When 1 million Palestinians voted for a successor to Yasser Arafat, 800 international observers poured into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to monitor the polling. Former president Jimmy Carter and former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt led one team. A former French prime minister led another, and there were two U.S. congressional delegations.
When 8 million Afghans voted in October, at least 122 international observers from across Europe and Asia monitored the presidential election -- and declared it an "orderly and transparent process."
But in Iraq, where 14 million people are eligible to vote, the elections next week may have only one outsider from the hastily organized International Mission for Iraqi Elections to evaluate the balloting. If reluctant governments change their minds at the last minute about letting their officials go to Iraq, a handful of others may show up. But, even then, none is likely to tour polling stations or to be publicly identified, mission and U.S. officials said.
The violence in Iraq means that its elections will be the first among dozens of transitional elections over the past two decades -- since democracy began to sweep through eastern Europe, the old Soviet Union, Latin America and Africa -- that will not have an international observer force touring polling stations to assess the vote's credibility, election experts say.
There will be no neutral outside group deployed across Iraq to determine whether voters are impeded, ballot boxes are stuffed, any party tries to interfere with the process or votes are counted fairly. No congressional delegation will monitor the polls, and the European Union announced last week that it had declined an invitation from Iraq to send observers. The Carter Center, which has monitored more than 50 elections overseas, also decided not to send observers.
"That means you don't have an independent voice that can really report credibly on the quality of the election -- in a context where there are already extremely difficult circumstances and doubts about the process," said David Carroll of the Carter Center, who was an observer in the Palestinian elections. Among those doubts are whether the insurgents will succeed in keeping people away from polling places with threats of violence and whether the minority Sunnis will participate in sufficient numbers for the balloting to be called successful.
Iraq's escalating violence has forced the International Mission for Iraqi Elections to headquarter its operation outside Iraq -- in neighboring Jordan -- a fact the group is not keen to publicize because of fears it could be targeted there, too. And even then, fewer than two dozen election experts from Albania, Australia, Bangladesh, Britain, Canada, Ghana, Hungary, Indonesia, Mexico, Panama and Yemen will participate. Their limited mission will be to sift through data provided by Iraq to evaluate the elections, according to mission and U.S. officials.
"I applaud the [mission's] effort, but if they're not on site, they will not be credible in judging either the participation in or the results of Iraq's election," said Frederick D. Barton, a monitor or election trainer in Haiti, Poland and Ethiopia in the 1990s and now co-director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Iraq does have about 6,000 of its own first-time monitors culled from 150 organizations, but that figure is low -- one for every 2,300 registered voters. The Palestinians had 21,000 observers -- about one for every 50 voters. And Afghanistan had 5,300 observers, 22,000 party agents and 52,000 candidate agents.
The International Mission for Iraqi Elections was pulled together just last month to provide a stamp of international legitimacy. "The idea was that the elections would go ahead but there would be so much cynicism and doubt in the outside world that unless there was a credible and objective organization involved to evaluate it and provide expert opinion, even a relatively good election could be put in doubt," said Les Campbell, an expert on the Middle East who is working on Iraq's elections for the National Democratic Institute.
Now, with the international mission largely on the outskirts of the elections, the balloting is already facing criticism. "Any attempt to present the elections as valid is an attempt to fool the world," Giulietto Chiesa, an Italian member of the European Parliament, told reporters after the EU decision not to send representatives to Iraq.
The international mission, chaired by Elections Canada chief Jean-Pierre Kingsley, says it can still provide an overview from outside by reviewing data on 10 issues provided by Iraq's election commission. "There's no doubt that an international presence does something," Kingsley said in an interview.
"But our experts can look at the laws and tell us what is good or needs to be improved. We'll weigh the voter registration and how it was done -- and the system to handle complaints. We'll look at the process of listing parties and access to the media and voter education," he said. "We'll have a good idea of how the elections went."
But mission and U.S. officials describe the mission's work with words such as "audit" and "assess" rather than "monitor" or "observe."
Like most of the nations whose elections chiefs or officials are part of the new international mission, Canada has barred Canadians from going into Iraq -- at least for now. Countries with representatives on the mission team -- which is also supposed to "assess" the constitutional referendum in the fall and the elections in December for a permanent government -- are reviewing the dangers daily to see whether other experts can be dispatched before the Jan. 30 vote, mission and U.S. officials say.
In the absence of outside observers, election experts are concerned that voter turnout may be used as a barometer of the elections' credibility. "I hope we don't resort to saying that in the U.S. we only get 15 percent in local elections, 35 percent in gubernatorial elections and 55 percent in presidential elections, and therefore even a low vote is credible," Barton said. "This is not an honest standard in a country that finally gets a chance to vote on its future."