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Testing OSCE observations
– by Christian Strohal
The OSCE has been assessing elections in Europe for nearly two decades, mainly in Eastern European transition countries. As part of this activity, your organisation sends election observers to member countries. However, you recently declined to send an observation mission to Russia for the presidential election on 2 March. What was the reason?
The Russian authorities attempted to massively restrict the number of observers and the duration of the mission. The OSCE member states have given us a clear mandate to observe election processes in their entirety, including the often decisive run-up period as well as developments after polling day. The restrictions placed on us would have made it impossible to observe the presidential election according to the terms of that mandate.
How important is long-term observation, the most controversial issue in the case of Russia? When should a mission start and when does it end?
Long-term observation is a key element of any serious effort. We generally second our election experts and long-term observers a few weeks before the actual polling day, which allows us to get in touch with the authorities and to observe decisive aspects of the election procedures – such as registration of candidates, the media situation and the campaign environment. Sometimes, elections are practically decided in this early stage. The post-election period can also be critical. How are the results at the various levels compiled, how are they made public? How do the electoral authorities and courts handle complaints of manipulation? Normally, our long-term observers remain in the country for a week or two after polling day to be able to answer such questions, before our final report is published a few weeks later.
Others than the OSCE were present at the Russian presidential election: the German parliament sent election observers, as did the Council of Europe. Did it really make sense for the OSCE to boycott that election?
The OSCE did not boycott it. Our decision not to deploy an election observation mission to Russia was not politically motivated. The only thing that mattered was our long-term mandate and the standards which all OSCE participating states have committed to. After all, we are responsible to all OSCE countries. Giving in to one particular state’s demands for exceptional treatment would amount to applying a double standard to all other countries.
If you refuse to observe an election, does that not mean that this political instrument has failed?
No, not at all. We had no other option in the particular case of the Russian presidential election. Incidentally, it was the same in the case of the parliamentary elections in Russia in December last year. The conditions that need to be in place for us to be able to carry out an effective mission were not met. However, these were exceptional cases, for which there was no precedent – neither in Russia, nor in any other OSCE state. However, there are other scenarios in which we decline to send election observers. To give an example: if a country does not fulfil fundamental conditions for holding democratic elections, there is a risk that the mere presence of international observers could result in legitimising an inherently undemocratic process. In that case, election observers would do more harm than good. In contrast, there are also countries where our assessment shows that the electoral processes are so obviously democratic in terms of our requirements that there is no need for an observer mission.
Does election observation promote democracy?
Election observation can play a key role in democratisation processes. Elections are a key element of democracy, certainly not the only one, but always a very important one. The presence of international observers may help to identify weaknesses in election procedures and to make recommendations as to how to eliminate them. In this context, we do not only look at the organisation of elections in the narrow sense, but also consider issues such as freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and the independence of the judiciary. If the political will to respect these principles is in place, our observers, along with accompanying technical assistance projects, certainly can improve elections and increase public trust in the democratic process in general.
One often has the impression that elections create problems. Campaigns often emphasise wounds that have not yet healed. In your experience, how risky is an election?
It is true, democratisation and pluralism sometimes entail a certain amount of polarisation, and that can be painful, particularly in societies marked by violence and oppression in the recent past. But there is no alternative. Legitimate governance is not conceivable without regular democratic elections. It is an illusion to believe that stability is to be had at the expense of democracy and human rights. We experience this over and over again, even in the OSCE region. Opening up to more democracy and human rights may increase the potential for domestic tensions in the short term; but in the long term, the stability of societies in transition is even more at risk where there are no elections, in which the people can express their political preferences by peaceful means.
You have mentioned standards which must be observed for an election to be free and fair. What are the most important ones?
In the OSCE context, the comprehensive set of commitments agreed upon by all OSCE member countries in Copenhagen in 1990 is the decisive document. These commitments include the right to seek political office without discrimination and the right to unimpeded access to the media. They also stipulate certain standards for the election campaign and require the authorities to make results public. These are all essential elements of a democratic election. Unfortunately, however, we continue to see countless obstacles being placed in the way of opposition forces; and such obstacles may rule out fair competition. For example, opposition politicians may not be allowed to take part in elections, or their campaigns may be obstructed. In our reports, we often criticise issues of access to the media as well as irregularities in vote counting.
Could you allow qualifications in such cases? There are many countries, not only in Eastern Europe, where a number of democratic principles are not entirely met. Some experts speak of “blocked democracies” or “developing democracies” in such cases. Russia is sometimes referred to as a “guided democracy”. What is your view?
Our task is to measure a country’s elections by the standards which the OSCE states have committed to. These obligations apply equally to all OSCE members.
Is there such a thing as “somewhat” democratic? One could have had that impression with the first election observations after the end of the East-West conflict. Many elections were described as free and fair “on the whole”, or else countries were said to be “well on the way to democracy”. Has this attitude changed?
We have seen great progress in the implementation of the commitments in the areas of democracy and human rights since the groundbreaking Copenhagen document was agreed in 1990. This is particularly so in Central Europe, of course, but also applies to parts of Eastern and South-Eastern Europe and, although to a much lesser extend, to the Southern Caucasus and Central Asia. But there are still a few states where the implementation of the OSCE commitments is very sluggish or even seems to be regressing. However, we will continue to endeavour to strengthen democratisation in the region by use of election observation and a wide range of other instruments in cooperation with the governments concerned, international agencies and local civil society.
What happens if you complete a mission and conclude that the standards were not met?
After every mission, we publish a comprehensive report with an analysis of the election process along with recommendations and ideas for improvements. The report is sent to the government in question and to the OSCE community. At the same time, it is made available to the public too. The OSCE states have made a commitment to implement the recommendations of the ODIHR, and we offer our full support for doing so. Of course, our reports are also used by relevant actors of civil society as well as the international community working towards the implementation of the recommendations and improvement of election environments using various channels.
Elections are held all over the world. The OSCE is neither able to be everywhere, nor is it permitted to be. However, perhaps you can give some advice: what should small organisations, which may have limited resources, bear in mind to observe elections effectively?
Other organisations have in the meantime adopted the methodology the OSCE originally developed to observe elections. One example is the European Union, which observes elections outside the OSCE region. Other regional or sub-regional organisations, such as the African Union, could play a greater role in future. Local observers are also extremely important. There are a number of very well-run non-governmental organisations, whose work deserves our full support and could, in some cases, substitute for international observers.
Questions by Meike Scholz.