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Should International Groups Be Monitoring Sudan’s Elections?

You can’t assess an election’s integrity without choosing to monitor it, but the decision to do so can be seen as conferring undue legitimacy on an unfair vote.

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With voting underway in Sudan’s national elections, it’s already clear that the country’s citizens have been denied a free and fair election process. The major opposition parties are boycotting the polls, which are open from Monday to Wednesday. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is all but certain to win another term in office and extend his nearly 26-year rule. The government-controlled elections come amid detentions of opposition figures and activists, confiscations of newspapers without explanation, and ongoing violence in Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile.

So for election monitoring groups, the question is not whether the vote will be free and fair, but whether it’s even worth sending monitors to examine elections whose results are a foregone conclusion. How important is it to understand how unfree and unfair the elections are, and at what cost would that information come? Do the benefits of sending observers outweigh the negatives?

Unlike during the 2010 elections — Sudan’s first multiparty vote since Bashir came to power — the answer for most observers is no. Several groups, including the European Union, chose not to send monitors this year because Sudan’s government failed to make the process inclusive and democratic. Sudan’s 2010 vote was also far from fair and free, but many international monitors felt a greater need to send observers because of international involvement in the peace process that led to the vote.

The African Union did send monitors this year, but that decision has some Sudanese — including the country’s rebel groups — concerned that the observers’ presence will bring the elections unwarranted credibility. The AU has a mandate to monitor all of its member states’ elections, but guidelines allow it to send a reduced team, or none at all, if it finds conditions “unsatisfactory.”

“The regime is controlling the entire electoral process from the electoral law, electoral registration, and distribution of constituencies to elections committee,” said Ahmed H. Adam, a Sudanese visiting fellow at Cornell University’s Institute for African Development. By sending observers, he argued, the AU is “legitimizing fundamentally flawed and rigged elections.”

Khabele Matlosa, the African Union Commission’s director for political affairs, disagreed. Without sending a full monitoring team, the AU couldn’t assess the problems with the vote, he said.

These views suggest a basic tension in election monitoring: You can’t assess an election’s integrity without choosing to monitor it, but the decision to do so can be seen as conferring undue legitimacy on an unfair vote. That’s especially true in a country like Sudan, where many think the election shouldn’t even be taking place, given President Bashir’s failure to initiate a long-promised national dialogue about the political process.

“There is an inevitable and ongoing discussion among election observers about what are the circumstances that make it better to not observe than to observe an election,” said Patrick Merloe, senior associate and director of electoral programs at the National Democratic Institute. In instances where government control of the process may prevent monitors from making a thorough assessment or elections are blatantly rigged, many organizations will choose not to send a monitoring team.

“So, when Alberto Fujimori rigged the process for Peru’s presidential runoff, the [Organization of American States], EU and the joint NDI/Carter Center international observer missions, along with Peruvian citizen organizations, withdrew their observers,” Merloe said. “And when in 2008 the Russian government restricted the time and number of OSCE observers, not to mention failing to issue visas, it refused to observe the elections.”

In other cases, a group might send observers in order to be able to speak out against so-called “zombie monitors,” which countries such as Azerbaijan have hired to put a rubber stamp on flawed elections. Or a monitor group may offer technical assistance to domestic observers, who are less vulnerable to accusations of foreign meddling.

In principle, Merloe stressed, the choice to monitor isn’t meant to confer legitimacy – that comes after the observers have completed an assessment. According to the U.N.’s 2005 Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation, “a decision by any organization to organize an international election observation mission…does not imply that the organization necessarily deems the election process in the country holding the elections to be credible.” That’s what the monitors are there to determine, after all.

But these high-minded principles often don’t match political realities and perceptions on the ground. The U.N. declaration also warns that “an organization should not send an international election observation mission to a country under conditions that make it likely that its presence will be interpreted as giving legitimacy to a clearly undemocratic electoral process.”

That was the concern for Michele Dunne, a senior associate in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program, about monitoring Egypt’s January 2014 constitutional referendum. Given the Sisi government’s repression of opposition voices and civil society, Dunne urged observers to consider “whether their presence will legitimize the undeserving.”

And that was also the concern of the AU committee sent to examine conditions ahead of Sudan’s vote. The committee’s March report concluded that “should the AU decide to deploy observers…it would be viewed by most opposition parties, civil society, and sections of the international community in Sudan as giving undue external legitimacy to a process they viewed as deeply flawed,” and would “send a wrong message to the Sudanese government.”

Despite this advice, Adam, the Cornell fellow, said sources within the AU told him that the body decided to monitor the election anyway because of pressure from countries like Egypt and Chad. By pushing to legitimize unfair elections, these undemocratic governments were “protecting themselves by protecting Bashir,” Adam said. The Arab League, which also sent monitors, was “rewarding Bashir for being a member in the newly formed Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis in Yemen,” Adam said.

Matlosa, the director of political affairs at the AU, denied those allegations.

Regardless of whether Egypt and Chad orchestrated the push to send observers to Sudan, these claims show how easily a supposedly neutral decision to monitor an election can become entangled in politics — principles be damned.

PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images

Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. @jkdrennan

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