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Patrick Merloe on Democratic elections and electoral observation part II

(As prepared for delivery at the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, Session 9)

Democratic elections are not just about how polling is conducted on Election Day. It is possible for the process to be technically smooth on Election Day, but for the election not to be free or fair because the overall conditions for participation, competition, transparency, and accountability are not present. In other words, what happens in the run-up to the election and what happens after Election Day are often as important, if not more so, in determining whether or not an election meets OSCE standards as the balloting alone.

The pre-election environment, including respect for the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, and expression, is a critical component of any election. The legal framework is also crucial, including the composition of the election administration, the registration process for candidates and political parties, voter registration and broader citizen participation, as well as media access. In the OSCE region we’ve seen too many elections—especially in countries without a democratic tradition—in which electoral commissions at all levels are stacked in favor of the authorities, access by opposition candidates to the media is grossly limited or non-existent, opposition candidates or parties are harassed, intimidated, or worse, and citizen participation is subverted by disenfranchisement, inaccurate voter registries and/or barriers to observing electoral processes. In some countries, genuine opposition parties or candidates simply do not exist. This fundamentally undermines the purpose of an election, notwithstanding how smooth voting day might go.

The post-election environment is equally important. An independent and impartial adjudication system, including a judiciary, must exist and function properly in order to address complaints or appeals. Competing candidates—and voters most of all—must have sufficient confidence in the system to respect the results, even if they are not happy about who won. Among other things, this requires that the precepts of open government be applied through electoral transparency that allows citizen monitoring of electoral processes and the presence of international observers.

No election process is ever one hundred percent perfect, and imperfections will be magnified in particularly close races. What is important is that there is a legitimate and accepted process to address these challenges in a fair and transparent way.

In Kazakhstan, constitutional changes in 2007 exempted the current president from term limits. The constitution was changed again hastily last January in order to allow the presidential election to be held early and quickly, giving any potential rivals little time to prepare. Party registration remains a problem in Kazakhstan; for example, the Alga Party has tried unsuccessfully to register for years. Restrictions on freedom of assembly also hinder chances for free and fair elections. These shortcomings, detailed in ODIHR’s final report on the April 3 presidential election, need to be addressed before parliamentary elections next year.

Turkmenistan remains the only OSCE participating State that officially has a one-party system. Over the past couple of years, President Berdimukhamedov has said repeatedly that a second party might be registered; more recently he said that independent candidates may be allowed to participate in the presidential election early next year. While we would welcome any opening of political space in Turkmenistan, it is vital that parties and political movements should be allowed to develop freely, and not be created or managed by the existing regime.

Looking ahead at elections that will come up within the next year, we see some areas in which an ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure. In Ukraine, the draft election law has raised some questions about shortcomings in the electoral law process. It is my delegation’s hope that the Ministry of Justice’s Electoral Working Group includes voices from across the political spectrum and that, as the law is about to go to parliament, passage only take place after consultation with interested political parties and civil society through an open, participatory and inclusive process; in short, we hope for greater inclusiveness during the electoral reform process. This is especially important against the backdrop of Ukraine’s October 31, 2010, local elections, which compared unfavorably to the five democratic elections held since the flawed November 2004 presidential elections which sparked the Orange Revolution.

The refusal of Russian authorities to register the People’s Freedom Party in June caused us concern. The right to hold free, fair and competitive elections is a universal principle that the Russian Government has repeatedly endorsed, and this includes endorsement of the principle of allowing genuine political competition with fair ballot access rules that are applied impartially. It is hard to understand how the Parnas decision is consistent with Russia’s international commitments or statements by its leaders. My delegation hopes that the registration will be reconsidered, and we urge the Government of Russian Federation to recommit itself to democratic principles, including equal access to media and freedom of citizens to seek, receive and impart information about elections through activities of citizen election monitoring organizations. Otherwise citizens are denied their rightful participation in shaping the future of their own country. In addition, citizens must be permitted to exercise their right to freedom of assembly in support of all candidates and issues.

As part of assisting participating States in implementing their commitments to hold free and fair elections, the OSCE has developed a strong election monitoring capability. Moreover, OSCE expertise goes well beyond simply monitoring the election process, it also offers assistance through the recommendations it submits to a country following elections, as well as legislative analysis and technical training. In fact, the OSCE’s methodology has become the guiding example for international election observation. The ODIHR’s well-deserved reputation of election observation is directly attributable to its objective criteria. The OSCE ODIHR/Parliamentary Assembly partnership gives the Organization unique capabilities which can provide OSCE participating States with a perspective on elections available through no other mechanism.

