Drunks on dirty weekends don't protect democracy

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The Independent Online
The author reports from Kiev for the 'Washington Post'.

AWESTERN diplomat told me how he had escorted half a dozen election observers around the tiny former Soviet republic of Moldova, during recent parliamentary elections. 'On election day, I couldn't get two of the observers out of bed. They had found a couple of prostitutes the night before and just didn't want to work. Two others were willing to go to the polling stations but hadn't a clue what they were doing,' he said.

The electoral observer bandwagon is now rolling in South Africa. Several thousand of the great and the good, from politicians to academics and commentators, have descended on the country to judge how free and fair the elections are. Judging by the work of their counterparts in the countries of the former Soviet Union, however, electoral observing has become a gravy train for a lucky few from Europe and North America's chattering classes.

At their worst, election observers treat the job of overseeing democracy as little more than an excuse for a dirty weekend or a glorified sightseeing tour. Others, sent to observe impartially, are already prejudiced. At dinner in an expensive hotel, one Mediterranean politician flown first class to Moscow to witness Russia's vote on constitutional reform last year, declared that even if he found any electoral violations committed by Yeltsin's men he would not announce them. He supported Yeltsin and that was that.

Chaos often hinders the monitors' work. I was in war-torn Armenia two years ago for the declaration of independence from the Soviet Union. Voting day had been turned into a celebration. Sheep were slaughtered with such fierce abandon by Armenians that many election monitors (I was not one of them) spent the day in the heady equivalent of a Middle Eastern pub crawl, passing from one village feast to the next, raising increasingly slurred toasts to a nation whose elections they had ostensibly come to check.

When the vote to declare independence was taken in parliament, such was the confusion that I was able to cast a ballot as an Armenian MP. When the tally lit up on computer screens, several million Armenians (the entire country was watching) discovered that there were more votes than MPs. The declaration was stalled while somebody desperately fiddled with the computers. The next time the ballot was taken, I voted again. This time the MP on my right didn't cast his vote and Armenia's future was secured.

Although many observers, especially from northern European countries and North America, may be conscientious, they may have little idea about local conditions or experience of the electoral process. Worse, their very presence is often pointless because the most serious violations may be made weeks before polling day by political leaders with a vested interest in preventing the spread of democracy.

In Ukraine senior politicians repeatedly tried to undermine the elections by changing rules and agreeing a Byzantine electoral law designed to invalidate the entire vote. Many election observers may not even have been aware of it. Numerous violations were reported during Ukraine's parliamentary elections this year. But none was reported by official election observers. A few organisations, including one backed by US billionaire George Soros and Britain's Westminster Foundation, were responsible for all the serious investigation of electoral transparency.

Their reports outlined dozens of violations of the electoral law, including bullying, bribery, wholesale rerouting of government finance and misuse of public office. The conclusion, that Ukraine's corrupt post-Communist bureaucrats and former party bosses had 'attempted to rig the elections', showed the worth of intelligent use of public funds for detailed research and reporting rather than throwing it on air fares for Europe's great and good.

Even when observers do their jobs properly, the results can be sadly ineffective. Two British election observers in Kiev, plus a young UK diplomat, discovered what was almost certainly an attempt to undermine the election of a former Soviet general turned democrat, Konstantin Morozov, who has threatened to become a powerful challenger to Ukraine's president. At a polling booth on election day, one of the three was manhandled by a senior election official. The other two were ordered from an election counting room. To their credit, they stood their ground. In the process they saw and heard from local observers that the vote was tampered with. They were told, there had been blatant intimidation in the constituency against Mr Morozov's workers. The constituency was one of dozens in which violations were reported.

The result? The incident was included in a bilateral report and mentioned at an ambassadorial meeting. The country's central electoral committee may look into the incident; it may not. Given that it refused even to recognise independent monitoring groups and seemed firmly in the hands of Ukraine's ruling elite, the likelihood that it will take up the cudgels to defend democracy appears slight.

Unless election observers are sent abroad more sparingly, and the same funding is used to support fewer but better specialists who can actually judge when elections are being rigged, Western electoral monitors will continue to rubber-stamp regimes of dubious quality and questionable support. South Africa's vote may prove to be different, but in the former Soviet Union, the West's electoral eyes and ears have undermined their own raison d'etre. The majority of them have done a disservice to democracy.

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