Rocking the Vote: Challenges in Election Monitoring

Counting votes in the 2009 presidential elections in Herat, Afghanistan.
(BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)
http://blogs.sun-sentinel.com/click/2009/08/off-the-wires-afghanistans-election-day.html

Election monitoring is commonplace in the world of democracy promotion today. The men and women who observe elections – hailing from NGOs such as the National Democratic Institute (NDI) as well as international organizations like the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) – aim to prevent election manipulation, fraud, and corruption. Short-term election observers arrive in the country under observation a few days before the election is set to begin. They meet with party members, police, election officials, and members of the general population to try to get a sense of what policies are at stake in the coming election and who the front-runners appear to be. On the day of the election, observers visit polling stations to make sure that the legitimacy of the election is not jeopardized in any way by government intimidation, closed polling centers, corrupt vote counters, and suspiciously low (or high) voter turnout. The team of election observers will report any unusual findings. If all is well, the election observers will watch the tallying of the votes, concluding that the citizens freely and fairly elected the winner.

A new report discussed at the Seventh Annual New York University Center for Experimental Social Sciences Conference on Experimental Political Science brings to light some interesting findings on the effectiveness of election monitoring. The authors set out to investigate whether or not election observation actually reduces various types of electoral manipulation. Their case study is the 2012 presidential election in Ghana. Specifically the authors examine “overvoting,” a phenomenon that occurs when more votes are cast in an election than there are registered voters. Secondly, the authors assessed “unnaturally high levels of turnout.” It is well known that even in nations under compulsory voting laws, such as Australia, voting rates rarely venture into the 90 per cent range.

Actors seeking to influence election results impose many complicated strategies for doing so. The authors list a number of methods by which voters can be turned away from the polls. Manipulators can do this by voter intimidation via government forces like the police or military. Political parties can have their own, separate, security forces that scare civilians away from the polls. Even worse, these strongmen can coerce civilians to vote for a candidate they do not support. A vote for the opposition candidate would put the lives and property of the voter’s family in danger. Fearing retribution, the average voter will not risk the lives of his loved ones for the sake of democracy.

The Kenyan presidential elections in December 2007 triggered a wave of violence.
The Kenyan presidential elections in December 2007 triggered a wave of violence.

In the opposite scenario, electoral manipulators seek to add “ghost voters” to the election, running up the vote count for a selected candidate. Ballot stuffing is a common tactic. Sometimes the final results are simply changed to suit a politician’s demands. High voter turnouts increase the victor’s claim to legitimate power, although most citizens recognize it as a sham. Thus, with this two-sided approach, the manipulation of elections can do a great deal of damage to democracy and liberty within a nation.

The results of the case study, the authors write, were positive, though they exposed some new problems that the election monitoring community must address. In sum, while election monitors did reduce electoral manipulation at the polling place at which they were stationed, those seeking to manipulate the election simply moved to unobserved polling places: displaced but not disrupted. The authors explain:

We find that observers reduce fraud at the stations where they are deployed by about 60 percent. We also find evidence that observers displace fraud to nearby but unobserved polling stations. This displacement is concentrated in the historical strongholds of Ghana’s two major political parties. This suggests that parties are better able to relocate fraud in single-party dominant areas where the dominant party enjoys social penetration and where political competition is low. (Asunka et al., pg.3)

Moving forward, placing election monitors at polling stations at which fraud is more likely to occur (rather than randomly selected polling stations) would be a more effective way to prevent fraud. Working from strategic districts around a nation, election monitors can better combat the intimidation and ballot-stuffing that is all too common in today’s emerging democracies.

Phoenix Rising in the Euromaidan?

360 degrees of a protest at the Euromaidan.

From various recent photos, it could be presumed that Ukraine is consuming itself into a fiery maelstrom. However, the seeds for these protests lie in the recent past, starting with the Orange Revolution. In 2004, Viktor Yanukovich (show in red for clarity) was running against Viktor Yushchenko (shown in orange) for the presidency of Ukraine. Bizarrely, even before polls had started, Yushchenko had been poisoned with dioxin, leaving him pockmarked and scarred. This was very suspect considering that Yanukovich had a history of criminal activity through assault, battery, and robbery. The exit polls gave Yushchenko a margin of victory of 11% while the official results declared Yanukovich the victor by 3%, sparking massive protests in the street. After many months, threats of secession from the pro-Russia East of the country, and a re-run of the polls, Yushchenko won by 8 points and finally took office as the president of Ukraine. The political intrigue did not end with the Orange Revolution. Viktor Yanukovich was elected president in 2010, beating the populist opposition figure Yulia Tymoshenko, one of the leaders of the Orange Revolution, which the international community observed as free and fair. Shortly thereafter, Tymoshenko was arrested and convicted to seven years in prison and fined $190 million for supposedly signing a disadvantageous contract with Russia for natural gas when she was prime minister. There were more protests, though smaller in nature and mostly only Tymoshenko supporters.

The effects of the dioxin poisoning on Viktor Yushchenko.

