in subsequent development cooperation.

Meike Scholz conducted the interview.