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According to the Central Election Commission of Azerbaijan, there were nearly 1,300 international observers from 50 organizations in Azerbaijan for the October presidential elections. Forty-nine monitoring groups praised the elections as free and fair, meeting European standards. One group of international election monitors refused to go along with the praise: the election monitoring mission of ODIHR, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.
Azerbaijanis were told by the leaders of the delegations of two European parliamentary institutions – the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) – that they had just held “free, fair, and transparent” elections. Pino Arlacchi, the head of the European Parliament’s monitoring team questioned ODIHR’s legitimacy (“not elected by anybody”), objectivity (“easy to manipulate”),and competence (“so-called experts”).
However, carrying out serious election monitoring is a resource-intensive endeavor. Only ODIHR employed a core team of experts and long-term observers, who arrived in the country many weeks before the day of elections. In addition ODIHR mobilised a large number of short-term observers for the elections themselves. ODIHR monitors observed voting in 1,151 of the 5,273 polling stations across the country.
The evidence of systemic fraud was overwhelming. While voting was problematic, the counting of ballots was catastrophic, with 58 percent of observed polling stations assessed as bad or very bad. It may have been the worst vote count ever observed by an ODIHR election observation mission anywhere.
The events in October in Baku reveal a broken system for international election observation. International monitors should provide objective assessments, based on documented observations, of whether national elections meet European and international democratic standards. This should help to prevent or resolve national disputes about election results, while guiding the international community in their future dealings with the governments in question.
In fact, there is today a lucrative market for observers – former and current members of international and national parliaments. The more observers there are the more likely they are to undermine any sense that there even exist any international standards. Thus a selection of self-appointed short-term observers is offering impromptu opinions based upon cursory observations, little objective information and in many cases a striking ignorance of or even disregard for international standards. Their presence means that the one credible international monitoring institution, ODIHR, finds clear and uncomfortable findings questioned and undermined at every turn without reference to facts.
Even with the right motivations, how can short-term observers avoid amateurish evaluations if they are in small numbers? As a rule, short-term observers arrive in a country two days before the elections. They are briefed on the election campaign. They typically spend one day meeting with representatives of the government, the opposition, mass media, and nongovernmental organizations. Given the limited size of their delegations, they can visit only a few polling stations on the day of elections. Few watch the crucial vote counting. Then they leave the day after the elections.
The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly argues that parliamentarians can assess whether an election meets international standards without engaging in long-term monitoring and without following any methodology, just because they have been elected themselves. This argument is absurd, but it keeps being presented as a serious claim. It is an argument that can no longer be left unchallenged by other parliamentarians concerned about the reputation of their institutions, or by international media reporting on such assessments.
How about the argument that parliamentary short-term observers are by definition “independent and credible”? The Italian magazine Panorama alleged recently that, behind closed doors, Pino Arlacchi had explained to other members of the European Parliament that in Azerbaijan he had “defended the interests of Italy in the region.” Panorama then referred to Italian investments in the energy sector. Many parliamentarians volunteering to take part in election observation missions come from countries that have economic interests in Azerbaijan.
However, if observers are not offering objective assessments based on a rigorous methodology then they are merely offering opinion. These opinions are open to influence through geopolitical interests and alliances, commercial incentives, and sometimes even worse: blackmail and corruption.
European democracies have long supported and financed election monitoring missions. They have done so convinced that this contributes to rather than undermines the promotion of democracy. Unfortunately, they can no longer be sure. When the European Parliament decided to send a delegation of seven members on 12 September it did so with a purpose:
“The aim of the MEPs’ mission is to assess whether the 2013 presidential elections in Azerbaijan are conducted according to the country’s international commitments and national laws. MEPs’ work will be guided by international standards and criteria, as defined by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR), and grounded in fundamental civil and political rights” (emphasis added).
On 23 October the European Parliament voted at a plenary session in Strasbourg on an amendment to the European Neighborhood Policy report. It [implicitly] distanced itself from the findings of its own monitoring mission in Azerbaijan:
“The European Parliament regrets the fact that, according to the conclusions of the ODIHR long-term mission, the latest presidential election, held on 9 October 2013, once again failed to meet OSCE standards; the European Parliament calls, in view of this, on the Azerbaijani authorities to address and swiftly implement all the recommendations included in present and past ODIHR/OSCE reports.”
The vote in the European Parliament on 23 October is a start, but it is not enough. It is still likely that at its next session in January 2014 PACE will arrive at diametrically opposed conclusions concerning these elections, upholding the finding of its own team of short-term observers that these elections were free and fair. This would make clear that in the end assessing elections is about mobilising majorities and that there is no real need for monitoring at all.
The practice of international election monitoring has thus reached a crossroads. It is imperative for the European Parliament to launch an investigation into what happened in Baku, inviting all participants to a public hearing. Parliaments of member states of the European Union concerned about the state of democracy in Europe and parliaments of other Council of Europe members might also want to look into the state of international election monitoring in light of this experience.
Azerbaijan is about to take over the rotating chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers in May 2014. Recent events in Baku have deepened the crisis of credibility of the Council of Europe. There is now a pattern of PACE parliamentary delegations concluding – against all evidence – that elections in Azerbaijan are “free and fair”: this already happened in 2010 and now again in 2013.
There is thus also a need to act for governments in the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe and for the secretary general of the Council of Europe, former Norwegian prime minister and current head of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, Thorbjorn Jagland. Jagland might want to invite a group of eminent international judges and election experts to investigate how it has been possible for the judgments of PACE observers to differ, again and again, so dramatically from those of the long-term observers of ODIHR.
What about future international election observation missions? How can one prevent a repetition of what occurred in October at the next elections in Azerbaijan … or anywhere else?
The previous practice of ODIHR experts and heads of parliamentary delegations bargaining over the assessment of elections in the hours before a press conference deserves to end. Of course parliamentarians should continue to travel to observe elections. If parliamentarians fill out the election observation forms they become a useful addition to the team of ODIHR short-term observers. They will also gain their own impressions, which are important in later debates on elections in the European Parliament or PACE. However, in doing so they should not speak for their institutions. Robert Walter should present his observations on elections in Azerbaijani as a Tory member of the House of Commons, or as a political ally of Ilham Aliev’s (and Vladimir Putin’s) party in the European Democrat Group caucus in PACE. Short-term monitors should not be given a mandate by their assemblies to judge, on the spot and based on limited observation only, whether an election meets international standards.
ODIHR should expect to be challenged on its judgments. It should be questioned on its methodology. It should also be invited to brief the European Parliament and PACE directly. At the same time it should never shy away from clear language, lest it betray the hopes of democrats and the values and standards it is set to defend.
The crisis of credibility of international election monitoring missions put so visibly on display in Baku in October is not about Azerbaijan. It is about the very future of election observations as an international activity that promotes democracy. It is about the credibility of some of Europe’s most respected institutions.