Polls under international scrutiny

Updated June 28, 2018


INTERNATIONAL election observers are now widely accepted across the globe especially in democracies which have yet to establish the credibility of their institutions including of their election-management bodies. Although the practice of international election observation is believed to have started in 1857, it gained currency after the collapse of the Soviet Union when many new states took the first steps in holding credible elections. The Economist estimates that election observers scrutinise some 80 per cent of all elections in the world today compared to a mere 30pc in 1989.

The state where international election observation is carried out and the international organisations overseeing this exercise have their own objectives. The democratising states and their election-management bodies want the seal of approval from credible international organisations and institutions. The global community, on the other hand, wants to ensure that the internationally accepted norms of free, fair and credible elections are followed. Weaknesses noted by the observer missions and recommendations to address them are generally included in the reports submitted and, in most cases, publicised, by the observers.

Some states supporting international observers extend technical and financial assistance to countries where elections are under scrutiny in order to improve the poll process there. International observers can also give political parties, which are participating in hotly contested polls, the much-needed assurance that the elections are fair and a level playing field has been provided.

In highly polarised election contests, international observers can also provide assurances after a fierce election. The well-known election observation expert, Judith Kelley of Duke University, US, concluded that in South Korea in 1987, Bulgaria in 1990, and Mozambique and Mexico in 1994, the environment was so polarised that without international monitors, the victor might not have been able to establish a governing mandate. Well-established and credible international observers can also play crucial post-election mediation roles.

The presence of international observation missions in a country going to the polls also acts as a deterrent to possible efforts to manipulate elections. But international observation may not work everywhere. Prof Kelly’s research has established that despite the presence of international election observers, there are rather obvious transgressions in nearly 17pc of elections, while another 24pc fall in the grey zone, meaning that serious problems exist despite the presence of observers who may not declare the elections rigged.

Apparently, international poll observers focused their attention on Pakistani elections from 1988 onwards. They deployed missions during the general elections in 1988, 1990 and 1993. The European Union, the Commonwealth and the National Democratic Institute were among the entities fielding election observers in Pakistan. The general election of 2002 saw the deployment of Commonwealth poll observers and a large EU election observer mission. Subsequent general elections in 2008 and 2013 also saw the deployment of these missions. The EU mission in 2013 was over 100-strong and consisted of long-term and short-term observers and a core team of analysts.

The Commonwealth is expected to deploy an election observers’ mission during the 2018 general election in Pakistan and so is the EU though its mission is expected to be smaller compared to the one deployed in 2013. Pakistan is going to witness one of the most closely contested elections in 2018. Tension is already in the air.

At least one party, the PML-N, and its allies like the National Party and the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party have been consistently complaining of pre-election rigging. In these stressful times, the presence of international observers may provide some level of comfort to those who are concerned about an uneven playing field. The Election Commission of Pakistan, the law-enforcement agencies and the caretaker governments are expected to be more vigilant while the international election observers are monitoring the quality of election.

International election observer missions are far more effective if they are deployed months ahead of polling day. In this day and age, especially in Pakistan, the manipulation of elections is generally a long-term pre-poll phenomenon. Some manoeuvring may take place post-election but it will be very difficult to manipulate elections on a large scale on polling day without getting caught. The observer missions will, therefore, be effective if they are deployed at least two to three months before polling day and continue their observation in the post-election phase until the governments are formed at the federal and provincial levels. Unfortunately, it seems that this time the international election observers will arrive only a few weeks prior to the day of voting.

Because of the obvious limitations of these international missions, a country should chiefly depend upon its own institutions and domestic observers. Although international observers should be welcomed, the long-term credibility of the electoral process will come only through domestic actions.

The writer is the president of Pildat.
Twitter: @ABMPildat

Published in Dawn, June 28th, 2018