BUDAPEST, HUNGARY — How do you define a free and fair election?
* In Bosnia last September, indicted war criminals roamed free, intimidating potential voters at will. Somehow, 104 percent of the voters went to the polls.
* In Croatia last month, not only did incumbent President Franjo Tudjman have the media in a choke hold, he also allowed noncitizen Bosnian Croats to vote. And he provided security to his top two challengers only after both had been assaulted.
* In Albania, elections went ahead June 29 - along with street battles raging earlier that week in parts of the south.
Election monitors for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), under mounting pressure from Western governments, judged the Bosnian and Albanian elections "reasonably free and fair," the Croatian vote "free but not fair."
All of which disappoints Horacio Boneo.
"There's been a gradual sliding of integrity in election monitoring," says Mr. Boneo, former director of the United Nations Elections Assistance Division. "The democratic fervor after the fall of the Berlin Wall has fallen back to Realpolitik. It's gone back to normal."
For nearly a decade, internationally observed elections have been viewed as a crucial first step toward democracy, particularly in countries with little or no democratic tradition. Foreign monitors often deter fraud, boost public confidence in the election process, and bring much-needed legitimacy to the victors.
But the burgeoning number of internal conflicts that have erupted around the world is overwhelming organizations like the United Nations, OSCE, and European Union (EU). These hot spots have proved troublesome to stamp out. The benefits of intervention are dubious - underscored by the televised debacle involving American troops in Somalia. These organizations know their donors are losing their appetite for committing troops and vast sums of cash to faraway lands.
An increasingly popular alternative has been election monitoring. It provides the international community with a convenient, short-term "exit strategy," leaving the stickier issues, like restoring law and order and building institutions to locals.
But even this strategy can backfire, analysts say. "It's a serious mistake to view elections as a panacea," says Larry Garber, a leading expert on election monitoring and an official of the United States Agency for International Development. "We need to have continued engagement, with our eye on the ultimate goal - democratic sustainability - and to focus on [preventing] those things that might rekindle the conflict."
Still, in places like Cambodia, Haiti, and now Bosnia and Albania, military intervention and troop withdrawal have been tied to holding elections.
Fudging on free and fair
To accomplish this, a certain fudging takes place in what can objectively be considered "reasonably free and fair." This lowering of standards is often forgiven, critics say, because these countries need a benchmark, a starting point from which they can show progress, improve relations with the West, and gain financial assistance. So in the interest of Realpolitik, even seriously flawed elections routinely receive a thumbs up.
For example, the first-ever Palestinian national elections in January 1996 were marred by press censorship and the arbitrary arrests of opponents of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Yet denouncing the elections might have undermined Mr. Arafat's peacemaking efforts with Israel.
Likewise, exceedingly harsh criticism of the Bosnian, Croatian, and Albanian elections would only be counterproductive, one EU official says.
"Is it more important for them to have perfect elections or for them to elect someone with whom we can talk about macro-economic assistance and getting their country back on its feet?" asks Lousewies van der Laan, spokeswoman for EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner Hans van den Broek. "We realize we cannot expect them to reach our standards overnight, so we're willing to accept a few problems, to give them some time."
Election monitoring used to be the domain of private, nongovernmental organizations. Any foreign intervention would have been seen as violating the notion of national sovereignty.
Nicaragua broke the mold in 1990.
The ruling Sandinistas hoped to allay public distrust and avoid a repeat of the opposition's 1984 election boycott. Confident they would win, the Sandinistas invited the UN and Organization of American States (OAS) to organize and supervise a free election. Assisted by a group of Western Hemisphere leaders led by Jimmy Carter, 2,500 UN and OAS monitors assured Nicaraguans their vote would be secret. They responded gratefully - ousting the stunned Sandinistas from power.
The role of monitors took on an added dimension for the May 1993 elections in Cambodia. Notorious for its killing fields, in which some 1 million died from 1976 to 1979, the country had not held elections in nearly two decades. The UN poured $2 billion into a peacekeeping effort that included voter education, registration, and security.
But the 20,000 UN troops did not disarm the Khmer Rouge, which terrorized the electorate. Nor did the UN have the full support of the Cambodian government. Prime Minister Hun Sen disputed his party's narrow defeat, but settled for a split of power with the royalist opposition. Soon after, UN troops began to withdraw.
Now Hun Sen's loyalists have taken up arms to regain control of the country.
All sides must buy into the peace
For future intervention to be successful, says Jennifer McCoy, a senior associate with the Atlanta-based Carter Center, all sides must buy into the peace.
"Holding elections in very insecure conditions or where it's assumed that elections by themselves will resolve conflict is dangerous," says Ms. McCoy, also a political science professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta. "We're learning that you need to ensure that the various factions are disarmed and the security questions dealt with first."
Some analysts worry that a similar future awaits Bosnia.
Critics say last year's elections were rammed through to satisfy the domestic agenda of Bill Clinton. The president, in the midst of a reelection campaign, was under fire to stick to the Dayton peace accord, which called for national elections within nine months and American soldiers brought home within a year.
Meanwhile, on the ground in Bosnia, there was strong sentiment among foreign monitors to postpone the election until conditions improved. War criminals were on the loose, the opposition was denied access to the media, candidates were threatened, and voter-registration lists had not be verified.
Nevertheless, the OSCE pressed ahead. This decision disillusioned not only the monitors, but also Bosnians, according to a former high-ranking OSCE official in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. "It was so obvious we would validate the elections no matter what," the ex-OSCE official says. "It shouldn't have been driven by what was best for Bill Clinton, but what was best for the Bosnian people."
But according to Sam Brown, the US representative to the OSCE, the elections were a necessity. With a first election under its belt, the country has something to build on. In preparations for local elections, scheduled for Sept. 13, registration is running more smoothly, the opposition is expected to get some media air time, and NATO has moved to capture suspected war criminals.
"Last year wasn't a perfect election, not by a long shot, but without it, the joint institutions that are now moving painfully forward would not have moved forward at all," Mr. Brown says from his Vienna office. "It established a government with quasi-legitimacy, people to negotiate with."
Indeed, it's the follow-through that counts. That means classic carrot-and-stick diplomacy. If the country in transition does not build on the election and bolster democratic institutions, it may find itself denied access to foreign aid, loans, and investment.
In Croatia, for example, a flawed election brought a quick rap on the knuckles: Within days, the US had blocked a $30 million loan from the World Bank. "If the leadership of this country wants to move ahead, to be a part of Europe, then it must make some political adjustments," says former US Sen. Paul Simon, special coordinator of the OSCE monitoring mission. "These are changes we can't force upon them. They must do it themselves."
Mr. Simon's appearance also highlighted a trend. The OSCE - following the example set by former US President Carter - intends to add greater political weight to its election monitoring by bringing in figures of international stature to lead its teams. The OSCE mission in Albania was led Franz Vranitsky, the former Austrian premier.
More important than high-profile foreign observers, however, is the need to cultivate and nurture local observers. Agencies like the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Washington focus their efforts on training local observers. In Albania, 1,400 domestic monitors fanned out across the country, placing how-to guides for voters at polling stations and observing electoral commissioners.
The international community, analysts say, should serve as neutral observers, while domestic monitors who know the language and culture evolve into a democratic institution in their own right.
"They can be an example of an ordinary citizen participating in this new process, holding these appointed officials accountable," says NDI's Jonas Rolett. "In some places, the idea is revolutionary."