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  • The Rise of Election MonitoringWhat Makes Elections Free and Fair?
  • Jørgen Elklit (bio) and Palle Svensson (bio)

It was late in the afternoon in Kampala on 31 March 1994. Journalists were waiting impatiently for an announcement from international election observers. United Nations officials stated for the third time their argument that the observers should declare the March 28 elections for Uganda’s Constituent Assembly “free and fair.” But the election observers avoided that phrase. They had monitored only part of the electoral process; moreover, they knew that calling the election “free and fair” would hinder or preclude discussion of the problems they had discovered. In the end, the elections in Uganda—which were no worse than many other elections that have taken place in emerging democracies—were not declared “free and fair.”

As this incident shows, election observers encounter great pressure— and not just from overeager journalists—to judge whether the elections in question were “free and fair.” Indeed, sometimes it seems that this is all people want to know. “Free and fair” has become the catchphrase of UN officials, journalists, politicians, and political scientists alike. It exemplifies what Giovanni Sartori once called “conceptual stretching”: “The wider the world under investigation, the more we need conceptual tools that are able to travel.” 1 But what actually constitutes a “free and fair” election? Does the phrase mean only that the election was “acceptable,” or does it imply something more? [End Page 32]

International organizations have long been involved in monitoring and assessing elections and referendums. Especially notable has been the UN’s role in referendums on independence, which began to take place in the late 1950s. Before the UN could recognize former colonies and trust territories as independent states, it had to know whether these votes had been “free and fair.” 2 This concept supposedly made its first appearance in a report on Togoland’s 1956 independence referendum. 3

The UN’s involvement in the November 1989 referendum in Namibia was fundamentally different: In that case the vote was not just an element of the colony’s long liberation process but also an integral part of the UN’s peacekeeping efforts in the area. In February 1990, the UN supervised presidential and legislative elections in Nicaragua. Interestingly, this was done at the request of the country itself, and as part of an assessment of the entire electoral process, not just of election-day events. Thus the UN acquired a major role in the electoral process of an independent member country—something that not all UN members saw as a positive development.

Subsequent elections and referendums in which the UN has been directly involved, either as part of peacekeeping efforts or because the countries in question sought its approval, include those in Haiti (December 1990), Angola (September 1992), Cambodia (May 1993), and Mozambique (October 1994). One might add to that list Eritrea (April 1993), South Africa (April 1994), and Malawi (June 1993 and May 1994), though the UN’s involvement in these cases was less extensive and due in part to other factors. 4

Besides the civil war-torn countries noted above, many other nations have taken dramatic steps toward democracy during the past decade. In many cases, individual Western countries have provided support for these developments; in other cases, the primary actors have been international organizations other than the UN (especially the Organization of American States, the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and the Commonwealth Secretariat). Both national and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have also become involved. Many of these NGOs have received substantial funding from governments and other public sources. 5

Over the past decade, countless election observers have been dispatched to every region of the globe. This increased activity has been accompanied by an intensified demand for standardized assessment criteria, but the development of “checklists” has been hindered by disagreement over what should be included. 6 In addition, cooperation among different countries, organizations, and election authorities has been uneven. Thus a discussion of the basis on which an election or referendum can be labeled “free and fair,” or at least “acceptable,” is long overdue. [End Page 33]


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pp. 32-46
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