European Commission Conference on Electoral Assistance and Observation Projects, Brussels 28 & 29 September 2004

1. Introduction

Over the past fourteen years I have worked for a number of employers but mainly for the EU, the UN and the OSCE. My experience in thirty different countries has covered most aspects of electoral assistance and election observation. This is an initial paper on the philosophy and practice of international electoral missions.

2. Summary

The international community's concentration on the electoral process rather than integrating it into assistance to the development of a broader perception of democracy has limited the benefits of such work. The western model of alternance in government and opposition as a consequence of election results may not always be appropriate in new and emerging democracies. Conditionality also remains a delicate issue. Support for domestic monitoring and for pro-democracy NGOs may inhibit individuals from entering "mainstream" politics. Practical problems remain for consultants working in the electoral field.

3. Background

3.1 A majority of Member States of the EU have a long continuous history of the development of democracy based on the electoral process. Most of the others have returned to free elections after intervals of varying lengths. Reliance on regular and reliable elections is accepted without question as part of the democratic framework. This is not the case in the countries in which we work. There the introduction of universal suffrage and the opportunity to cast a ballot is a new experience and one which is regarded not only as a matter of great significance but also as the means in itself of transforming lives. I am currently in the DR Congo and, to read the newspapers and to talk with the Congolese, the elections scheduled for next June are regarded as the end point of the transition to democracy and legitimacy. It is almost as if there is some mysterious agent in the electoral process itself that can work miracles, rather than it being one of the means to a greater end.

3.2 The recent history of new and emerging democracies is not as encouraging as one might wish. It is far from being a story of incremental improvement and of democratic stability. Despite the deployment of considerable resources the EC (and other agencies) has not succeeded in establishing a widespread "sense" of elections as part of a new democratic dispensation. In some cases there is apparent disillusionment with elections. The recent necessity of removing the minimum turnout required to legitimise the presidential election in Serbia is only one such example. In some other countries there has been a reversion to dictatorship or to an abuse of the electoral process. The present situation in the Darfur region of Sudan highlights the failure to embed a genuine democracy in that country. In other countries, such as Yemen, the weight of tradition and of suspicion has been too great a burden for a fledgling electoral process to carry.

3.3 It is not all gloom. There are countries that have managed to adhere more or less to a pluralist path. Amongst such countries Botswana continues on its quiet way; Bulgaria has established a dependable electoral process; and Cambodia seems to cope robustly with the many pressures that beset it. There are also instances where longstanding leaders have accepted defeat - Kaunda and Banda in Zambia and Malawi respectively, for instance - and where attempts by their successors to change the constitution to give them a chance of a third term have been stopped, ie Chiluba and Muluzi in the same two countries. But these are rare examples. The general picture is of a worryingly low general level of democratic standards, with the EC continuing to plough millions of euros into electoral assistance and into election observation for fear of what would happen if it did not do so.

4. Integration

4.1 The concentration on elections as a discrete entity that can be placed neatly into a time and organisational frame is fundamentally flawed. Legitimate elections are the product of a democratic society, rather than the test of democracy. Even with "traditional" electoral assistance and election observations projects there are problems. All governments seek to influence the electoral process in order to stay in office, but the established democracies, to one extent or another, have sought to constrain the manipulation of the process, not least by legislation on campaign finances and/or on control of the electronic media at election time. This is very rarely the case in the new democracies and, whereas polling day itself may be satisfactory, the process leading up to it is usually flawed. The Yeltsin campaign's abuse of the media during the 1996 Russian elections was so blatant that the EC endeavoured to suppress the media monitoring reports. Electoral assistance teams can end up wondering whether their intensive work with electoral commissions on the machinery of the process is worthwhile, and Chief Observers find themselves resorting to statements with contrived wordings such as "an accurate representation of the voters' wishes on the day," or "this election represents a further important step towards full democracy."

4.2 Similarly the value of the reporting back forms beloved of LTO co-ordinators, and the painstaking co-ordination and tabulating of them, are far less important than the "feel" of an election that enables experienced LTOs to assess the validity of an election. "Irregularities" are objective facts that make good input to reports but they do not necessarily indicate manipulation. Even intimidation, though entirely unacceptable, does not necessarily influence voters. Electors in Cambodia were quite affronted at the suggestion that intimidation might affect their votes, and in Indonesia the largest domestic monitoring body catalogued many thousands of irregularities in the polling process but then added that, in its judgement, none of them affected the result. This suggests that the recent moves towards a concentration on long term observation should be encouraged. I doubt whether short-term observation is worth the considerable sums expended on it.

