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Promoting democracy

Important volunteers

by Regine Reim
A bus used in the election campaign of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in January. During parliamentary elections in May, OSCE observers noted some progree, but still reported shortcomings

A bus used in the election campaign of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in January. During parliamentary elections in May, OSCE observers noted some progree, but still reported shortcomings

Election observers work on an honorary basis. An InWEnt employee who has been deployed several times describes the process of becoming an election observer, and provides an insider’s view of the task. [ By Regine Reim ]

Under the “Charta of Paris for a New Europe”, signed in 1990, the OSCE member states pledged to:
– hold democratic elections at regular intervals,
– accept the election results as the basis of government legitimacy, and
– invite national and international observers.

Election observation follows strict procedures. The member state of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) where elections are to be held requests the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) to establish an Election Observation Mission (EOM). In addition to a core team, there are several long-term observers (LTOs) and a large number of short-term observers (STOs). LTOs and STOs are made available by the OSCE members. Typically, Germany provides about 10 % of observers in ODIHR missions.

German election observers are trained and prepared for deployment at the Centre for International Peace Operations (ZIF). Acting as an observer requires specialised knowledge and excellent health. Election observation is certainly not some kind of “electoral tourism” with cosy tea-breaks at the ballot box. Rather, it entails long working days and nights, arduous journeys to remote places and exposure to difficult climates. Good performance is essential.

Those undaunted by such challenges can apply online to attend a ZIF training, after which suitable participants are admitted to the pool of experts. Normally, only pool members can apply for any specific mission. Upon acceptance for deployment, a contract is signed with Germany’s Foreign Office, which seconds the participants to the ODIHR. However, there is a flood of applicants for the training courses, and new people are only rarely admitted to the pool of experts. Deployment is voluntary, and those recruited must request special leave of absence from their employers – or apply for annual leave. The costs – about € 1000, mostly for visa, board and lodging, and payment of a driver and interpreter – are reimbursed according to the Federal Travel Expenses Code. On top of that, there is also a per diem allowance.

All the relevant information the observer should be aware of – from legal parameters to practical checklists – is spelled out in the ODIHR Election Observation Handbook. Before every deployment this is supplemented by country-specific information dealing with local electoral laws, political conditions and culture. It also makes sense to attend personal-safety training before being deployed. Violent disputes sometimes break out on election day or after the results are announced – as seen recently in Kenya and Zimbabwe. In such cases, the booklet “Staying Alive” published by the International Committee of the Red Cross can be an invaluable aid.

Election observers support the democratic process. Those people who are interested in fair and transparent elections feel – at least morally – encouraged by the presence of international observers. Without committed citizens serving as volunteers, Germany would be unable to meet its obligations.

Short-term observers get a short, sharp insight into the politics and culture of the country concerned. Such deployments last about five days. Some observers have even been known to accompany mobile ballot boxes into private homes in countries where postal voting is not an option.

Employers, too, can benefit from the networking and public-relations opportunities which their employees’ commitment offers. EOMs usually involve meetings at the German embassy as well as representatives of various German institutions (including those of development cooperation). Everybody gains from the local exchange of experience, both before and after the election. This is particularly so in the case of institutions such as ­InWEnt, which is involved in peace-building and democracy promotion. InWEnt’s International Institute for Journalism (IIJ) offered training on election reporting in South-East Europe and the Caucasus, for example. Election observation is a recurrent topic of InWEnt’s Development Diplomacy Programme. Understanding of global affairs is promoted domestically in Germany too, for instance through workshops on elections in Africa or Central America.

Not least, election observers gain a fresh, self-critical glimpse of elections at home. Who seals transparent ballot boxes in Germany? Does Granny tell Grandad who to vote for? Is an identification document required as well as the polling card? Is our trust in the electoral process justified?

Tangible results

International election observation can do little more than to support the democratic process through random spot checks. The state concerned and local observers are primarily responsible for the election procedures. True to their name, international observers merely observe, but do not intervene.

Violations of electoral law are reported by the core team EOM to the local election authorities, who should then take action to remedy the situation. Sometimes it helps to make a friendly enquiry at the polling station: “Does your electoral law really allow a father to vote on behalf of his entire family? Why are there 20 identical signatures on the electoral roll?”

On the day before the election, violations of electoral law can be prevented by considering a few basic questions: do the electoral boards know the opening hours of their polling station, do they have enough ballot papers, have there been any reports of intimidation from candidates, which candidates appear on election-related advertising, which are denied access to the media? On election day, random visits are made to the polling stations, beginning long before daybreak during preparations and ending late at night, after the votes have been counted and the results reported to the electoral authority.
As far as electoral fraud is concerned, the sky is the limit. Time and again we have seen forged electoral rolls, vote-buying, theft of lists of results and voting papers. But there are positive experiences too – for instance when the 13 members of the electoral board in a South Tajikistan village with a population of 200 waited patiently for half a day before closing the polling stationed, in case the last remaining voter did in fact turn up to vote. This experience was particularly heartening, because it occurred in a remote region where people – mostly farmers – can only fulfil their role as a member of the electoral board at considerable inconvenience to themselves.