The power to condemn elections?

May 26

An Egyptian votes at a polling station in the Gamaliya suburb of Cairo on the first day of the presidential election May 26 in Cairo. (Jonathan Rashad/Getty Images)

With Egypt’s presidential elections May 26 and 27, debate about the value of international election observation has resurfaced. Sometimes, serious problems with elections become clear well ahead of election day. An electoral process may be structurally flawed or levels of political repression may be too high for a democratic election to take place. In these circumstances, journalists and pundits worry that deploying an international observer delegation will give the false impression that elections might be acceptable once election day rolls around. To quote from a recent article about the Egyptian elections in the Los Angeles Times, “the mere presence of prestigious outside observers gives the balloting a much-desired stamp of legitimacy.” This concern appears widespread, and is not unique to Egypt.

Is this true? Does the “mere presence” of a reputable international observer mission confer legitimacy?  And if so, do the other potential benefits of international election observation (including “yet more high-profile criticism of the repressive political climate”) outweigh this risk? The answer to this question is not obvious, though on balance, it is better to have high-quality international observers present than none at all, as long as they are willing to criticize problematic elections. In my book explaining why international election observation has become an international norm, I argue that the possibility that observers might make a mistake — and praise elections that are in fact rigged — is one of the central reasons why international observers were ever invited to problematic elections.

On the surface, it is not entirely obvious why so many governments today are routinely willing to invite international observers to elections they plan to rig. And if international observers were able to detect election fraud perfectly in the early years of international observation, it is a lot less likely that international observers would ever be invited to elections that had the potential to be fraudulent. Thus, the possibility that international observers will (occasionally) legitimize a fraudulent process may be a necessary price to pay for international election observation to be most effective as a democracy promotion tool.

To be sure, reputable international observers have sometimes failed to criticize elections that were obviously problematic. Judith Kelley points out many of these cases in her research on the topic (see here, here and here). The long-term consequences of observers’ occasional failure to condemn bad elections are hard to estimate, but are probably important in several countries, if not more generally. One of the ways in which international election observation organizations can continue to improve is by maintaining their willingness to strongly criticize problematic elections, and to make sure that methods of election observation keep pace with the tools of manipulation used by autocrats who would prefer to invite observers, steal the elections and receive a positive report (I discuss this dynamic in chapter 5 of my book).

Yet it is also quite clear that reputable international observers have issued strong condemnations of important elections, which can motivate governments to improve future electoral processes, embolden citizens and opposition groups to challenge authoritarian elites in the immediate post-election period, and provoke widespread international condemnation of governments that fail to hold democratic elections. International actors have far less standing to criticize elections when they rely on second-hand information, take opposition party complaints at face value, or rely on reports from specific embassies. It appears much easier for electoral autocrats to brush off such criticism as politically motivated or lacking context. Once a credible international observer mission has been invited, it is far more difficult for governments to evade or discredit criticism from reputable international observers who have closely watched all aspects of the electoral process and extensively documented problems throughout the election cycle. Plenty of leaders have tried to undermine criticism from international observers, and it is not clear that they have been successful.

Another less widely recognized effect of credible international observers is that their positive assessments of elections can sometimes take the wind out of the sails of so-called “sore-loser” protests. In countries with high levels of political polarization, opposition groups that perform badly in elections may allege fraud even if the elections were squeaky clean. By observing the entire electoral process, investigating complaints  and comparing an electoral process to the country’s own laws, its international legal commitments and international standards, international observers can provide new or more credible information to the general public about the quality of the electoral process. In some cases, the possibility that clean elections will actually be recognized and rewarded can nudge reluctant governments toward cleaner electoral processes.

In Egypt, the electoral process has already been bad enough that at least one high-profile observer organization, the Carter Center, has issued strong criticism focused on the “restrictive political and legal context surrounding Egypt’s electoral process, the lack of a genuinely competitive campaign environment and the deep political polarization that threatens the country’s transition.” And another prominent group from the European Union (E.U.) announced plans to scrap a mission but ultimately did not. Democracy International, a U.S.-based NGO that observed and criticized the January constitutional referendum in Egypt, has again deployed a mission.

On balance, the presence of international observers at the upcoming Egyptian election is probably a good thing, even if the process is structurally flawed and levels of political repression are unacceptable. Yes, some people will wrongly think the mere presence of international observers at these elections means they are legitimate, but they would have to bury their heads in the sand pretty deep to maintain this view. As the Carter Center report has shown, accredited international observers are willing to criticize these elections, and as such can draw significant international media attention to problems in the election, putting the government in the position of defending its actions. Subsequent reports from Democracy International and the E.U. may add fuel to the fire in their post-election reports.

International observers, as well as citizen observers and party witnesses, can make many kinds of direct election fraud much more expensive to carry out, potentially because they can deter fraud directly, but also because direct election fraud is much more likely to be caught. Governments that are caught stealing elections may face a host of international costs, as Daniela Donno’s work has illustrated, and negative reports from international observers may increase the likelihood of post-election protest.

International election observation missions are not magic cures for all that ails any country’s election. They certainly do not guarantee a flawless process. But on the margins, when elections are actually problematic, they can draw international attention to flawed elections, validate complaints from citizens or opposition parties, make it more difficult to get away with many forms of election fraud, suggest areas for improvement in future elections  and, in general, increase pressure on would-be cheaters to reform. Yes, international observers have made mistakes in the past, and certainly will do so again in the future. But this possibility may be the reason why they are invited to interesting elections in the first place.

Susan D. Hyde is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at Yale University.

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