4.3 If good electoral practice can be subverted with impunity by those in office, it calls into question the value of even the traditional EC projects. A question I am increasingly asked is, "what is the effect of a critical report on an election?" The answer appears to be "very little." With the full support of the Delegation, and of Member States, I reported carefully but critically on the shortcomings of the 2001 elections in Zambia. Nothing has happened. As far as I know, the courts have never even come to a verdict on the petition from a defeated presidential candidate. And the situation in Zimbabwe is a travesty of an electoral process, as is that in Chechnya. I accept that the presence of EC teams can have an inhibiting effect but it seems that those in power are beginning to realise that the dog has no teeth and cannot bite. The inhibiting effect appears to be wearing off, in which case the question of effectiveness needs to be addressed.

4.4 When one adds to these practical problems a consideration of the place of elections within the broader democratic process, the situation becomes even more complex. Take the situation in Bangladesh. Outwardly it is a functioning democracy. Elections take place regularly. There is a neutral interim government during the election period. Power changes hands and, wonder of wonders, the two main parties are both led by women. The actual situation is somewhat different. Election violence and intimidation is rife. The government dominates the electoral commission. The two main "parties" are not, strictly speaking, political parties but rather family dynasties whose pride cannot accommodate the idea of losing office. The losers therefore boycott parliament and call general strikes. An electoral assistance mission at or around election time is somewhat tangential to the profound problems of democracy in Bangladesh, but a longer term project carefully targeted at the underlying issues does not comfortably fit into the EC's rules, as I discovered when trying to frame such a proposal.

4.5 In Europe, with some exceptions, we tend to have political parties based on some formulation of political philosophy, however tenuous, and this gives a frame of reference to the voter as to how the party he or she votes for will view issues over the period of its mandate. It also provides a basis for a healthy opposition. This does not pertain in the new democracies. In Africa many parties are tribally or ethnically based and in the near and middle east there are different varieties of Islamicist parties. In many instances, including in former Soviet Union republics, parties are based on the personality of the leader. None of these provide a sound basis for political campaigning or for a consistent approach to government. They certainly inhibit the possibility of a constructive opposition. And yet a "Government and Opposition" outcome of elections is what we all still hope for, but rarely get.

4.6 An additional problem is that of the victorious liberation movement unable to transform itself into a political party. In some cases, such as Poland and possibly Lithuania, the liberation movement has seen its base severely eroded, and in Mozambique the two liberation movements have come to an electoral modus vivendi, but in South Africa the ANC, despite recognising the problem, has not been able to evolve into, or even to catalyse, a philosophically based party, as opposed to a coalition of groups united to defeat apartheid. The result is a huge parliamentary majority - sufficient to change the constitution unilaterally should it so wish. Alternance seems far off.

4.7 Political party development is crucial to an evolving democracy and yet the EC has thus far eschewed involvement in this field. EC electoral missions are consequently somewhat in the position of ensuring that the vehicle's engine, gearbox and steering all work efficiently but the driver is heading off into uncharted and potentially risky territory.

4.8 All constitutions are a compromise, as are electoral systems to one extent or another, and yet little attention is paid to the interlinking of the two with the electoral process. To support the effective administration of an election in which the chosen electoral system is flawed, particularly in relation to constitutional provisions, seems somewhat quixotic. For instance, an elected executive president coupled with a closed list system for the legislative elections, plus a high threshold, is a recipe for future problems, however perfect the electoral administration. If constitutional compromises are valid in relation to enforced power sharing in extreme circumstances - in Lebanon, Fiji and Northern Ireland, for instance - there can presumably be no objection in principle to looking at such possibilities elsewhere if they are more in tune with social systems and tradition.

4.9 Looking at assistance to fledgling democracies on a holistic basis is not easy and it raises the delicate issues of complementarity with other organisations, and, inevitably, conditionality. There is already a whiff of conditionality in the EC's reference document on election projects, in that it envisages electoral processes so inherently flawed that it would not be legitimate to endow them with the presence of an observer mission - though an electoral assistance mission would not necessarily be ruled out. It is a fairly short step to stating that the broader process is prima facie incapable of enhancing democracy and that therefore the electoral component should not be supported. In Malawi in 1993-94 conditionality was enforced and a moratorium on aid was imposed in order to lever, first, a referendum on multiparty politics and, second, free elections.

4.10 Unless the electoral process is considered as part of a broader process it is difficult to judge how the considerable expense involved in supporting it can produce gains that can be entrenched for the future. All too often EC projects buy time to enable other initiatives to be put in place but that time is not used and the initiatives do not arrive. A colleague recently wrote to me from Malawi commenting on the current situation there: "It doesn't appear to have progressed since you were here in 1994." If so, the funds expended ten years ago have certainly not produced their full intended dividend.

