The Elections Observation Missions of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (ODIHR) have become a regular feature of the electoral process on the European continent, and a model for others world-wide. The Missions, consisting of a core team and a handful of long term observers deploy a month ahead of the poll and are joined for election-day by several hundred short term observers and delegations from the Parliamentary Assemblies of the continent’s leading institutions. Whilst not perfect, the ODIHR model remains the best.
One feature that has often caused concern is the way that these missions report their findings. It has now been a long standing habit (it would be wrong to call it anything else), for the Election Observation Missions to issue two interim reports prior to election-day. They are often very technical in nature. On election day the Mission then joins up with the parliamentary delegations from the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, sometimes the NATO PA and until recently with the OSCE’s own Parliamentary Assembly, for the day-after Press Conference, usually held at 3.00 or 4.00 in the afternoon. This has traditionally been the most high profile part of the process. The atmosphere is usually highly charged, the journalists coming from overseas to cover the election would still be around, and everybody is waiting for the key phrase or phrases which would indicate that the election has been deemed free and/or fair, although in recent years the wording has become increasingly more ambiguous. The Parliamentarians then leave as quickly as they had arrived, and the ODIHR mission lingers on in-country for a while to observe the post-election environment. Rarely, as was the case in Armenia after the 2008 Presidential election and again this month, it issues a third interim report. The Mission then departs and two months after the Mission issues a final report.
Many feel that these habits are due for review. ODIHR, in an effort one suspects to insulate itself from the pressures of its political masters – the OSCE member states represented by the Permanent Council in Vienna, increasingly depicts its work and its reports as “technical”, checking performance against compliance. They may very well be, but there is no denying that the consequences of the reports are political, and the way that ODIHR is communicating its findings is, in that sense, not very efficient.
For a long time there has been concern that the day-after Press Conference is simply too close to the end of the polling. In some countries where there are complicated electoral systems the counting of votes has not even finished. In big countries most observation teams are still on their way back to the capital. In any case nobody has had a good night sleep or the time to reflect. The “habit” of doing the Press Conference so quickly, one suspects, developed to accommodate the parliamentarians who usually want to leave as soon as possible whilst still wanting to be in the limelight. There is nothing technical about the day after Press Conference. It is a very political event, where nobody cares to read the small print and is only interested in the buzz words, which the parliamentarians usually are happy to provide. It often distorts the work that the ODIHR Mission had done so meticulously. In Georgia in 2003 the-day after Press Conference was used as a trigger for the Rose Revolution. In Azerbaijan in 2005 it was used to legitimise the status quo. Its value however is now greatly diminished. In Armenia in 2013 the Press Conference was not only rudely interrupted by protestors, who ended up stealing all the limelight, but its conclusions were greeted with widespread derision by many Armenian political forces who simply dismissed it as irrelevant. The decision of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly not to participate in the joint press conference in Armenia – they held one on their own – should give ODIHR the perfect excuse to rethink the whole process of how to report its preliminary findings
ODIHR’s other habit, that of publishing its final report two months after an election, is very outdated. In times of instant communications and fast moving events two months is an eternity. By the time the reports come out things have usually moved along considerably. ODIHR’s defence is that these reports are meant to offer guidance for the future and not address the problems of the moment. But is this really what these reports are being used for.
Which brings us to the third problem.
Very often ODIHR election reports are being used as benchmarks against which to judge a country’s democratic performance. EU institutions and member states regularly refer to them in addressing shortcomings or progress of states that they are engaged in relationships with. Here the reports stop being technical tools – simply aimed at helping the country being observed to improve its electoral laws and practises. They become instead very sharp instruments that can help determine a nation’s future, wielded by politicians who often prefer to hide behind ODIHR’s reports rather than assume responsibility for calling a spade, a spade.
ODIHR, and its political masters in Vienna have a choice. Either the election monitoring process becomes a purely technical exercise: more high-brow and less high profile, or ODIHR habits must change to reflect the political consequences of election observation.
This commentary was prepared by the CEW Editorial Team.