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LA Times Election Op-Ed: Only Citizens Can Ensure Democracy

This op-ed was published in the Jan. 30, 2005, edition of the Los Angeles Times.

Elections: Watching the World Decide

Outside observers can play a key role in bringing about democratic rule,
but only a country's citizens can ensure that it lasts

By David Carroll and David Pottie

David Carroll is acting director and David Pottie is senior program associate of the Carter Center's Democracy Program. Since 1989, the center has observed 54 elections in 24 countries.

The elections in Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories and Iraq underscore the challenges of bringing democracy to the Islamic world. Although billed as "post-conflict" elections, all took place in the midst of continuing conflict and the presence of foreign armed forces.

We have observed 35 elections in 26 countries. As observers, we independently assess the quality and credibility of elections and seek to detect and deter fraud. Professional observer groups have developed methodologies to determine whether minimum international standards are met. In doing so, they can bolster the legitimacy of the outcome. Yet observers have no formal authority or power other than to publicize their findings.

Following are some situations we and other observers have encountered while monitoring elections around the world.

  • In 1992 in Guyana, the major opposition party challenged the independence of the election commission, whose members had ties to the ruling party. It feared the election would be rigged. Former President Carter and Carter Center observers mediated the dispute, and the commission was restructured. The government chose its chairman from a list of candidates provided by the opposition, ensuring that decisions would be bipartisan. The result was greater trust among all parties.
  • During Zanzibar's 2000 election, rumors spread through the capital that ballot boxes had been stolen, and angry voters gathered outside polling stations. The election commission did little to squash the rumors, but it suspended the vote count and requested that the army be mobilized. The restaged election two weeks later was a rerun of this experience, which led the opposition and international observers to boycott future elections.
  • At one site in Mali in 2002, there was no electricity. Poll workers struggled to count ballots by the light of three candles not much bigger than those found on a birthday cake. One worker tried to keep the wick lighted by mounding the melted wax. Fortunately, an observer had a flashlight.
  • During the recent Palestinian Authority elections, a problem occurred at six polling stations in East Jerusalem, an area where only a small number of Palestinians were allowed to vote. The voters learned they were not on registration lists, a situation that escalated tensions. Election observers brokered an agreement between Israeli and Palestinian authorities to allow the Palestinians to vote at any of the East Jerusalem stations, regardless of whether they were on the voter lists.
  • In the 1989 elections in Panama, international observers detected and denounced President Manuel Noriega's attempts to rig the results. Observers discovered that election officials had falsified tally sheets and then entered the numbers in the national database. Noriega dispatched soldiers to Carter's hotel to block the former president from going to the media center to denounce the electoral shenanigans. In response, Carter held his news conference in the hotel lobby. In last year's presidential elections in Ukraine, observer reports similarly contributed to the overturn of a manipulated outcome.
  • In Liberia's 1997 elections, armed groups were only partly demobilized. There were vast differences in electoral resources available to candidates, and the international community refused to deal with the problem. These political and security conditions undercut any influence international election observers might have had. Although the elections themselves went off well, the anti-democratic forces of former President Charles Taylor swept into power.
  • The worst fear is that elections are successful but a losing party returns to armed combat, as in Angola in 1992, or the rule of democracy only reaches certain parts of the country, as in Afghanistan. Angola's war continued for another 10 years, and the country has yet to hold another round of elections. In Afghanistan, the face of the elected government is still largely confined to the capital and warlords still effectively rule in many regions of the country.

Elections and electoral observers shouldn't be expected to bring democracy to societies in which conflict continues or there is a lack of agreement about basic political institutions. If the electoral system leaves an important community or political group excluded, chances of long-term success are bleak. For example, majority rules and winner-take-all elections can leave a party that enjoys the support of, say, 20% of the population with no elected members. To avoid such an outcome, political negotiation is required before voters go to the polls.

Although outside election observers can play an important role in bringing about democracy in a country emerging from conflict, only the citizens of that country can ensure that the newly created democratic institutions will endure.

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