5. Follow up

5.1 It would not be enough to put these concerns into a box marked "follow up" and to feel that they can thus be dealt with. The danger is that "follow up" becomes another compartment. In any case, in a number of my missions I have had "follow up" in my terms of reference but it has never happened. I have written after polling day and asked for early dates to start "follow up" but without ever receiving any positive response. I had approximately four months of my 2001 Zambia contract remaining after polling day. Shortly before polling I was asked to provide a paper on follow up for the broadly based election co-ordinating group. I did so, and it was well received. There was, however, no interest after polling day, despite my efforts to encourage it.

5.2 I had one mission - to Indonesia - where I was there totally on "follow up". I did a wide variety of tasks but few could be described as follow up. The key international diplomats on the spot clearly believed that it was their responsibility. I also recall reporting back to the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office after the Palestine elections of January 1996 and stressing the need for early follow up. There are, I said, eighty four elected representatives who have never sat in any elected assembly before. "That's OK," responded my contact, "we're sending a clerk from the House of Commons."

6. Domestic monitoring groups and other NGOs

6.1 Domestic monitoring groups have a very honourable history. It was, for instance, NAMFREL which got rid of Marcos in the Philippines. Its reputation for honesty and reliability was such that the people believed its quick count figures rather than the official results. But there is a medium and long term problem with such groups. Paradoxically, the more effective and high profile they are the more that they are likely to attract able and politically aware individuals who, arguably, are vitally needed in "mainstream" politics. The best pro-democracy NGOs have the same effect. In new democracies there tends to be a section of civil society, sometimes including within the church communities, that is articulate, efficient and, in the broad sense, political. Their sense of duty leads them to get involved in monitoring groups or pro-democracy NGOs so that they are furthering democracy - but without enduring the stresses and strains of involvement in political parties, which desperately need such people. Kalila Chellah-Kunda of FODEP, in Zambia, and Feroz Hassan of FEMA, in Bangladesh, are as impressive personalities as one could expect to find in such difficult circumstances. Significantly, Feroz has recently begun to move into politics in Bangladesh.

6.2 In recent years the "Trust Fund" approach to providing a source of funding for NGOs to bid for in support of small scale electoral projects, has, in my experience, been very successful. NGOs have proved to be very innovative and their schemes have been good value for money. In Zambia we began with €230,000 and Member States contributed a further €500,000 to fund good projects that could not be included in the original selection. Again, there is the possibility that encouraging this approach may entice some of the individuals responsible for these bright ideas away from the path of party politics. Perhaps there should at least be increased emphasis on talent spotting of "young leaders" for training and encouragement.

7. Practical issues

7.1 From the point of view of the individual consultant there are a number of organisational issues that cause frustration and which affect consultants - and, sometimes, projects - detrimentally.

7.2 The method of awarding contracts and selecting consultants is unsatisfactory. If the EC is unable to maintain a sufficiently strong permanent team to manage all its projects then the system of forming consortia is probably the best available means of running them. I would have thought, however, that it would be possible to have a basic team in Brussels of a size sufficient to keep it in continuous employment with EC projects with only the "surplus" put out to tender.

7.3 The competition for contracts forces companies to find ways and means of reducing costs some of which impinge on the working conditions of those who form the project teams. Most such companies are commercial concerns and, in my experience, are usually far from altruistic in their treatment of consultants. Driving fee levels down may be seen as fair game but if it means hiring consultants who will work for low fees then the EC is unlikely to get difficult jobs done well. On one mission I could not understand why the consultant acting as advisor to the electoral commission was so amateur, so much so that he was eventually used by the commission virtually as a messenger. I was told that other, better, consultants had turned down the job because the fee offered was so low, and also that the man in question was well known and had had very unfavourable reports on other projects. On another project, two young and very effective consultants, accepted very low offers, reckoning that could live very frugally on the per diem and thus manage. (I am aware that this is not in the spirit of "per diems" but it is a fact of life, and, in the UK at least, one has to justify the actual amount of ones "expenses" for tax relief). They then discovered that the managing agents were not providing a per diem but were proding a house in which they expected all the team to live! For the EC to look, in principle, towards taking the lowest tender may well fail to produce a satisfactory project. 

7.4 The financial squeeze extends to details. For instance, in Zambia in 2001 there was provision in my contract for two air tickets to and from the UK during the four months of the contract. For political reasons the government kept on postponing the election date and, rather than risk being out of country when the election was called, I felt that, on professional grounds, I could not make use of the second ticket. The project extended to seven months, with polling day between Christmas and New Year. The managing agents refused to allow the second ticket to be used instead for my wife to come to Lusaka to spend Christmas with me, on the grounds that the Commission would not reimburse a journey in the reverse direction! On the same project it was, as usual, in my contract to report to the Commission in Brussels. I was refused the day's fee for doing so.

