The Observers Observed
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The Observers Observed

The scenario by now is familiar. Elections are announced in a politically transitional country of importance to the international community, elections that look as if they will be pivotal to the country’s democratic prospects. Several months before the vote, the first foreign observers arrive, a few people from the United States or Western Europe who settle in to monitor the electoral process from start to finish. Around the same time, a small team of Western technical advisors sets up shop in the country to assist the national election commission with its task of administering the elections. After the electoral process gets under way, with candidates registering and the campaign starting, several preelectoral survey missions arrive from abroad. These teams assess the political climate, the administrative preparations, and the early campaign period. They then issue reports—which are much debated in the country under scrutiny—calling attention to deficiencies in the process and exhorting the political authorities to take remedial steps.

The campaign intensifies, and more foreign observers join the early arrivals. As the administrative preparations advance, foreign technical assistance to the election commission also expands. A week before the elections, the international observation effort moves into high gear. Delegations of foreign observers arrive daily, a stream that becomes a flood late in the week as hundreds or thousands of observers descend on the country. They fill the hotels and restaurants in the capital, as [End Page 17] well as the schedules of the election commissioners and the major candidates. The day before the vote, the observers fan out around the country, overwhelming the local airlines, renting every four-wheel-drive vehicle available, and hiring every plausible interpreter in sight.

Election day finally arrives. The observers rise early and travel in small groups from polling station to polling station, posing questions to poll workers and watching people vote. The day is long, but eventually the polls close and the vote counting begins. Most of the foreign observers stay for a few hours at polling stations to watch the laborious ballot-counting process get under way before they go to bed or head back to the capital. A few hardy souls in the observer ranks stay up all night to watch the counting.

The next morning, though the results are not yet in, the larger observer delegations hold press conferences in hotels in the capital, each racing to be the first to go public with its assessment. Their initial statements released (and often already reported on local television), many of the foreign observers leave that afternoon, jostling for seats on long-overbooked flights out. Within a day or two, most are gone, already back at home sharing their experiences with friends and co-workers. A few stay on, usually those who arrived months before, to monitor the eventual release of the official results and the disposition of claims by the losing parties of electoral wrongdoing. Weeks or even months later, the major observer groups release their final reports, although the election is by then old news.

This scenario could be Nicaragua, Bosnia, or Russia in 1996, South Africa a few years back, or any of the other recent high-profile cases of countries attempting transitions to democracy. International election observation has mushroomed in the past 15 years, paralleling the global spread of democratization. 1 Not all transitional elections receive the kind of intense scrutiny described above, but international observers are now present at most elections that appear significant for a country’s democratic development. Election observation is the best-established, most visible, and often best-funded type of democracy-related assistance. The United States is a major source of election observers, who are sent by groups specializing in democracy promotion such as the Carter Center, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, and the International Republican Institute as well as by myriad other nongovernmental organizations with interests in particular regions or countries. 2 Countless observer delegations also originate in Europe, sponsored by the European Union, the Council of Europe, European governments, parliamentary groups, political parties, and many other European associations and organizations. A number of international organizations have also gotten into the act, including the...