The United States strongly supports OSCE election observation. We welcome OSCE observation of our own elections. We are prepared to welcome observers from the OSCE and any appropriate private institutions and organizations, as provided in the Copenhagen Document, in numbers they desire and with only such restrictions that promote effective observation, in keeping with the spirit of paragraph 24 of the Copenhagen Document. We also believe that follow-up to the recommendations made by the observer mission is very important. After all, the OSCE can assist us by monitoring our elections, but the ultimate responsibility for holding free and fair elections belongs to the participating States. The United States continues to work to address issues raised by the OSCE with us, including discussing with our state election authorities how to provide better access to OSCE observers for the polling process. We plan to continue to discuss such issues, and have invited the OSCE to come to Washington for a follow-up discussion of the final report and recommendations on our elections last year. We urge all other OSCE States to do the same.


Patrick Merloe on Democratic elections and electoral observation

( As prepared for delivery at the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, Session 8 )

It has been often stated that elections in and of themselves do not a democracy make. However, free and fair elections are a necessary part of a healthy democracy. A country where elections fall short of being free and fair and where the voice of the people is not permitted to be heard simply cannot be considered a democracy. Moreover, technically well-run polling does not mean that the election process is democratic; a genuine electoral process also requires an open pre-election environment in which citizens can participate fully, political parties can operate freely, independent media can flourish, and an independent judicial system operates effectively.

All OSCE participating States have committed themselves to holding genuinely free and fair elections. As set forth in the 1990 Copenhagen Document, and reaffirmed at the Astana Summit, this includes: universal and equal suffrage; secret ballots; and non-discriminatory access for parties to the media. Free, transparent and credible elections have become a global norm, and domestic and foreign observers are critical parts of an electoral process.

Despite the substantial progress that has been made in democratic election practice in many OSCE countries, too many elections in participating States have serious shortcomings. Some participating States have flagrantly ignored their commitments, and serious manipulation of the election process has taken place over the past year.

The December 19th, 2010, Belarusian presidential elections were the latest in a long line of fundamentally flawed and fraudulent elections in that country. OSCE observers concluded that “Belarus still has a considerable way to go in meeting its OSCE commitments.” While the voting process itself was judged as good or very good in the majority of polling stations observed, the critical vote count was judged as “bad” or “very bad” by nearly half of the precincts observed, and was especially notable for its lack of transparency. While the run-up to the election showed some procedural improvements and an easing of restrictions on normal political activity, the electoral machinery at every level remained firmly under the authorities’ control. The dominant state-controlled media disproportionally favored the incumbent and opposition representation on precinct and territorial election commissions was virtually non-existent. In addition, the aftermath of the election was marred by repression of peaceful political and civil society opposition to the government.

Given the lack of independence or impartiality of the Central Election Committee, the restrictive and uneven playing field for media, the lack of transparency at key stages of the electoral process—and the unprecedentedly brutal election-night crack down—the United States does not recognize this election as legitimate.

The April 2011 presidential election in Kazakhstan was also not fair and free. According to the OSCE, the “needed reforms for holding genuine democratic elections still have to materialize as this election revealed shortcomings similar to those in previous elections.” Among the OSCE findings were that “the legal framework has key shortcomings inconsistent with OSCE commitments, including restrictions on freedom of assembly and freedom of expression,” and on election day “international observers noted serious irregularities, including numerous instances of seemingly identical signatures on voter lists and cases of ballot box stuffing. The vote count and tabulation of results lacked transparency, and procedures were often not followed. International observers were sometimes restricted in their observation.” Local authorities intervened in the election process in order to increase turnout. In addition, no detailed election results have been published, which seriously diminishes the transparency of the electoral process as a whole.

In Azerbaijan, according to the Final Report of the OSCE’s election monitoring mission, the November 2010 parliamentary elections were marred by a deficient candidate registration process, limits on freedom of assembly and expression, a restrictive political environment, skewed media coverage of candidates and falsified vote counts. These matters undermine the authenticity of elections and require a demonstration of will to end the pattern of deficient elections. We urge the government to take definitive steps to ensure the free and full exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms in connection with electoral processes.

