Confessions of an election observer

Is monitoring another country's polling an exotic holiday in disguise? Only if your idea of a jolly is lots of intense study and questionnaire-filling

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Most people – which included me until last week – imagine that being an election observer means being jetted into a country, bussed round a few polling stations, and, having made sure that no one was refused a vote at the point of a gun, flown out again. And I'd have gone on thinking that, were it not for an invitation to leave freezing Britain and spend a week in what I thought would be the warmth of Ecuador officially monitoring their presidential election, in which the left-wing economist Rafael Correa was seeking a third term.

I arrived in Quito a fortnight ago, and two shocks awaited. The first was the weather, cool and drizzly; the second was the serious study that awaited. On my first day, we (300 observers from 40 countries) were given seminars on Ecuador's electoral system and loaded down with tomes on electoral law. During a break, I had the good fortune to meet the head of Ecuador's electoral institute (El Instituto de la Democracia del Consejo Nacional Electoral de Ecuador), Richard Ortiz Ortiz, who spent an hour and half explaining to me the intricacies of different systems of proportional representation. Ortiz had spent 12 years in Germany studying European electoral systems and was thrilled to have become the person responsible for drafting Ecuador's electoral rules. "I was like a botanist who has read books for years, coming to the Amazon to study the ants," he said. As he drew diagrams showing how to allocate seats in the – to me – hitherto unknown Webster and d'Hondt systems, I began to feel dizzy and the numbers swirled before my eyes. But then we were 2,800 metres above sea level. Later, we were given booklets with exercises in allocating parliamentary seats.

Ecuador's new electoral authority wants to show that it can organise a clean election in a country once scarred by corruption. As well as inviting independent missions from the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the Union of South American States (Unasur), it had also welcomed dozens of "personalities" – academics, journalists, politicians – such as a former editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, Ignacio Ramonet, and the Argentine Nobel peace prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel. There were also electoral officials from around the world and representatives of the Arab League, the African Union and the Asean bloc of south-east Asian countries. The British delegation consisted of me (a journalist and author of books about Latin America) and Jenny Rathbone (a Labour MP in the Welsh Assembly).

On day two, the electoral commission organised a meeting for us to hear the views of opposition candidates. One gave us a litany of complaints about the electoral process, saying that some smaller parties had been disqualified and that media airtime was not allocated fairly. Another candidate said the President was interfering in the judiciary. We asked for more detailed information and asked why no formal complaints had been made. Having just arrived, it was hard to gauge whether the complaints were justified, but the OAS, monitoring Ecuador since January, said that electoral propaganda slots had been distributed fairly, although political news coverage varied on different channels.

After two days of seminars in the smart Marriott Hotel, I was itching to talk to some ordinary voters, so I headed off to the streets of central Quito. I spoke to road builders, cleaners, teachers, shop workers and indigenous market sellers of arts and crafts. Two-thirds of the people said they were voting for President Correa. All mentioned how he had fixed Ecuador's roads and that medicine, and schoolbooks and school uniforms were now free. Four students told me he had abolished tuition fees for universities and raised standards. Many cited Correa's "Human Development Vouchers" – payments of around £33 a month given to poor families on condition their children go to school and see a doctor regularly. A woman market stallholder said she liked Correa as he spoke her language, Quichua. Only one person, a young male cleaner, said he was voting for the main opposition candidate, Guillermo Lasso, because he felt Correa was getting too self-important, and two street flower sellers were voting for the indigenous party, Pachakutik.

Rafael Correa is often compared with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, but the atmosphere here is far less febrile. There are not many slogans painted on the walls, and supporters of different parties can banter without rancour. Although Correa's base is among the poor, he has not alienated the middle classes, despite their having to pay higher taxes. Many middle-class voters appreciate the economic growth and political stability he has brought to Ecuador.

Two days before the vote, I was astounded to be told I was being sent to the Galapagos Islands. On the flight to the islands, I got to know my companions: an Argentine judge who heads that country's electoral tribunal, an official from Mexico's electoral authorities and two amiable French history professors. We landed on the island of Baltra, home to a military base, a landscape of rusty red volcanic rock and spiky cactuses, before taking a boat to the most populated island, Santa Cruz, a lush, green hilly place with banana trees, ferns and moss-covered trees. As we stepped off the boat, we saw marine iguanas and large luminous orange crabs on the rocks.

The Galapagos have no native inhabitants, the population of 25,000 are descended from mestizos (mixed indigenous and Spanish descent) from mainland Ecuador who began settling in the early 20th century.

On election day, we woke early to attend the inauguration of the elections at 6.45am in a schoolyard. At 7am, the doors opened and voters flooded in. Our job was to check if voters had any complaints, if they were asked for identification, if the voting was secret, if polling stations opened on time and the people running the elections were well-trained. During the whole day, I met one angry voter, a man who was late for work and irritated at a long queue.

We visited three polling stations in "urban" areas – tiny towns of colourful one-storey brick houses – before visiting three rural stations. In one, there were more observers than voters. The election officials sat unperturbed, expecting most of the 70 voters to turn up at lunchtime, after attending mass at the small church across the road. All the voting took place in schools and, apart from the heat and palm trees, they reminded me of sedate English polling stations. I imagined how English voters would feel if a delegation of Ecuadorean observers came to scrutinise them.

At 5pm, the count began in each polling station. At each voting table, volunteers began to open the cardboard urns, watched by observers from the political parties sitting exactly three metres away. The volunteers than began to "sing the votes" – showing each ballot paper to the party hacks and calling out the name of the candidate marked. It was hard to see how a single vote could go astray under the hawk-eyed gaze of the party observers who barracked and cross-questioned each table of volunteers. As the tables round the room began to sing out the names: "Correa", "Correa", "Correa", "Lasso", "Correa", the President's convincing victory became clear.

We returned to the hotel and filled in our long questionnaires. We recommended increasing the size of the flimsy cardboard polling booths and making sure they were located so people could not walk behind them. We also noted that because the Galapagos are an hour behind the mainland, radio stations began to broadcasts exit polls before the polls had closed here. Our flight back the next day was delayed by swirling mists and we arrived in Quito to find that the other independent observers, as well as Unasur and the OAS, had announced that the vote was free and fair, a conclusion with which we all agreed.

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