As democracy has spread to 117 countries over the last two decades, questions about the relative importance of elections in the democratic process have diminished. While some commentators continue to speak disparagingly of “electoralism” or regard insistence upon elections as a token of Western ethnocentrism, most students of government today agree that elections are essential instruments of democracy. To many, democracy should be more than free and fair elections, but it cannot be less.
A second point of consensus is that while the success of any given democracy depends primarily on internal developments and decisions, the international community can and has helped. With the Cold War’s end, the norm of free elections as the legitimate basis of governing has become almost universal. Today, foreign governments and international organizations fund and facilitate democratic transitions, and international groups observe elections in more countries and with more positive effect.
In July 1997, the Journal of Democracy published a trio of important articles dealing with, respectively, the role of election observers, the often puzzling problem of how to judge whether an election is free and fair, and the relative importance of domestic as opposed to international observers. 1
Insightful as these essays were, the key distinction made by the authors of all three—between professional and amateur international observers—is less important than others that they omit: between conducting and supervising elections on the one hand; and observing, monitoring, and mediating on the other. Similarly, the authors stress the superiority of domestic over international observers but fail to identify the more pertinent [End Page 154] distinction between party and nonpartisan domestic observers. Finally, the authors do not recognize the different kinds or thresholds of electoral-related problems. Once these distinctions are grasped, the question of what constitutes a free and fair election is easier to answer, and election mediators can be much more effective in ensuring successful elections.
Thomas Carothers, one of the most astute observers of observers, offers a wide-ranging survey of the diversity, functions, strengths, and flaws of international election observers. He applauds the professionals for their work in evaluating every stage of the electoral process, deterring fraud, and strengthening and advancing basic standards for free and fair elections. Governments and organizations that fund such efforts, he recommends, should 1) avoid duplication; 2) send fewer, more professional missions for longer periods; 3) discourage “election amateurs”; and 4) help domestic observer groups.
The prevalence of “amateurs” is sometimes a nuisance, but they rarely have much of an impact on the national or international perception of the election. At the same time, their volunteerism has a positive side, for in a sense, they represent transnational civil society.
A far more significant issue is the nature of the roles played by international election groups. Progress toward understanding those roles can be made by studying cases where international observers did not succeed, as well as those where they did. International observers did not prevent fraud in the Philippines in 1986 or in Panama in 1989; they did not prevent UNITA from refusing the election results in Angola in 1992; they failed to diminish the scale of irregularities in Haiti in 1995; and they neither arrested the unraveling of Cambodian democracy in 1997 nor secured the expansion of Bosnian democracy during the same year.
The presence and the actions of international groups, however, have several times helped to save elections from what otherwise would have been irremediable flaws. This was so in Nicaragua and Haiti in 1990, in Guyana in 1992, and in the Dominican Republic four years later. Even in several of the failed cases, international observers played a useful role: They helped to deny legitimacy to Ferdinand Marcos and Manuel Noriega, for example, making them more vulnerable to domestic and international pressure. Indeed, as two recent studies show, international election groups have played pivotal roles in a large number of countries over the past decade. 2 Has anything been learned from these cases that would permit the international community to avoid mistakes and increase the number of successful elections?
Observers, Monitors, and Mediators
The place to start is with precise distinctions among the roles played by election...