An electoral official counts ballots at a polling station in Yaounde, Cameroon, in October. (Nic Bothma/EPA-EFE/REX)

International election observers aim to detect and deter electoral fraud — and build public confidence in the election process. This makes credibility a valuable commodity and explains why international observers take pains to present themselves as objective and impartial actors.

The importance of observer credibility was on display in the wake of Cameroon’s Oct. 7 presidential election. After the election, state-owned Cameroon Radio Television (CRTV) broadcast interviews with individuals it described as observers from Transparency International. Despite the fact that many citizens had been too scared to vote, these “observers” declared the election had been “extremely good.”

But Transparency International, a nongovernmental organization that campaigns against corruption, swiftly pointed out it had not, in fact, sent an observation mission to Cameroon. The group concluded this was “a deliberate attempt to impersonate Transparency International,” apparently an attempt to exploit the corruption watchdog’s credibility to bolster the legitimacy of the election result.

“Everyone says…” — and sometimes they’re right

For election observers working in Africa, maintaining credibility has become increasingly difficult, and not just because of stories like this. According to leading scholars of African elections, many people believe that international observers “pull their punches” in the region, tolerating levels of fraud that would be called out elsewhere.

Here’s an example. In late 2017, international election observers cautiously endorsed Kenya’s contentious election, but the country’s Supreme Court then invalidated the presidential poll on the basis that it had not been sufficiently transparent or verifiable. This led experts to call for the reform of international election observation. Disillusioned Kenyan voters tweeted at John Kerry, former U.S. secretary of state and leader of the Carter Center observation mission, telling him not to bother coming back for the next election.

Do international observers apply lower standards in Africa?

Anecdotal evidence of observers accepting low-quality elections in Africa is easy to find. Yet systematic, empirical evidence has been absent — until now. My research shows that a double standard does exist: Western election observers are less likely to allege that significant fraud has occurred in an election in sub-Saharan Africa, compared with an election of the same quality held elsewhere.

Here’s how I did my research: I completed a statistical analysis of all national elections observed by Western election observers (that is, those from Western countries identified by Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development membership —  or Western international organizations) between 1991 and 2012. No election is perfect, so in my analysis of more than 600 elections in 138 countries, I focused on allegations of major electoral fraud rather than minor irregularities. I also looked specifically at allegations made by Western election observers (not, for example, opposition parties). Why? Because if anyone is applying a “double standard,” it is them.

My results show that a regional double standard exists, one that is surprisingly difficult to explain. The double standard persists even considering other factors already known to bias the behavior of international observers, such as the tendency to tolerate a flawed election if it was better than the last one. An added concern is that this willingness to overlook election irregularities continues in recent years — despite high-profile efforts to improve the quality of election observation in this period.

What could help improve election observation?

My analysis showed that one predictor of whether Western election observers will make an allegation of fraud in a given election is whether they made such an allegation at the last election. In short, precedent matters. Having failed to call out fraud in African elections in the past, Western observers seem less likely to do so in the future. This suggests that international observers could monitor their practices to avoid developing a habitual response to elections in a given country, accepting a lower standard simply because that was the case in earlier elections.

There are trade-offs to consider — international election observers may feel their approval can mitigate the short-term risk of election violence, even if it costs them in terms of credibility. Observers aren’t necessarily wrong to fear that critical statements might trigger violence. They may, however, be operating under the mistaken assumption that this risk is much greater in Africa than elsewhere. African elections are commonly portrayed as violent events, a tendency satirized by the Tanzanian cartoonist Gado. Yet on the whole, Africa is becoming more peaceful, and electoral violence — while real — is not a uniquely African problem.

Electoral violence clearly remains a fraught issue for observers of African elections. In the wake of Zimbabwe’s elections in July of this year, international observers were put in a difficult spot. There was a clear risk that electoral violence would escalate, but there were also doubts about the fairness of the election. International observers appeared to focus primarily on the risk of violence in the days immediately after the election, issuing a joint statement that called for calm. They may well have made the right call, but there was a price to be paid — in credibility — despite final observation reports from some observers that presented a more critical (but less widely reported) take on the election.

Credibility matters

In sacrificing credibility, international election observers play into the hands of those with an interest in holding less than free and fair elections. This seems to be the case in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where much-delayed elections are now scheduled for Dec. 23. Church leaders — who have played an important role in making elections happen — have emphasized that the presence of election observers will be “critical” for the success of the process. But the incumbent regime has countered that international observers are not impartial and lack credibility — suggesting that observers might be “persona non grata” at the polls.

A number of leading international observers are actively looking for ways to improve their work. As they do so, finding ways to protect their credibility will probably emerge as a top priority. This means ensuring international observers judge African elections against the same standards as elections held elsewhere, and ensuring the world sees they do so.

Susan Dodsworth is a research fellow in the International Development Department at the University of Birmingham. Her research focuses on democracy assistance and the politics of development aid.