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Geisler. 1993. Fair? What has fairness got to do with it? Vagaries of election observations and democratic standar. Journal of Modern African Studies 31 (4): 613-637.
International election observers don't necessarily even try to present an accurate observation; their concerns with diplomacy, averting civil war, and so on lead them to overlook myriad abuses. In fact, international election observers may do more harm than good: Not only do flawed elections allow bad leaders to stay in power despite the people's will, but the failure of the international observers to condemn the flawed elections grants the illegitimate leaders additional legitimacy and undermines the people's efforts at democratization.
Laundry list of concerns
- Most observers pay attention only to what happens on election day--despite frequent concerns among voters the elections were rigged well in advance (by manipulating registration rolls, candidate eligibility, and so on). Some observers even leave before ballot counting is complete.
- Various observation groups have not agreed as to what qualifies as a free and fair election. Moreover, since they limit their visits to brief stops at dozens of polling stations on election day, they lack the ability to actually observe much of what goges on.
- Because various groups do not coordinate, they issue conflicting reports, often ignoring one another. For example, IFES spent considerable time examining Ghana's electoral rolls and found many problems; the Commonwealth Observer Group completely ignored these findings and signed off the elections as mostly free and fair.
- Diplomatic and political concerns can trump concern with electoral quality. For example, the Commonwealth Observer Group publicly criticized Kenya's elections, but reversed itself one day later when the opposition papers intimated that they could not accept their results. Other observers acted similarly. They are more interested in averting civil conflict than in honestly assessing the conflict. One observer even said, "I think the emphasis which is being put on the fairness and freeness of the elections is a bit too heavy" (p 628). Observers are more content than nationals are with flawed elections that make a movement in the right direction.
- The international community puts economic and (lately) political conditionality on its aid--but it seems to pick and choose when to enforce these conditions. In particular, many donor nations are willing to overlook non-democratization if autocrats undertake good market reforms. Others specifically worry that democracy might lead to populism and bad economics.
- National observers seem to do a better job than international observers [this might be an exaggeration on my part], yet international observers have largely refused to work with them, fearing that the local observers would be seen as beholden to partisan interests. Yet it is the local observers who have the most abiding interest in democratization and clean elections, and they can be held accountable by the local press and public more than international observers can be.
"We all need to come to terms with the contradiction that democracy is about self-determination and that political and economic conditionalities are externally imposed" (637).