Observers take a critical look at elections | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 20.04.2014
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Observers take a critical look at elections

German election monitors are at work worldwide. Since 2002, more than 3,700 have been posted on missions, particularly by the OSCE. But not all countries welcome the detailed reports by monitors.

Belarus, Albania, Armenia - Tobias Raffel has to think for a minute and then he names four more countries where he has served an election monitor. He said he likes monitoring elections since, for him, it feels like a "contribution to democratization."

"It's important for monitoring of what happens on election day and in the days and weeks before elections to be international and independent," said the 37-year-old from Berlin.

Before each of his missions, Raffel gets a call - usually at the very last minute - from the Center for International Peace Operations (ZIF) in Berlin. Then he takes time off from his job and packs his bags. The fact that he doesn't earn any money during the time he is away doesn't bother him. He gets see new countries, places he might never have visited as a tourist, and he sees them in a completely new way, he said.

In Albania, for example, he witnessed a ballot count that took several days and nights. "That kind of thing really pushes you to your physical limits," Raffel said. As a long-term election monitor in Belarus, he has often been the target of surveillance and monitoring.

Tobias Raffel (Photo: ZIF)

Tobias Raffel feels election monitoring contributes to democratization

OSCE wants more German observers

Raffel got his basic election monitor training at ZIF, which sends out the German monitors on international missions for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) or the European Union. He said his training was "very well organized and professional."

But not all the 57 OSCE states prepare their election monitors quite so well. The German government has taken the fact that the OSCE has asked for Berlin to increase the proportion of German observers at future international missions as a compliment.

Election monitors' seal of approval

Election monitoring in undemocratic states is a particular challenge. Autocratic governments would be glad to do without monitors sticking their noses into every single polling station, even looking for election fraud in the most remote villages. But hardly any country dares to refuse EU or OSCE election monitors.

Nowadays the verdict that international monitors come to is a coveted "seal of approval," as Thomas Bagger, head of the Policy Planning Staff at the Federal Foreign Office, said at a panel discussion about the political dimensions of election monitoring in Berlin.

"Every leader needs to believably give the impression that he represents the will of the people, and that the elections were okay," Bagger said. Manipulations or abuses of power are not accepted anymore practically anywhere in the world.

The pretense of democracy

Because officials now want to have that seal of approval, there are increased attempts to give elections the appearance of being democratic. "Of course, we are also dealing with states or representatives of states who know exactly what methods we use and how you can make an election appear democratic," said OSCE election expert Nicola Schmidt.

Election monitoring in Georgien (Photo: ZIF/Diran)

The OSCE's election monitors, like these ones in Georgia, observe the run-up to elections as well as the vote itself

The OSCE's methods are indeed well known. Many weeks before the election, it sends a group of experts and long-term monitors to the respective country. Those monitors follow the election campaign and make sure the opposition's candidates don't encounter any unfair obstacles and are given a fair amount of coverage by media outlets.

A few days before the election, a larger number of short-term monitors travel to the country. They visit various polling stations and are present when votes are counted. All the monitoring activities are then written up in a detailed report.

Targeted deception

The thorough long-term monitoring is what sets the OSCE apart from other election monitoring organizations. Still, even experienced monitors aren't immune to deception. One well-known scenario during monitoring, is that everything goes suspiciously well while monitors are present or that election observers are supposed to be distracted with coffee or sweets. When the local interpreter suddenly gives one syllable answers to questions or the designated polling station suddenly has to be changed on short notice - that is also cause for concern. Those sorts of scenarios can push election monitoring to its limits, Schmidt said.

Excessive monitoring

One other way for countries to secure the desired seal of approval is a "manipulation through excess." That means that so many monitors are invited, that critical voices are drowned out by the crowd.

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev casts his vote in 2013 (Photo: REUTERS/tringer)

The election of Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev in 2013 was disputed by the OSCE

The most extreme example of this type was the presidential election in Azerbaijan in autumn 2013. "There were 50 international election monitors in the country," Gera Knaus from the think tank European Stability Initiative recalled. Many observers were only in Azerbaijan for two or three days, they were representatives of national parliaments or of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

In the end, Knaus said, 49 missions judged that elections were free and fair. "Only one mission was of the opinion that these were the worst elections since monitoring began, and that was the OSCE." The seal of approval by various election monitoring missions helps autocrats to disavow and isolate dissidents and the opposition.

The political answer should be to "strengthen the value of professional election monitoring," said Knaus.

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