7.5 The issue of flights in general is annoying. The UN has a rule that flights requiring a journey longer than a fixed number of hours can be in Business Class. Not so for EC consultants, even though we are often expected - rightly - to spring into full action immediately on arrival after a difficult overnight flight in Economy Class and hours spent in airport lounges that are far being convivial - when they even exist. It becomes more annoying when, as on an assessment mission to Bangladesh, the EC officials travelled Business and the two consultants Economy, even though we were treated equally in every other respect. At least the officials were embarrassed by the separation from their colleagues in airport lounges and on the flights!

7.6 It would not affect the ability of potential managing agents to compete on the main body of the project if there were fixed aspects laid down by the EC for each tenderer to include, including the EC per diem in the work station city, and similar rules for consultants as for fonctionnaires in respect of flights.

7.7 Some of the problems arise from main agents sub-contracting the personnel management, thus tending to increase the commission levels needed and distancing the individual consultant from the agent who signed the framework agreement with the EC. This, as with a recent TACIS project, makes it difficult for the individual consultant to negotiate when difficulties occur. 

7.8 One can well understand the need for the EC to impose clear rules for budgetary control, and one is aware of the political sniping that the Commission is subject to in regard to its budgets, but electoral projects which, by their nature, are carried out in delicate political circumstances, are not conducive to the detailed and strict constraints currently imposed. The local exigencies often require a rapid response which, with the best will in the world, even the most sympathetic officials many kilometres away in Brussels cannot easily accommodate. It would assist these projects immensely if there was a small amount of "unallocated" money in each budget available to be spent at the team leader's discretion - and, of course, clearly accounted for.

7.9 The system of the "declarations of exclusivity and of availability" bears unnecessarily heavily on consultants. One can well understand that it is difficult for managing agents tendering, and for the EC when considering bids, to have the same consultants turning up on a number of bids for the same contract. However, the consultant is faced with an impossible decision. A would-be managing agent telephones, or sends an e-mail, in respect of an attractive project. The company in question may not be well known to the consultant, or may not have a particularly good record, but a different company may not be bidding for the contract in question, or may not be inviting the particular consultant; the consultant therefore accepts the invitation - they are always at the last minute - signs the declarations and then, shortly afterwards, receives an invitation for the same project from a preferred company. I had an occasion recently in which I was invited for an attractive post, signed the declarations, and was then not put forward - and not told! The declarations of exclusivity and of availability should be confined to the specific project, allowing the consultant to have his or her name included in bids for other projects at the same time. 

7.10 Given that many prospective team leaders are aware of most people on the electoral project "circuit", it would be useful if they could be consulted on the names of members of their prospective teams. In any consideration of good management practice it would be regarded as odd for a team charged with implementing a project with a budget often running into millions of euros, in difficult political circumstances, in a foreign country, only to meet for the first time on arrival in that country. Time constraints and the method of tendering militate against such consultation but it should be attempted, even if only partially.

7.11 Following on from para 7.10, there are a few individuals well known on the "circuit" who, despite an awareness of their lack of competence or lack of application in demanding circumstances, still turn up on teams - and cause problems. I had a lawyer on a project in Africa who monopolised the fax machine to send copies of a colleague's work to the ICJ in Geneva, representing the work as his own. I also discovered that he invented and spread rumours about colleagues. I recommended in my report that he be not engaged for future missions. I later heard that he had had to be repatriated from another project in Africa. He is still being employed. It is a delicate area, and individuals, of course, have the right to query such recommendations, but when they are known it is unfair to lumber other team leaders. I had a deputy team leader on another complex project of whom it was apparent after a matter of days that he was unable to cope with his administrative and financial duties. It took six difficult weeks for action to be taken. I suspect that much of his CV was invented. It would be difficult to believe, in the light of my experience, that he had done some of the jobs listed on it. On another mission I had a desk alongside a colleague who had responsibility for campaign finance issues, which were a serious issue in the country in question. Everyone else in the open plan office was working hard under considerable pressure and were aware that this colleague did no work, made no enquiries, and produced no material on his area of responsibility. Another consultant, employed on a multi-million euro project, in a very sensitive area, was responsible for the preparation of the briefing book for the observers. He proved incapable of doing this and no such book was ever produced. The printed empty ring binder covers came in useful, however. A final example relates to a woman also well known on the "circuit". When in 2002 it was known that she had been put in charge of logistics for a potentially difficult electoral project, a number of colleagues, and myself, declined to be part of the same project. Electoral projects can be extremely stressful and those in charge can do without additional burdens from within their teams.

8. Conclusion

These comments are perforce from the perspective of an individual consultant but it is on "freelancers" such as myself that electoral missions eventually depend. From my wide experience the vast majority of those involved in this work are highly committed and extremely professional. It would be profitable to enable their comments to be taken into account.

September 2004