Vote of the Living Dead
Not all election monitors are the same: some of them are out to devour democracy.
Over the past few years, authoritarian regimes have come to place an increasingly high premium on the veneer and perceptions of elections, rather than on their substance. Today’s savvier, more media-conscious autocrats are taking this approach to a whole new level: they are strategically deploying "zombie monitors," fake monitoring groups that praise obviously flawed elections in an effort to drown out more critical assessments by established monitoring organizations.
This subterfuge was on full view in Azerbaijan’s Oct. 9 presidential election, in which sitting President Ilham Aliyev was re-elected with a whopping 85 percent of the vote. His closest competitor, Jamil Hasanli, was credited with 5.5 percent. In what has become the standard in this deeply repressive country, the incumbent authorities pulled out all the stops to ensure that no meaningful competition could take place on election day or during the campaign preceding it. The election monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office of Democratic Initiatives and Human Rights (ODIHR) noted that the election was "undermined by limitations on freedoms of expression, assembly and association," and that "significant problems were observed throughout all stages of election day processes."
Though the ODIHR is now increasingly drawing criticism from the countries whose elections it criticizes, the long-term monitoring activities, mission size and experience of ODIHR observers make them a gold standard in the world of international election monitoring. This was the ODIHR’s eighth election monitoring mission in Azerbaijan, and was comprised of a group of 30 long-term observers from 16 countries and 280 short-term observers monitoring polls on election day. This time around, though, the ODIHR found itself facing a host of competitors. Soon after the polls closed, a myriad of little-known election monitoring groups emerged in the country’s capital Baku to publicly sanctify President Aliyev’s victory. "The Inter-Commission Working Group on International Cooperation and Public Diplomacy of the Public Chamber of Russia Elections" and the "Commonwealth of Independent States Observation Mission" (CIS-EMO) issued positive assessments of the election process — which were then disseminated widely by the Azerbaijani media.
Similarly rosy assessments came from other obscure groups like the "Observer Mission of the NGO Forum of the Organization of Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC)" and the "Observation Mission of the Standing Conference of Political Parties of Latin America and the Caribbean (COPPPAL)." The head of an observation mission from Pakistan’s parliament, Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed, even said at a press conference that "no significant violations were revealed during the voting," and added for good measure that "Azerbaijan is an island of development and prosperity in the region."
Most intriguingly, the pro-Azerbaijan government APA news agency referenced the obscure, Oklahoma-based Independent American Center of Political Monitoring, which it referred to as a delegation of "former congressmen and journalists." According to the APA, the Americans had declared the election "transparent and free."
A similar constellation of pseudo-monitors have been on the scene in recent, acutely flawed elections in authoritarian strongholds such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia.
None of these obscure monitoring groups has the authority or experience of the ODIHR, which has monitored elections in the region since 1994 and which, as a long-term observation mission, had been carefully monitoring the campaign and media environment for weeks prior to election day. But the proclamations of the pseudo-monitors served an important purpose for the Azerbaijani government, which sought to confer legitimacy on the election by deflecting international criticism of the lop-sided election process. These proclamations were supported by positive judgments made by more established Western groups like the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, which also undercut the ODIHR and the more critical statements issued by the governments of Western member states themselves.
The rise of such zombie monitors can be traced to the mid-2000s, when the "Color Revolutions" toppled corrupt autocrats in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. In all of these cases, election-day statements by the ODIHR that these national polls were not "free and fair" prompted the mobilizations of popular protest against entrenched authoritarian regimes.
Fearing deeper scrutiny of manipulated elections, Eurasia’s autocrats began fighting back. Beginning in 2005, regional organizations with no experience in election observation, including the Russian-led CIS-EMO and Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) observation, began to send monitors to these polls. These new alternative monitors praised the conduct of patently flawed polls across Eurasia, citing their ostensible conformity with international law and state sovereignty — even though, tellingly, neither signed the United Nations’ Code of Conduct for International Observers.
Many of the groups that turned up in Baku did not even have this limited history. They issued positive judgments without any kind of details supporting their preparations, observation methodology, or funding sources for their missions. Yet their statements served to muddy the waters, for example by enabling state controlled media to emphasize the findings of the authoritarian-friendly monitoring, while ignoring, or at least marginalizing, the reports from the established OSCE monitors. Ultimately, these methods are designed to warp public understanding with the goal of offering the incumbent regime the veneer of external support.
The deployment of pseudo monitors in Azerbaijan and other Eurasian countries is part of a sophisticated new playbook of counter-tactics used by the region’s authoritarians to bolster their international image. These countries now employ small armies of public relations firms and emphasize positive image-crafting through their extensive lobbying efforts in Washington and Brussels.
What stands out is the extraordinary degree to which repressive regimes that have not earned an authentic democratic mandate work to be seen to have done so. Indeed, the fact that so many observers of dubious provenance are enlisted to say — Alice in Wonderland-like — that an authoritarian election process has been "fair," "transparent," and "legitimate" is a strong indication of the enduring allure of democratic legitimacy and the acceptance of the importance of democratic norms.
Authoritarian governments like the ones in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia have shown their commitment to pursuing fierce competition over the perception of their elections results. If only they would allow real competition in the elections themselves.
Christopher Walker is vice president for studies and analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy.