The controversy regarding foreign observers for the forth coming Bangladeshi election, particularly the latest spat between the Sheikh Hasina government and the United States, is unfortunate. The result, however, is quite clear. Observers for the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) will not be monitoring the election scheduled for December 30. The Bangladesh Election Commission, however, is trying to put the blame on ANFREL. Not only will ANFREL observers be absent but also the BEC has reportedly denied accreditation to a number of members of the Global Network of Domestic Election Monitors(GNDEM). Consequently, the number of election observers will be the smallest in the history of the country.
Press reports show that while the number of voters and the polling stations have increased substantially, with 81 million voters in 2008 to 104 million in 2018 and polling stations from 35,263 to 40,183, election monitors have decreased from about 160,000 to 66,000.Importantly, foreign observers are expected to be 146 as opposed to 593. One can attribute various factors to the decline, for example the absence of the usual largest contingent from the European Union (EU), but what the US allegation revealed is that even the small number is not being helped as much as they should be.
Having election observers, both national and foreign, are an important element in ensuring a credible and acceptable election. I must underscore the two qualities of election I am referring to: credible and acceptable. Experiences since the 1990s and studies of past decades bear this out. There is an agreement among scholars that an election alone is not democracy, but a fair, credible and participatory election is a cornerstone of democracy.
However, not all elections are the same, some could be only a show, some could be stage-managed. In the 1970s, autocrats tended to arrange sham elections and get away with them as a marker of democracy. Those days are gone, but not the days of autocrats masquerading as democrats. In the past decades, the integrity of an election has become an important element in considering the quality of democracy.
The credibility of elections has become an issue of great interest to academics and international bodies in recent decades. Voters turn out in large numbers when there is a possibility of a credible election. Alberto Simpser’s excellent study, ‘Why Government and Parties Manipulate Elections: Theory, Practice and Implications’ (Cambridge University Press, 2014) provides a detailed discussion on this topic. On the other hand, the absence of the possibility of a credible election discourages voters from participating in elections which leads to post-election movements and demonstrations.
‘Contentious Elections: From Ballots to Barricades’ (Routledge 2015), a volume edited by Pippa Norris, Richard W Frank and Ferran Martínez I Coma, examines several elections and concludes that, “contentious elections end in heated partisan debates, court challenges, street protests, and legitimacy challenges”. It shows that “in some cases, disputes have been settled peacefully through legal appeals and electoral reforms. In the worst cases, however, disputes have triggered bloodshed or government downfalls and military coups”.
The possibility of contentious elections and their adverse impacts shaped the idea of third-party monitoring and observations of elections. The idea first emerged in the Philippines in the 1986 presidential election. The fear that then incumbent President Ferdinand Marcos may steal the election created the civic organisation called the National Citizens Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL). Roughly half a million citizen volunteers joined NAMFREL’s monitoring effort.
NAMFREL’s success in compelling the Marcos regime to hold a free election created a global movement. Between 1986 and 2012, more than 200 election monitoring organisations emerged in 84 countries. GNDEM has 251 members in 89 countries. International organisations also joined the movement. In 2012, ‘The Declaration of Global Principles for Nonpartisan Election Observation and Monitoring by Citizen Organisations’ was adopted, which included the principles and code of conduct for the election observers.
Third-party monitoring becomes necessary, almost imperative, when there is a likelihood that electoral processes can become questionable and/or the credibility of the election can be compromised. The presence of election monitors tends to become necessary in the emerging democratic countries. Researchers have also noted that in countries where election commissions lack credibility or acceptability among the citizens and the international community, monitoring becomes a necessity.
Researchers also insist that election monitoring is important in countries which are considered ‘hybrid regimes’ because these regimes tend to manipulate election results; consequently, opponents raise questions about their validity.
Election monitoring by foreign observers began to increase after the 1990s. Earlier, there were only five instances involving foreign observers in national elections, whereas between 1990 and 2010, four in each of the five elections were monitored by foreign observers. The experiences of those observers and studies by researchers have concluded that the presence of foreign observers deters fraudulent behaviour in the fear that they will be exposed, encourage the vanquished to accept the results, and provide legitimacy to the election winners. Susan D Hyde and Nikolay Marinov, in their study titled ‘Information and Self-Enforcing Democracy: The Role of International Election Observation’, have explored these aspects in detail.
The experiences of election monitoring have also underscored that to ensure the integrity of an election and to hold an acceptable fair election, various aspects of elections require monitoring, and not only how voting was conducted on election day. Electoral Integrity Project, based at Harvard University and the University of Sydney, under the leadership of eminent political scientist Pippa Norris, has identified these aspects and continues to monitor elections all around the world. The work that emerged from this project also highlight the importance of monitors.
Although election observers have no legal power to act at the scene, their strength resides with their moral authority. At the practical level, their presence creates a mechanism of accountability for the election commission, adds a level of scrutiny of field-level officials, influences the behaviour of the supporters of all candidates and provides confidence among voters – all are important in holding a credible election.
Considering the importance of third-party observers, the absence of a large number of them in the forthcoming election in Bangladesh and the apparent unwillingness of the government to facilitate their presence has sent a message to the voters and the international community alike. Such steps have rapidly diminished the credibility of the election. Unless intended to, it was avoidable.
(The writer is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Illinois State University. His publications include Lived Islam and Islamism in Bangladesh and Bangladesh: A Political History since Independence)