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Dhaka Tribune

What ails international election missions

The well-intended international observers come at a high cost and risk undermining local groups

Update : 27 Aug 2023, 09:19 AM

New controversy is arising over election monitors in Bangladesh. Previous stories uncovered foreign observers who knew little about the country’s elections. Now comes a report in Nikkei Asia by Faisal Mahmud on August 21 about the Election Commission certifying partisan election observers. 

 

He singles out Mizanur Rahman, a former president of the ruling party's student wing, who admitted his organization has no experience observing local or national elections but had "full capacity." 

 

Actually, Nikkei editors incorrectly cast Rahman’s credentials into doubt. His experience makes him an excellent candidate to be a scrutineer -- election observers appointed by the competing parties. 

 

Scrutineers have an ancient history and should be encouraged. They are prepared, transparent, and work hard. 

 

International observers rely on the magic of omniscient and unbiased casual empiricism. Scrutineering relies on a functional compromise arising from a competitive balance between rival observers.

 

International election observers are a new development made popular by former President Jimmy Carter and the Carter Center. 

 

In theory, international election observation missions provide an extra set of eyes to help strengthen the local election observation NGOs. 

 

In a short span of time, international observers have become a travelling circus. For example, the European Union is sending over 100 people to Zimbabwe for what will be a farce of an election. Bangladesh might be next on the tour.

 

A routine judgment would deem the oversized, heavily bureaucratic, and risk-averse international observers as at least doing some unspecified good for democracy if only to be a witness. However, it’s time to poke a little harder at the pretensions and worry a little more about diverting resources that might make a democratic difference. 

 

First off, a pair of American professors Pippa Norris and Susan Hyde have done compelling research to show that election observers routinely get bamboozled by the locals. 

 

Their work helped lead to the Electoral Integrity Project which is trying to bring rigour to the study of election quality. International observers instead employ old­-fashioned casual empiricism. No money for surveys to check the quality of the voting lists because three experts in a couple of days can detect any irregularities. Seriously?

 

As stated, international observers started as an extra bit of insurance against election fraud going undetected and under-reported. Instead, they have developed into a form of no-fault insurance. With a preference for judging process over results, the international observers typically find that suspected fraud is no one's fault but simply a bit of sloppiness in carrying out the “process.” 

 

As the exciting results are not announced until usually two months after the election, the news does not touch off waves of protest.

 

One final effect of the rise of international observers shows the perversity of good intentions. Originally the international observers were to provide support for the local election observation NGOs. The trend now is for the international observers to crowd out the local voices and divert donor funds which might provide some essential support. 

 

For an incumbent government, the setup is just too easy to exploit. International observers need permission to arrive in the country and to operate. Such approval of course depends upon good behaviour and no outright criticism of the government.

 

In contrast, local election observation NGOs are already here and vocal. The plan writes itself: Admit more international observers willing to hedge any criticisms and deflect fault to maintain the tradition of such missions. 

 

Conversely, find ways to suppress the local NGOs who may know best what’s going on and speak out. 

 

That is what happened in Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe right now. Donors have limited dollars for frills such as elections. A planeload of international election observers costs a lot -- money that might otherwise help local efforts.

 

The final word: International election missions are a good deed, but not a completely altruistic and effective one. 

 

What is needed is support for domestic election observation groups. The most important electoral safeguard is a functioning scrutineer system in which opposing parties have full access to the counting, the tallying of results, and -- utterly critical -- the transportation of the results from the voting centres to the central Election Commission office.

 

Owen Lippert is a researcher and activist with expertise in Asian countries.

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