Within this politically charged atmosphere, there was always a geopolitical divide between pro-Europe factions and pro-Russia factions. With the return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency in Russia, there has been a revival in the idea of a Eurasian Union. Having already lowered tariffs and customs duties, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus aim to create an economic union similar to the European Union. Key to this Eurasian Union is Ukraine, as it is one of the biggest markets from the former Soviet Union. Russia is the destination for a quarter of Ukrainian exports. One of the main worries for Ukrainians is that a Eurasian Union will lead to a political union dominated by the Russia, as Putin has been seeking closer ties with the former states of the Soviet Union.

Through this whole background, Ukraine was slowly inching towards European integration. Under Yulia Tymoshenko, a EU-Ukraine Association Agenda was agreed upon in 2009. Yanukovich continued closer ties with the EU through negotiations to lift visa requirements and establish a free trade agreement with the EU. However, November 2013, the Ukrainian government decided to suspend agreement talks, sparking the largest protests in Kiev since the Orange Revolution. Shortly thereafter, Ukraine and Russia signed a treaty where Russia would buy $15 billion in Ukrainian bonds and supply natural gas at a reduced rate. This is widely considered to not only keep Ukraine in the Russian sphere of influence, but also to keep alive the dreams of the Eurasian Union. Russia has even tried to influence the Ukrainian economy by banning the import of Ukrainian chocolate.

Protesters in Kiev battle with police on the streets.

This has not set well with the Ukrainian people, especially those around Kiev. They have set up protests in Independence Square, now known as the Euromaidan, camping out there since November 2013. Protesters have barricaded themselves in government buildings, including the ministry of justice and Kiev city hall. The Ukrainian government passed a series of harsher restrictions on protests, known by protesters as the “dictatorship laws”, by a show of hands. These laws include such flagrant violations of civil rights and protests, such as trial in absentia and a blanket amnesty against those who commit crimes against the protesters, like the security and law enforcement officers. The law with the most far-reaching consequences is the law requiring non-governmental organizations accepting foreign funding to register as “foreign agents”, modeled on a similar law passed in Russia.

The Ukrainian parliament votes for restrictions on protest with a show of hands.

In Russia, the “foreign agents law” has been used to crack down on civil society organizations. The Golos Foundation, a civil society organization that helps monitor elections, has been fined $10,000, even after they stopped receiving funding from foreign sources. Amnesty International, Transparency international, charities, non-orthodox churches, and even a french language school have been raided by the Russian security forces trying to weed out “foreign agents”. The nature of the law has been to “stigmatize and discredit NGOs engaged in human rights, election monitoring, and other critical work”. In essence, the law has been used to stymie dissent from organizations promoting community-wide discourse. There is the fear that Yanukovich, with his his criminal history and suspected involvement with vote-rigging, could clamp down on civil society and harass organizations in a similar manner as they have in Russia. Luckily, the Ukrainian parliament repealed the anti-protest laws with near unanimity. However, as it’s shown in the past, the Russian bear is always waiting in the wings.

Streets on Fire: Protests in Turkey and Brazil

The last two months have seen the outburst of mass-scale protests in two emerging economies, Turkey and Brazil. While both countries experienced economic booms that lifted a number of people out of poverty, the protests embody a greater shift towards government accountability and democratic participation.

Though both are widespread, riots in the two countries contain distinct momentums. Prompted by a group of environmentalists, the Turkish demonstrations initially began as a response to the government-backed project that would take down a park to make space for a residential complex in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. The protesters were harshly suppressed by the police with pepper spray and pressurized water, under the order of Turkey’s president, Tayyip Erdogan. The “brutality” agitated further protests in other cities such as Ankara and attracted people with different discontents, turning the riots into a ground battle with the authoritarian regime. Most protesters are of the more liberal, younger generation sharing disappointments ranging from a recent bill restricting consumption and sale of alcohol to the anti-terrorism legislation targeting on Kurd population in the country as well as the big number of journalists in jail.

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A Chile Front Sweeps Through Latin America

Since May of this year, students have consistently gathered in Santiago’s main square to protest the cost of higher education, demanding more government assistance to afford expensive private universities throughout the country.

Student Protestors in Chile | Source: AP

Chile’s history has been tumultuous, to say the least. However, a fairly stable economy and an established financial sector have developed, allowing Chile to experience remarkable growth compared to other Latin American countries.

Despite this, not everyone in Chile has been reaping the benefits of economic growth. As recently as 2006, during the presidency of Michelle Bachelet, high school students demanded “free use of public transport, lower fees for college entrance exams and a voice in government policy.” This caused quite a disruption in Chile’s day-to-day activities and implied that the hands-off, laissez-faire model of earlier economic reforms left something to be desired. While Bachelet attempted to meet their demands, apparently the reforms were not deep enough to overhaul the education system entirely and overcome socioeconomic divides. Continue reading

I’ll Take a Second Helping of Democracy Please

Tour of the Middle East- Part 4: Tunisia

–          This series of posts will take you on a country by country tour of the Middle East, showing how economic and social development occurs in one of the most unstable regions in the world.

Later this month, Tunisia will cap off a year of unrest and political change with the first free and fair election of the Arab Spring, electing a constituent assembly whose job it will be to draft a new constitution. By doing so, the country will set an example for accomplishing change through a systematic approach. Continue reading