Election observers are playing an increasingly important role in elections around the world. But how different regional groups judge elections in various countries can vary. Observer groups say standards are necessary to ensure legitimacy, and to help persuade governments to enact reforms when necessary. The United Nations and other major international organizations are working to develop such standards.
The United Nations Electoral Assistance Division is about to take a major step toward making international election observation activities systematic, as it prepares to issue a set of common goals and principles and a code of conduct for international election monitors.
In recent elections in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, European observers said the polls were not fully free and fair. In Ukraine, last year, the findings of election observers played a key role in the events that led to mass protests and a second and third round of voting for president.
Professor Peter Lewis, who teaches politics at American University in Washington, says guidelines are urgently needed to prevent undemocratic regimes from taking advantage of the system, citing the recent elections in Togo as an example.
"Togo just illustrates once again, as in Zimbabwe, how governments can game [take advantage of] the process," said Peter Lewis. "You invite in a set of observers who are essentially going to sign off on the election. And from what I have been given to understand about the details of the Togolese election, the assessment of the international observers from ECOWAS entirely lacks credibility. I mean, we had one province where the vote for the president exceeded the total population of the province. To me - and I'm not a professional election observer - that's kind of a red flag. That tells me something is not quite right there."
The West African nation of Togo has been rocked by violent protests after election officials announced that Faure Gnassingbe, the son of the country's longtime ruler, was the winner in highly disputed presidential elections.
Mr. Lewis was one of the panelists who participated in a recent conference on international election observers, held at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. The panelists said international election observers face many challenges, for example, governments that reject international monitors on the grounds that they may be highly critical of the voting process.
Such was the case in Zimbabwe, where a hand-picked group of observers from South Africa was invited in and said the election results reflected the will of the people. Meanwhile, traditional observers from the West were barred from monitoring the election and the British, United States and other western governments said the poll was neither free nor fair.
Professor Lewis says the biggest challenge is how to ensure monitoring teams' observations and recommendations are implemented.
"What is the strategic role of election observers?" He asked. "Are they there to encourage an ongoing process of election reform, a so-called work in progress, whereby you note the flaws that you see each time, present them to the government and express fervent hope that this will be addressed and then leave it at that?… Or is it a process whereby international observers represent certain universal, global standards of conduct and are there to issue essentially a certification of whether those standards were honored and upheld?"
One way to encourage governments to adopt the recommended reforms is to have them sign an agreement beforehand with the international organization that is sending the observers. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe - or OSCE -- already does this.
The agreement would bind governments to seriously address any concerns raised by election observers. If they fail to implement the necessary reforms, international election monitors would refuse to participate in future elections, effectively denying the governments their stamp of approval.
Eric Bjornlund, author of Beyond Free and Fair: Monitoring Elections and Building Democracy, says, before taking this extreme action, observers need to be sure they are evaluating the elections in context.
"Irregularities and problems exist in all elections," said Eric Bjornlund. "This is not a human rights problem in that sense. And every person who is unfairly denied the right to vote - that's a significant issue and should be followed up - but it's not necessarily an issue worthy of calling into question the legitimacy of the election."
Another way to encourage governments to follow standard election guidelines and enact reform when needed is to involve the international business community, which could withhold investment, says Matt Dippell, deputy director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the National Democratic Institute, a Washington-based NGO that promotes democracy and governance issues around the world.
"I think the situation with international observation would benefit from having coordinated responses and to try and bring in the international investment community in a unified approach," said Matt Dippell. "In the sense that it's important to start to raise the political cost for countries that reject or don't respond to observers. And that, I think, will send a message to countries that they need to comply."
Mr. Dippell, who served as an election monitor in Peru, says, while the international election observers are important, equally if not more important are the domestic observers. He says he saw this first-hand in Peru where the local groups were much larger and could mobilize large numbers of volunteers to fan out across the country. In addition, he says, because they are locally organized, they are able to press for reforms after the election is over.
Similarly in Ukraine, after the OSCE said the December 2004 election fell short of democratic standards, it was local groups that mobilized tens-of-thousands of Ukrainians, and eventually forced the government to hold a second and third round of voting.
As international election observers take stock of their own practices, the panelists said, more should be done to support local non-governmental organizations involved in democracy and governance issues.