How Election Monitors Are Failing
Uganda’s recent election showed, once again, that international election observers aren't calling it like they see it.
In Uganda, heated controversy still surrounds President Museveni’s re-election with just over 60 percent of the vote two months ago. At a press conference on February 20, the European Union election observation mission presented its preliminary report on how the election had been conducted. The controversy surrounding the race, and the claim by the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) that the polls had been rigged, ensured a charged atmosphere. But despite finding that the number of votes it counted did not correspond to the official results in 20 percent of observed polling stations, the mission refused to answer a question about whether the elections were “free and fair.” Instead, they pulled their punches, directing the audience to read the report “and draw their own conclusions.”
International election observation missions — when small teams of foreign nationals are sent to watch over elections under the auspices of groups such as the European Union, African Union and the Carter Center — are intended to deter foul play and ensure free and fair polls. In practice, these monitors are not generally known for toughness or frank criticism. But even by their notoriously cautious standards, the verdict in Uganda was strikingly tentative and evasive. The EU monitors had heard human rights groups’ complaints about intimidation by security forces and pro-government “volunteers,” witnessed voting materials turn up late to many polling stations located in opposition strongholds, and seen the main opposition candidate, Kizza Bessigye, arrested multiple times. The chair of Uganda’s Electoral Commission, Badru Kiggundu, even broke the most basic rule of official neutrality when he declared that Besigye was not “presidential material.”
The refusal of the European observers to make a strong and clear statement about these abuses frustrated Uganda’s opposition and civil society, but it was not surprising. Across Africa, international observers have frequently refused to give elections the evaluations they deserve for fear of offending incumbent governments and triggering political instability — and, also, it would seem, because they apply lower standards on the continent. Research by Brian Klaas of the London School of Economics has found that elections in Africa are significantly less likely to be branded “unfree and unfair” than elections held elsewhere in the world when they suffer the same manipulations. As a result, incumbents typically get away with a wide range of abuses, including such major offenses as the exclusion of rival candidates.
Although the problem is worse in Africa than elsewhere, this is a global phenomenon. Problematic elections have been given the “green light” in places such as Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and Iraq, as international leaders place security and stability — and their own relationships with established governments — ahead of democracy. This has led to many situations in which the content and the conclusion of election observation reports are out of sync. While the small print often lists pages of significant failings, the summary invariably concludes that the elections were “good enough.” The implications for democracy are dire: it’s not just B+ polls that are being allowed to “pass” international scrutiny — even “incompletes” are being allowed through.
The challenges facing election monitors are both political and technical. One of the reasons demonstrating electoral manipulation is particularly difficult in places like Uganda is that the size of most monitoring missions is pitifully small. The EU mission in Uganda, for example, was only 130 strong. Since observers must go around in pairs, in practice, about 45 “teams” were responsible for covering something like 28,000 polling stations. It is simply not practical to detect subtle electoral fraud on this basis. Moreover, the random sampling technique that the EU uses to select polling stations for its teams to cover — on the basis that such sampling is more likely to ensure a representative sample of the national picture — means that observers have polling stations selected for them in advance and cannot target areas that are known to be problematic.
The technical limitations are exacerbated by political realities. In many of the world’s semi-democratic states, the combination of repression by government forces and the failure of electoral commissions to quickly release a full set of results make it all but impossible for observers or the opposition to provide incontrovertible evidence of fraud. In Uganda, the law sets a 10-day deadline for the submission of evidence of rigging. But during this period, opposition offices were raided by police or mysteriously “burgled,” and the main opposition leader was placed under house arrest. This alone should be sufficient for international observers to declare the process flawed — but the appeals process is rarely given much weight in election observers’ reports, which focus heavily on the period leading up to polling day.
This is not just an African phenomenon. In the 2013 election in Azerbaijan, a set of “results” was accidentally released the day before the election on an iPhone app. Officially, this was explained away as a simple technical mistake, and a different set of figures were announced after voting had taken place. But many suspected that President Ilham Aliyev had intended to release a set of pre-fabricated results, and had only been prevented from doing so because they had been accidentally circulated too early. Subsequent evidence of “widespread irregularities, including ballot-box stuffing and what appeared to be fraudulent counting” was reported by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Yet international observers that focused only on the act of voting, like those from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s short-term delegation, missed the bigger story, concluding that they had witnessed a “free, fair and transparent electoral process.” Few observers who were able to take a longer-term view concurred with that judgment.
