Why not all election observation missions are equal

Azerbaijan’s election has been criticised by OSCE/ODIHR as failing to live up to many of the democratic commitments expected. However a wide range of other election missions have claimed the election was free and fair. So were they watching the same event?

OSCE/ODIHR (or, long-windedly, the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights) is one of the largest and most respected players in the field of election observation (*). They have been fulfilling this role since the mid 1990s and have a settled methodology which means their observations follow a common pattern. They are by no means the only such organisation, but they are one of the best and certainly the most trusted to be operating in Azerbaijan.

Full observation missions have a core team of experts, long term observers based around the country watching the political campaign and administrative preparations and then a large number of short term observers who go from polling station to polling station on election day and report in a statistically significant manner. So when the ODIHR mission reports, it deserves to be listened to.

In the case of Sunday’s poll in Azerbaijan, ODIHR said:

“The restrictive legislation and political environment prevented genuine competition in the 9 February 2020 early parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan, despite a high number of candidates. Some prospective candidates were denied the right to stand, but candidate registration process was otherwise inclusive. Voters were not provided with a meaningful choice due to a lack of real political discussion. Many candidates used social media to reach out to the voters, but this did not compensate the absence of campaign coverage in traditional media. Instances of pressure on voters, candidates and their representatives were observed. The election administration was well resourced and met legal deadlines, and the Central Election Commission made concerted efforts to act transparently and was welcoming towards international observers. However, significant procedural violations during counting and the tabulation raised concerns whether the results were established honestly.”

That’s the first paragraph of their preliminary statement and they go on, over the course of 19 pages, to explain and justify their findings. They will follow up with a final report and recommendations in about two months. What an OSCE/ODIHR mission does not do is summaraise its findings in a glib sentence. Every election has good and bad points and the nuances matter – even if this is frustrating for journalists who want to boil it down to ‘free and fair’ (or not).

There were, reportedly, 56 international missions on the ground in Azerbaijan. Just because I believe OSCE/ODIHR to be credible based on its experience and methodology, doesn’t mean that it is the only mission that should be listened to. And others might, genuinely, have come up with alternative views. However, it is important when assessing any observation report to consider questions such as:

  • How many observers did a mission have?
  • Did they have a settled methodology that allowed an objective assessment?
  • Did the mission have a long term presence or was it just there for election day?
  • How was the mission funded?
  • Did the mission conduct observations across the entire country? If not, how did they decide where to observe?
  • How did observers choose which polling stations to observe and were they accompanied by government or election commission ‘minders’?
  • How long did observers spend in each location?
  • Did they attempt to observe the count and tabulation process?

Of course, a genuine and independent observation mission might not be able to tick every single box, but they will be clear about the extent of their observations and not over-reach.

We have seen many authoritarian regimes make use of multiple observation missions in recent years to try to dampen down the impact of the more credible missions. These might include friendly governments who operate on a quid pro quo basis – ‘we will give the all clear to your elections and you do the same for us in the future’. Typically such missions might claim to have large numbers of observers but they actually do very little work. I came across one group who spent no more than 5 minutes in any polling station – and most of that posing for pictures.

The other favoured tactic is to invite small groups of international luminaries. For one recent election, the country’s embassy in the UK issued invitations to many MPs and academics with an interest in the country to visit (expenses paid) for election day and to say publicly what they saw. Such observers might think themselves objective, but going at the expense of the government presents a massive conflict of interest, exacerbated when you are reliant on the same government to ferry you around and (effectively) to pick the polling stations you are able to see. The chances of being taken to ‘Potemkin’ polling stations is extremely high and your hosts will ensure that there are cameras present at every turn to ask you about what you saw. Credible observers will speak as a single voice for the entire mission and only once they have been able to consider the wider picture, rather than being bounced into saying how friendly and smooth everything is at the first stop of the day.

Perhaps the most galling instance in the Azerbaijan election was when one accredited international observer turned up to the OSCE/ODIHR press conference to give a totally misleading spin on the report being launched. There is no indication of exactly how this person came to be in Azerbaijan, but he was not part of the ODIHR team.

I’ve looked at a few other organisations who were present in Azerbaijan and who got extensive press coverage and found:

  • Many of them have issued no formal statement – merely held a press conference to praise the conduct of the polls (such as this one);
  • Others were tiny missions which visited only a few polling stations in the capital (such as this one)
  • And still others pre-judged the elections by issuing ‘clean bills of health’ before polls had even closed (such as this one)

I suspect that this will be an on-going battle in the years to come. Respectable missions will carry on trying to do their job and report accurately on what they find. Meanwhile, other groups will be making lots of noise in order to dampen coverage of the objective groups.

*Disclaimer – I am proud to work for OSCE/ODIHR observation missions on a regular basis.

Reading List – 10th November 2019

With the potential for foreign interference now broadly acknowledged across the USA, there is concern that old style paperless voting machines could be ripe for attack. As US elections are mostly organised on a county by county basis, this means hundreds of local decisions and a huge amount of money. The last major nationwide investment in election technology took place after the ‘hanging chads’ of 2000 when money was spent to move towards paperless technology. Now a different threat is envisaged and election authorities are being told to make sure there is a paper audit of each vote cast.

 

Kate Jones has written a significant piece of research on the impact of disinformation in elections and politics and how this and efforts to tackle it might come into conflict with human rights laws. 

 

Hardly a surprise, but Facebook confirms that its policy of not interfering in the ‘right’ of parties and candidates to run untrue adverts.

 

 

Thomas de Waal looks at the changes being made by President Aliyev and considers what these might mean for the future of one of Europe’s most authoritarian states.

 

Contours of Conflict and Prognosis in the Eastern Neighbourhood by James Nixey, Head, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House

James Nixey, the head of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, has written a paper on the so-called frozen conflicts in Eastern Europe – Nagorno Karabakh, Transnistria, Georgia and Ukraine – and what the west might do to edge towards resolutions.

His central tenet is that Russia bears a large responsibility for the conflicts and, together with the actors themselves, must take the lead in resolutions. But, he argues, the west should be taking actions including expelling recalcitrant states from membership of various bodies as well as seeking to inspire solutions. He concludes:

The best the West can do in the meantime is to stop over promising and under-delivering (and ideally do the reverse)

I’m not sure I agree completely with James’ suggestions. For instance I think expelling countries from organisations might be to final a move. But it is worthy of a read for anyone interested in the on-going conflicts.