In Armenia, we welcome the release of individuals jailed in connection with the disputed 2008 Presidential election and its aftermath, as well as the relaxation of restrictions on free assembly. However, we note that to date no one has been held accountable for the ten deaths related to the post-election protests. We urge the government to promote a political atmosphere that is truly conducive to democratic electoral processes in which lawful political activity and expression are unhindered, well in advance of the upcoming national elections. We also urge Armenia’s authorities to improve the administration of elections, including the conduct of the vote and the vote-counting processes, and to ensure fair, effective procedures for complaints and appeals, so that Armenia’s upcoming elections are free and fair and the public can have faith in the electoral process.

Such a political environment also is crucial in Georgia, which between 2012 and 2013 has the potential to undergo the country’s first fully democratic transfer of power. Ensuring free, fair, and transparent electoral processes should be Georgia’s top priority and would be an important step toward achieving its European and Euro-Atlantic goals. We urge that efforts to revise the electoral code be done through an open, participatory and inclusive process, which would establish confidence and could be seen as an immediate step toward achieving those goals.

The OSCE region did see some smoothly conducted elections with minimal problems, or demonstrating an overall good-faith effort to conduct free and fair elections. Among examples of well-conducted elections were early parliamentary elections in Macedonia held this past June, and in Moldova, held last November, which were competitive, transparent, and well-administered, and met most OSCE commitments.

In Kyrgyzstan last October, OSCE observers declared that the parliamentary elections “constituted a further consolidation of the democratic process.” They were characterized by “political pluralism, a vibrant campaign, and confidence in the Central Commission for Elections and Referenda,” and “fundamental freedoms, including the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association, were generally respected.” The parliamentary elections and a credible constitutional referendum were held against a history of poor elections in the country, which demonstrates that electoral credibility is principally a matter of exercising principled political will. We hope that the upcoming presidential election in Kyrgyzstan will show further progress in electoral reform, and we particularly hope that the government will ensure a climate conducive to political participation by ethnic Uzbeks and other minorities or marginalized individuals, such as persons with disabilities.

The October 3, 2010, elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina were generally conducted in line with OSCE commitments and international standards, although some aspects of the process could benefit from further improvements. Since the elections, the political parties have been unable to reach agreement on the formation of a new governing coalition at the state level. The United States calls on all political parties in the country to find this agreement now, and to begin undertaking the practical reforms necessary for European integration.

In Ukraine, local elections on October 31, 2010, did not meet standards for openness and fairness set by the country’s presidential elections earlier in the year. Domestic and international election observers reported numerous procedural violations on Election Day. They also cited a newly-passed local election law, which created complicated registration and voting procedures, and blocked participation of new parties. The government recognized the problems and has acknowledged the need to bring electoral legislation into line with international standards. Again, we urge in Ukraine, as in Georgia or any nation, that electoral reform be conducted through an open, participatory and inclusive process thereby building public confidence and avoiding the suspicions and deficiencies that accompany laws drafted to serve narrow interests and behind closed doors.

The United States welcomes the progress that did occur in the conduct of the May 8 local elections in Albania, and the resolution of the closely contested mayoral race in Tirana. However, we note that the United States, along with our OSCE and European partners, expressed our concern at the time to the Government of Albania that the legal basis for a controversial decision to count “miscast ballots” was unclear and appeared politically-motivated.

My delegation would like to express its desire and hope that, with the elections process now complete, all the parties will focus sharply on developing and enacting a stronger Electoral Code in line with reforms prescribed in the 2009 and 2011 OSCE/ODHIR election final reports. The Electoral Code developed in 2008 is inherently weak and left open the door for the sort of irregularities that occurred in the vote counting process this year. The law needs to be reformed prior to the 2013 parliamentary elections through an open, participatory and inclusive process that takes into account OSCE/ODIHR recommendations and those of concerned citizens and other credible sources. We are glad to see that the parties have begun to put forward representatives to begin these negotiations. We trust that Albanian opinion leaders—be they in Government or opposition—will be open to further work with the OSCE presence and the Venice Commission, among other providers of democratic assistance, to help ensure this. As Albania celebrates its 100th anniversary of statehood next year, its citizens—at home and abroad—deserve a government that they can trust and leaders who put the needs of the people first.


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