Why We Should No Longer Trust the Words ‘Free and Fair’

Why We Should No Longer Trust the Words ‘Free and Fair’

Whenever elections roll around in troubled democracies, international organizations and foreign governments can be counted on to step in and judge the results. These assessments carry significant weight: A "free and fair" stamp can improve a country’s reputation and boost the legitimacy of the newly elected government. The problem is that, more often than not, these evaluations are wrong. They reflect the hidden interests of election monitors, their lack of understanding about the situation on the ground — or both. There are plenty of examples out there, but the recent elections in Zimbabwe and Albania demonstrate how external assessments of elections as "free and fair" are all but meaningless.

Having dragged his feet for years on electoral reform and the scheduling of Zimbabwean elections, President Robert Mugabe announced in early June that the country’s next presidential vote would take place on July 31, leaving less than two months for campaigning and the proper registration of voters. Initially, the opposition parties stated that they would boycott the elections. However, since opinion polls showed anti-Mugabe sentiment at an all-time high, they believed they had a reasonable chance of winning. What they hadn’t anticipated was the degree of voter-roll manipulation. Voter registration in urban areas, where the opposition was strongest, topped out at 68 percent, and reached close to 100 percent in rural areas, where Mugabe is strongest. Mugabe thereby robbed the opposition of more than 1 million votes. Of course, the opposition itself is at least partly responsible for the outcome, for by choosing to participate in the election they legitimized it. With the help of other dubious tactics on voting day itself (such as bussing unregistered or outside voters into key areas to cast fraudulent votes), Mugabe was able to ensure himself an unexpected victory.

Despite this overt manipulation, international observers (including the African Union observers on the ground) declared these elections "mostly free and fair." Diplomatically, it may make sense to temper these assessments in order to avoid stoking further resentment between political parties or instigating potential deadlock should the losing party reject the results of a corrupt election — both of which occurred after the previous Zimbabwean elections in 2008. By rubber-stamping the results of the 2013 elections, monitors could hope to legitimize them and therefore avoid a repeat of the 2008 deadlock. Looking the other way in cases like this can preserve a problematic but relatively peaceful status quo, allowing the international community to conveniently ignore problems with which it would rather not deal. It is easier, if both empirically and ethically wrong, to accept Mugabe as the "legitimate" winner rather than to entertain the possibility of a destabilized Zimbabwe.

Thus, outside institutions and governments approved Zimbabwe’s elections in accordance with their own interests, despite its obvious irregularities. In other, less overtly problematic elections, the "free and fair" stamp is often awarded due to mistaken monitoring practices that focus myopically on voting day events, instead of on the long-term practices of governments that determine which options are even available on election day.

After years of nearly constant decline in most measures of democracy — including electoral and judicial processes, and freedom of the media — the international community touted this year’s "free and fair" elections as the "rebirth" of Albania’s democracy. Judging by the lack of violence, subsequent acceptance of final results by all parties, and the fact that elections resulted in a change of government, this assessment would appear to be warranted. However, a look beyond election day reveals that the election’s outcome was the result of the scheming of the same (corrupt) political players using the now traditional, corrupt campaign tactics.

When the opposition candidate Edi Rama realized that he was failing to gain significant support, he panicked and, in a desperate move, sought the help of Ilir Meta, an erstwhile enemy who runs a small but influential center-left party. Meta is widely viewed as one of the most corrupt politicians in the Albanian government, having been forced to resign from his deputy prime minister position in January 2011 after he was secretly filmed negotiating kickbacks on government tenders.

Yet Rama’s decision to make a deal with his rival paid off. During the campaign Meta made liberal use of intimidation and promises of patronage to ensure support, and his tactics were ultimately successful. The ruling Democratic Party lost heavily, while Meta’s party made a stunning four-fold increase in parliamentary seats (from 4 to 16) that ultimately ensured the victory of Rama’s coalition.

To make matters worse, Albania does not have real free media since every TV station or newspaper is affiliated with one of the political camps. Moreover, the Central Electoral Commission issued a decree whereby all TV stations had to air electoral coverage filmed by the parties, rather than independent coverage produced by the stations themselves. Party-controlled media do sometimes expose and criticize political corruption and misdeeds, but this is always partisan and rarely, if ever, independent journalism.

When Albanians went to the ballot box, the day proceeded relatively calmly. International organizations praised the conduct of the elections. But this assessment is based on a convenient snapshot of a single day. While previous elections in Albania were marred by obvious voting day irregularities, the now-institutionalized patronage system and long-term intimidation tactics made such overt actions largely unnecessary on election day.

Examples like these should make us question the way we assess elections in troubled democracies. Election monitoring has become suspect. Assessing the validity of elections requires abiding by a set of well-specified criteria — regardless of political interests — as well as looking beyond simple measures like the lack of violence, explicit intimidation at the polls, or the imperfect and simplistic statistics issued by electoral commissions, and into the subtle and more complex real-world choices that individuals actually face on election day as a result of the long-term strategies of their governments. Otherwise, supposedly "free and fair" elections often may not be what they seem.