Clearly, the idea that international election observers are a neutral, independent force is a myth. In reality, they are every bit as subject to political pressures as the parties they observe. In the early 1990s, observers turned a blind eye to deeply flawed elections in Kenya because they were worried that speaking out would trigger civil war and regional instability. In so doing, however, they became complicit in the attempts of a brutal authoritarian regime to hold onto power and undermined their own reputations. In the run-up to the 1992 election, President Daniel arap Moi’s regime instigated ethnic clashes designed to displace, and hence disenfranchise, opposition voters. In total, over 1,500 people died and 300,000 more were forced to flee their homes. The government also engaged in a wide range of other dubious measures, from censoring the press to stuffing ballot boxes. The international community’s failure to speak out against these developments motivated the respected Kenyanist Stephen Brown to write a scathing article with the eloquent subtitle, “How Foreign Donors to Keep Kenya’s Daniel arap Moi in Power.”
Similar tensions are at play in Uganda today. President Museveni’s decision to send Ugandan troops to form the bulk of the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) has made his government central to Western anti-terror efforts in the Horn of Africa. As a result, the EU and U.S. can ill afford to lose Museveni as an ally — even if harsh words are often exchanged in public. Like their counterparts in Kenya and Iraq, Western representatives in Uganda are also concerned about what would happen if they called for the results to be recounted or the election to be re-run. Would the country implode under the pressure? Could a Besigye presidency be relied upon to deliver stability and to be as enthusiastic about sending Ugandans to fight in a foreign country?
The uncertainty around these questions has left western election observers in a familiar dilemma. They cannot endorse the results of elections that have been so evidently uneven, but they cannot condemn the process entirely, for that would both imply that Uganda’s government has no legitimacy (an awkward implication for a regional ally) and suggest that elections can never bring political change.
As a result, the EU report on Uganda’s recent elections is a classic of a genre that has emerged over the recent decades of electoral observation in Africa. The report captures a whole catalog of dubious electoral practices, including local-level intimidation of opposition, obstructions placed in the way of opposition presidential campaigns by the police, and the wide gap between a ruling party that draws freely on state resources for its campaign and an opposition that relies on donations from supporters. At the same time, in a strenuous effort to put a good face on the proceedings, the report commends the public for their “remarkable determination on election day [while] waiting for long hours to cast their ballots,” implicitly offering “voter enthusiasm for the democratic process” as a form of endorsement of the elections (if not explicitly for their result).
This is all eminently understandable. Serving as an election observer is a great responsibility and concerns of political stability are legitimate in countries with a history of conflict. It is also true that, for all the faults of the elections, Museveni may well have won the most votes.
Even so, observers who pull their punches may end up causing considerable damage. Excessive tact in assessing election results can set back the cause of democracy and undermine the confidence of opposition parties and their supporters that Western governments will play fair. Governments in places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia — both of which are due to have elections this year — will be watching events in Uganda closely. In both countries, the contests are expected to be particularly tight, and leaders there will be looking for every advantage they can get. The failure of election observers to take a stand in Uganda will encourage other dictators to rig their own elections, safe in the knowledge that they are unlikely to be held to account. In the long run, this is likely to erode public support for the political process and to breed political grievances that all too often spill over into conflict.
Maybe it’s time to take a more hard-headed approach to elections in authoritarian states. If the circumstances are simply too uneven to provide genuine competition, and if observers know that they will not be in a position to call out fraud if they see it, then might it be better for international monitors to stay at home? At least this way the international community will avoid legitimating — and hence becoming complicit in — deeply flawed polls that make a mockery of democracy.
In the photo, Ugandan police officers stand guard outside the house of the country’s main opposition leader, Kizza Besigye, in a suburb of Kampala on February 22.
Photo credit: ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP/Getty Images
Nic Cheeseman is a professor of democracy and international development at the University of Birmingham, the founding editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of African Politics, and the author of Democracy in Africa: Successes, Failures and the Struggle for Political Reform.