Election monitors play a significant role by observing conditions on the ground, leading up to -- and including -- any given country’s final vote. They provide unbiased insight into the circumstances surrounding the voting procedure. For example, the European Union and the African Union were participants in the May 23rd elections in Ethiopia.
“The international observer mission cannot change the course of an election,” says Jennifer Cooke, the Director for the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, “but what they can do is give some insight to the rest of the world and to domestic populations on how the election met with international standards of democracy.”
Limited but effective
Observer missions are limited, says Cooke, because they provide a “snapshot” of what’s happening. “They can’t be everywhere at once so they can only report on what they see. Nonetheless,” she says, “they give the world eyes on what’s happening within a particular country, and they can either bolster the credibility of the elections if they deem them free and fair or they can call them what they are, if indeed they’re fraudulent.”
Monitors contribute directly by going to polling stations on Election Day, says the CSIS specialist, to see if the polls open on time, or open at all, or if they close on time. They also note any intimidation or harassment of voters and whether party officials and representatives are allowed to review polling activity, and whether or not the process laid out by the constitution or the electoral law is being followed.
“There are certain things they can’t see, however,” says the CSIS Africa director, “such as the tallies going through the central collating and counting process, because observers often are not allowed in. They can’t be everywhere at once, so they may miss certain instances of fraud.”
Unless monitors are on the ground for some time to observe prior to the vote, says Cooke, they can’t assess circumstances going into Election Day. They can’t determine if people were allowed to move about and assemble, or if they had access to the media, or if there was large scale voter intimidation and harassment. The Carter Center refused to comment on, or observe, the Ethiopian elections, presumably for this reason, that they were not given adequate access or time to prepare.
The impact of an observer mission is determined by the ability to give an independent, credible report on whether or not the elections followed international standards of democracy, as well as being able to judge whether or not they were free and fair, says Cooke.
Local observers have great impact
The CSIS Africa specialist says the role of local observer institutions is more important than international groups; they empower independent, domestic observers to follow the elections; they have greater coverage capacity and credibility with the local populace:
“Unfortunately, in Ethiopia in particular, these groups are being undermined and weakened by legislation,” she says, meaning local institutions are pressured by the government into biased positions; as a result, creating an independent, unbiased local authority is very difficult because they are “vulnerable to manipulation by the government in place.” But she says, “I think that is the ultimate goal that we want to reach for -- empowering people within the countries themselves to hold the process and the government accountable.”