Sudan: International Election Observation and Legitimacy
A fair amount has been made of the role of international observers in Sudan’s recent elections, with the most strident criticism suggesting that their mere presence served to legitimise a government that didn’t deserve it.
It is early to tell quite how legitimised the Sudanese government will find itself, though certainly it has not become popular overnight after holding Comprehensive Peace Agreement-mandated (and touted to be) democratic elections.
In all likelihood, the observers have probably contributed in some qualitative measure to the legitimisation process, particularly among those who see benefit in political rapprochement with Sudan.
However impartial the intention observers may have – “the mere presence of international observers alone, however, should not be viewed as adding legitimacy or credibility to an election process,” according to some election observation literature by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe – this is not to say in practice that their presence, statements and reports cannot be used for any particular purpose by others after the fact.
Following the elections, what is the contribution to consensus-building in Sudan during a year in which as much consensus as possible will be beneficial to all Sudanese?
Does election observation amount to the West communicating with the West about how they should engage with the country in question? On one level, probably. But that is not to say there is no service in helping people to understand what organisations such as the Carter Center, the OSCE, the European Union and others consider a global citizen’s democratic rights should be in the 21st century.
The OSCE, an organisation that has done much to provide the benchmark literature on election observation, defines a “genuine election” as “a political competition that takes place in an environment characterized by confidence, transparency, and accountability and that provides voters with an informed choice between distinct political alternatives.”
Elsewhere, the organisation suggests that “it is of utmost importance that an election observation mission take account of all of the elements that produce, in combination, a democratic election process:
– impartial and professional election administration;
– effective voter and candidate registration;
– an election campaign that has equitable access to the media and is underscored by the fundamental freedoms of expression, association, and assembly;
– a credible Election Day process that permits all eligible voters to cast their ballot in an unhindered manner and free of any form of intimidation;
– an honest, transparent, and timely vote count and reconciliation;
– an accessible complaints and appeals process.”
Many Sudanese will point out their country’s proud history of free and fair elections – though many of the electorate voted for the first time in 2010 – and they will be best placed to say how closely they feel Sudan came to fulfilling this definition and criteria.
Both the EU and Carter Center observer missions gave cautiously worded preliminary statements welcoming the opening of democratic space in Sudan, if that space is then developed, but also made clear that the elections fell short of “international standards.” Many have no time for statements, such as the one from the Russian special envoy to Sudan Mikhail Margelov, that the elections should be judged by African, not European standards.
One important point to make is that these were not the only observer missions in Sudan. Others from the African Union, Arab League, and Intergovernmental Authority on Development all attended. It should also be pointed out that the Carter Center was in Sudan to observe during the registration process, unlike the others.
There were plenty of domestic observers offering more complete coverage of the polling stations than the international observers, but their voices tend to pale next to statements released to the global media by the European Union or Carter Centre.
My observation would be that the word of international observers would seemingly punch above its weight, even if that is the effect rather than the intention. This would be true for any election observed, not just Sudan’s, although it should be pointed out that the methodology applied by such organisations is rigorous, and their staff experienced. However, it is a difficult task, particularly in a country as big as Sudan, with its attendant logistical problems.
An observer team is recommended to visit around 10 polling stations per day (which is quite a high figure), and spend at least half an hour per visit, according to OSCE guidelines. The EU, for example, reports that its full complement of 134 observers managed to visit a total of 13.6% of Sudan’s polling stations – but that does not mean they were at each one for any longer than an hour.
So clearly there is a lot that is not observed. From such a starting point of absence, as opposed to presence, I find it hard to see quite where the weight in the observers’ statements on the overall health of the democracy observed comes from. Many observers will have never been to Sudan before; fewer still will understand the language.
After all, the observer can only witness the democratic processes at play before their eyes, and it is a poor rigger that defrauds elections before the eyes of someone there whose job is to keep an eye out for such things.
The problem is that the discussions of outsiders feed into internal narratives, while these same outsiders’ discussions do not often appear to have been informed by sufficient internal discussions.
This can serve to create an imbalance or over-emphasis in the narrative, which can too readily reflect self-interest over universal benefit, and result in the entrenchment of positions that were hardly leading to reconciliation in the first place.
Thus the concern is that Sudan is arguably no better off having a number of disparate election observation missions come and report different things, leading to accusations of cross-purposes and self-interest lying below the surface. There is always a degree of political sensitivity involved when making statements about Sudan.
However, positives were most certainly observed: staff keen to help, voters demonstrating genuine enthusiasm for democratic participation. As I watched, one man attempting to vote in Nazareth Basic School, Wau, marched to the front of a long queue expecting to be let in as he was a candidate in the elections: he was told to get to the back of the line.
The elections can be said to have been, in theory, an opening of democratic space, instilling in people that participating in their country’s governance is a possibility – “increased political and civic participation,” in the Carter Center’s parlance – creating a link between the governed and the governors that must be sustained by voter participation. But in practice, what does this amount to if the politically diverse stakeholders find it difficult to agree on what happened or what it means?
As Sudan moves on to the referendum, the elections retreat in prominence while foreign governments try and decide how politically palatable the country has become to them and their electorates as a result. The south will likely secede, though many others without that option will say it all amounts to a missed opportunity, to put it mildly.