“Developmental Observation,” a new yardstick for measuring democracy in election observation missions or a means of glossingover realities?

Karina Gould has been reading a paper proposing a new approach to election monitoring. She sees value in the arguments but warns about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

“A more sophisticated and perhaps fairer way of observing elections is also to take into account the direction of political developments,” notes a recent paper released by the Caspian Information Centre (CiC), a privately funded research group based in London dedicated to the study of the Caspian region, in a critique of the electoral observation regime currently in place.

The paper, titled “Oh Dear, ODIHR! Why the OSCE’s Election Monitors Don’t Always Get It Right”, takes aim at the contemporary framework and tools to assess democratisation, particularly with regard to Azerbaijan. The authors of the paper suggest that instead of focusing on the “gold standard” of elections – a standard most “established” democracies such as the United States and Great Britain would not meet – it might actually be more useful to implement what is referred to as “Developmental Observation”. This technique “assumes that what is important is the way things are moving, rather than how they appear in a snapshot.”

Essentially the Caspian Information Centre is appealing for a kind of observation that notes progress towards democracy and not just whether the elections under question meet a democratic “checklist.” “The reality,” it is argued, “is that within little more than a decade, Azerbaijan has made a start in laying the foundations of a functioning democracy against a background of dramatic and sometimes painful change.” The very fact that certain changes have been made, even if they appear to be minor from the outside, “[t]o ordinary voters at least, and particularly to members of Azerbaijan’s emerging middle class,” argues the CiC report, “such changes are likely to seem worthwhile and perhaps even “meaningful”.”

While at first glance this criticism of the OSCE/ODIHR electoral observation regime might seem fair, the CiC report does concede that the OSCE observation reports do emphasise the progress and positive steps made towards democratisation, they just happen to be in the weeds of detail as opposed to in the executive summary. The OSCE/ODIHR report in fact does take “developmental” observation into account – the fact of the matter is that it simply did not observe much democratic development to report on in the 2010 parliamentary elections. The OSCE “Final Report” for the 2010 Parliamentary Elections begins, “[while] the 7 November parliamentary elections in the Republic of Azerbaijan were characterized by a peaceful atmosphere and all opposition parties participated in the political process, the conduct of these elections overall was not sufficient to constitute meaningful progress in the democratic development of the country.”

In response to the OSCE’s assessment of the 2010 parliamentary elections, the CiC report states, “if the maintenance of order and the willingness of the Opposition parties to participate wholeheartedly in the democratic process do not constitute “meaningful progress”, it is difficult to know what would.” The above statement is proven fairly meaningless in light of the fact that the opposition parties are again in discussions as to whether they will boycott the October 2013 presidential elections, as they did in 2008, given the dismal electoral conditions of 2010, when as the Public Chamber, a pro-democracy coalition in Azerbaijan, reminds us, that not a single seat was won by an opposition party.

While it is true that there have been slight (token?) advances towards a thicker notion of democracy in Azerbaijan, for example the fact that “43 of the 172 candidates who had been denied registration and appealed were reinstated” or that “the share of female candidates increased from 10 to 13 per cent compared to the last parliamentary elections,” noted in the CiC paper, the reality is that Azerbaijan remains a highly centralised and authoritarian state, not one that many independent organisations would call “democratic.”

In fact, Freedom House, an NGO dedicated to promoting freedom around the world, consistently categorises Azerbaijan as “Not Free”. Azerbaijan was actually classified as receiving a downward trend in 2012 from Freedom House “due to widespread attacks on civil society, [...] restrictions on and violent dispersals of public protests; and unlawful evictions of citizens from their homes.”

To be fair to the CiC, they do not outwardly refer to Azerbaijan as a democracy, but the allusion is made that the current authorities are a reflection of the will of the Azerbaijani people. The paper criticises the OSCE verdict for not taking “into account the evident desire of the majority [of Azerbaijanis] to follow the course set by Heydar Aliyev, and continued by his successor [his son Ilham Aliyev], that has brought stability, greater economic freedom and rising living standards” (italics added).

The CiC piece goes on to suggest that “many Azeris may have concluded that ‘political vibrancy’ [a criteria the OSCE report deemed to be lacking in Azerbaijan] is something they are prepared to forgo.”

Finally, the CiC concludes that “[w]hatever flaws are identified by the OSCE/ODIHR and other election observers in the conduct of the election, it seems highly likely that the election will give Azerbaijani people the head of state that they want.” It is always difficult to assess public opinion in places where it is highly controlled, and this author would argue, a misleading endeavour.

It is possible, of course, to point to “advances” in democratisation, but most of these are complimented by equally repressive actions. For example, while there has been much more “internet freedom” in recent years, this trend has been paralleled by an increase in arbitrary arrests of political bloggers. Moreover, just last week upwards of 70 opposition activists and supporters were arrested in Baku for “unauthorised activities”, a.k.a. an anti-corruption protest. The Azerbaijani parliament is even entertaining a motion to stiffen penalties for those who participate in these “unauthorised activities.”

The CiC report seems to be most concerned that foreign governments and businesses might take these criticisms too seriously and thus not recognise the significant progress that Azerbaijan has made since the fall of the Soviet Union. This progress, however, seems to be centred much more around energy exploitation and economic reforms, rather than an honest attempt at political reform or human rights protection.

While it is true that the OSCE and its democratic assessment methods are by no means perfect, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. If democracy and democratisation are endeavours that OSCE member countries aspire to, then certain standards and benchmarks must be established on which to assess how democratic a country is. Certainly there is a case to be made for recognising progress and giving credit where credit is due, however, this should not deter from making valid criticisms of practices that defy democratic and human rights standards as accepted and promoted by the international community.

Report prepared for CEW by Karina Gould