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External Elections Observation is important but not sufficient



Members of Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group (from right Emanuel Aketwey, Ronald Sanders, Michael Kirby with officials of The Round Table in Perth, Australia)

Having external observer missions at election time is important, but no longer enough.

The Commonwealth and the Organisation of American States (OAS) are now both observing general elections in two Caribbean countries – Guyana and St Lucia – and may be observing a third – Jamaica- before year end.
 
But, how effective are these election observation missions, and should they continue in their present form in which they arrive in countries only eight days or so before Election Day?
 
The presence of external agencies, such as the Commonwealth and the OAS, are undoubtedly beneficial to the elections process. If they were not present, it is likely that, in some countries, there would be many election irregularities that could materially affect the result. External observers do exercise a restraining influence.
 
However, much of the mischief that surrounds elections can occur before external observer missions land in a country. And, the eight or so days that the missions are in place do not allow them enough time to unearth and expose political chicanery.  The most effective thing they can do is to monitor the actual polling day for misconduct. Consequently, there is a genuine risk that Observer missions could declare an election to be free and fair when, in fact, the process of manipulating it was in place long before the election campaign period.
 
At the end of many missions, both Commonwealth and OAS teams have submitted reports to governments recommending reforms and improvements. In the majority of cases, these recommendations have been ignored. Neither the Commonwealth nor the OAS has the authority or the resources to monitor whether or not its recommendations have been implemented and to insist that they should be.
 
Presently in the island of St Lucia, the Commonwealth has a small three-person mission. The OAS is doing somewhat better with eight persons. In the massive mainland territory, Guyana, the OAS has 25 observers on the ground, and the Commonwealth will field 15 persons.
 
While the presence of these external Observer missions is extremely important, the question has to be asked whether they would not have been more effective had the Commonwealth and the OAS combined their efforts, and, also, gone into the countries earlier than the last eight days before the elections? Further, would not their findings carry far more weight if they made a joint report, and would not their recommendations be more likely to be implemented if they jointly monitored their application?
 
Observing elections is a costly business even though, for the most part, Observers are not paid. Nonetheless, transporting them to countries and paying for their accommodation and other costs mount up. This is a good reason for organisations such as the Commonwealth and the OAS, when they are observing elections in the same place to do so jointly in order to be more effective.
 
Further, it would be beneficial if both the Commonwealth and the OAS in collaboration with the UN organisation and relevant international organisations, such as the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, trained local organisations to mount their own electoral observation missions. It was heartening to learn that, for the current general elections in Guyana, the Electoral Commission accredited local groups as observers. It is time that civic groups begin to share the responsibility for ensuring that the will of the electorate is reflected in elections in their countries. 
 
In its report to Commonwealth Heads of Government at their meeting last month in Australia, the Eminent Persons Group (EPG), of which I was a member, said: “We believe the present system of strengthening democratic institutions, processes and culture should be improved by broadening the Secretariat’s mandate on election observation to include assessment of political transition arrangements and the promotion of civic education. We are mindful that some governments, including members of the Commonwealth, have defied the will of the electorate by disregarding the results of elections and either seeking to maintain, or maintaining, themselves in power. Although the cases are few, flawed political transitions are destabilising. They trigger political violence, undermine peace, intensify individual and group insecurity and can cause humanitarian crisis. Apart from the adverse effects on the countries concerned, flawed political transitions also have a tendency to affect neighbouring and other states through, for example, the flight of refugees“.
 
The Group called for civil society to play a greater role in monitoring elections in their own countries, and stressed that to do so effectively and with maximum utility, their representatives need to be trained. 
 
In considering how such training could be achieved, the EPG recommended that “an Academy for Democracy should be established within a Commonwealth country to reach beyond the physical processes of democratic government to instil the ideals and culture of democracy, and the foundations of democratic leadership. No such Academy exists, and it would be a path-breaking service for the global community if a Commonwealth country were to establish such an institution to which governments, elections commissions, civil society and other relevant organisations could send people to be trained in best practices on a fee-for-service basis”.
 
The EPG had Barbados in mind for such an academy given its tradition of relatively good governance, its long parliamentary history, and the commitment of its people to democracy.
 
Importantly, the Group recommended that the Commonwealth should broaden its election observation mandate by providing Observer Teams that arrive optimally two months in advance of a planned election day, or, where the election is called suddenly, as close as possible to the date on which the election is called to ensure an open and democratic electoral process leading up to, including, and following, election day.
 
Recognising that the period after a general election is as crucial as the period leading-up to it, particularly to achieve an orderly and peaceful transition of government, the EPG also recommended that the remit of the Observer Missions should be expanded to include an assessment of the adequacy of institutional and operational arrangements for post-election political transition and to advise the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth on actions that may be required to improve such arrangements and to ensure that political transitions respect the results of elections.
 
This recommendation is also valid for the Secretary-General of the OAS. But, the two Secretaries-General could be much more effective if they formed a strategic partnership for elections in the 12 countries that are members of both their organisations.
 
Meantime, we must hope that the elections in St Lucia and Guyana – and their aftermath - will be orderly and peaceful, and so too for Jamaica whose elections beckon.

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