Why new democracies still need foreign poll-watchers

Myanmar’s welcoming of foreign election observers for its Nov. 8 vote reflects the progress in setting international norms for free and fair voting.

AP Photo
Tin Aye, chairman of Myanmar Union Election Commission, speaks to journalists during a press briefing Sept 2. in Yangon, Myanmar. General elections are scheduled for Nov. 8.

The Lady, as Aung San Suu Kyi is called in Myanmar (Burma), made an unusual plea to the world last week. She asked it to carefully watch a Nov. 8 election that could be the freest in her country since the end of military rule in 2011.

“This is a chance that we cannot afford to let slip,” said the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who saw her victory in a 1990 election totally ignored by the ruling generals.

Foreign observation of elections in fledgling democracies has become the norm over the past quarter century even as democracy itself has eroded in many places, such as Russia. The complexities of ensuring electoral integrity – from accurate counting of ballots to providing equal access to the voting booth – are often overwhelming and easily corrupted in poorer nations, and sometimes wealthy ones, too.

In recent years, an international consensus has formed on the best ways to hold free and fair elections. This helps embolden local civic activists to track election procedures. And the rise of social media such as Twitter has helped in coordinating poll-watchers and in exposing voting fraud. A good example was seen in Turkey’s June 7 election, where some 50,000 citizen poll-watchers from groups like “Oy ve Otesi” (“Vote and Beyond”) helped ensure a relatively clean vote.

Still, foreign observers are needed in many countries where respect for individual rights remains low. Myanmar’s leaders have wisely agreed to allow groups from the European Union and the United States-based Carter Center to monitor the coming vote. The observers will be spread thin. More than 6,000 candidates from 92 parties are running for seats in parliament, with 30 million people expected to vote. The election will lead to a legislative vote next year for a new president. With the military already guaranteed a quarter of the seats in parliament, Myanmar needs as clean an election result as possible.

By their mere presence, foreign monitors are symbols of international norms about rule of law and individual rights. Any attempt by a regime to “guide” an election can backfire if foreign monitors decide to boycott it. In Azerbaijan, an observer mission planned by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was canceled last week because the OSCE believed President Ilham Aliyev might rig the vote. The boycott sends a strong signal on the country’s political instability.

Clean elections help build trust in government and prevent violent rebellion. An authoritarian figure who agrees to hold an election may have other ways to stay in power, such as locking up political opponents or, in Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s case, barring a popular figure from even running. (She married a foreigner, which prevents her from holding office.) And holding elections is hardly the only measure of real democracy. Media freedom and the right of assembly are also critical.

But with international norms for elections now largely set, fewer leaders can ignore demands for foreign groups to help ensure clean voting. Myanmar’s election could be another milestone in this steady progress.

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