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.
This is an interesting criticism of election monitoring. However, I believe some issues are being conflated. The purpose of the elections was not to legitimize the NCP government. Neither was it to provide “reconciliation”. I view the elections as a confidence building exercise, that serves to add a missing abstraction to the Sudanese political discourse. Many dissenting Sudanese do not know what they are fighting for, although they may know what they are fighting against. These elections presented a sliver of hope for what is possible, albeit, if Sudanese can grasp the possibilities. However, as intelligent and conscious as Sudanese appear to be, many lack a real sense of what modern democracies ought to be, both conceptually, socially, and spiritually. Most of all, the NCP has neither the idea or intention on providing such a forum.
Also, I see, in the observations, as in others criticizing election monitoring, some denial, or lack of acknowledgement, on the considerable and remarkable degree of support that the NCP enjoys in Khartoum and nationwide, whether by Stockholm syndrome or genuine grounds. This is significant. Not examining this surprising and phenomenal dimension of the elections makes for weak distortions and suggests some ill-intention and lack of impartiality on the part of analysts, which further alienates the inactive and nonaligned Northerners, from the central, and real-change inducing, parts of Sudan. As we scramble to control and mitigate the victory of the NCP, by questioning the weight, signficance, and impact of elections observers, in both inner and outer circles, one can’t help but ask: what is the most truthful, informative, and effective way of inducing the change we all want without adding to the prevailing negaholism of a solution-deficient situation?
Sudan and British Elections Observations
After a delayed return from Sudan as a short tem election observer (STO) with the London based Centre for Foreign Policy Analysis (CFPA) due to the Icelandic volcanic ash (whatever have the Icelanders done for us besides the Vikings, â€˜Cod Warsâ€™ and the banking crisis?), I observed the lections in the United Kingdom on 6 May.
I use the word â€˜observeâ€™ because as a Dutch citizen resident and paying taxes in the UK who refuses to become a British subject I have no vote in the national parliamentary election, only in the local election for the London borough I live in, so after having â€˜observedâ€™ the Sudanese elections, which according to such observer missions as the EU and the Carter Center did not meet â€œinternational standardsâ€, without really defining what these actually are, I â€˜observedâ€™ my wife who can actually vote in British parliamentary elections because of her Irish nationality (it is too complicated to explain that here!) actually changed her mind in the ballot booth (that is women and/or Irish people for you) and I further â€˜observedâ€™ the elections, the count and the fallout from the result trough the print, broadcast and so called â€˜newâ€™ media.
The electoral system for the parliament of United Kingdom, the so called â€˜mother of all parliamentsâ€™ is quite unsophisticated, if not actually primitive, the country is divided in constituencies based on census figures, but the government of the day can actually decide on the boundaries, creating unequal constituencies population and geographical size wise etc, sometimes called â€˜gerrymanderingâ€™, and the constituents vote a single member of parliament by putting one single cross the name of one candidate. The one with the most crosses wins, which is called â€˜first past the postâ€™, and the crosses for the other candidates are dismissed, meaning that more often than not the winning candidate is not elected with the majority of the votes in his or her constituency.
To put this in a national UK context the Liberal Democrats coming third with 23% of the vote (up 1% on the last time) won 57 seats (actually losing five), while the outgoing governing Labour Part won 29% (6% down) but won 201 seats more than the Lib Dems! Democracy, how are you? All in the name of such a system providing â€˜stable governmentâ€™!
On 6 May in England, which is only part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain (consisting also of Wales and Scotland) and Northern Ireland and with the latter having their own regional parliaments, the electors were issued not only with one ballot paper to elect the member of parliament (MP) for their constituency, but also to elect three councillors in their ward (district for local elections), ie one has to put a cross against the name of three candidates of oneâ€™s choice.
Even though this system has been used since â€˜Victorian timesâ€™, ie more than 100 years old, polling station staff had to explain the difference between the parliamentary and the council ballot papers, which make me believe that the English electorate, unlike the electorates in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland which have to vote according to slightly more complicated electoral systems, would have had problems with the amount of Sudanese ballot papers and different systems.
But there is more. In several major English cities polling staff shut their stations at 10pm sharp on 6 May and so denying hundreds of people their vote even though they had been queuing for more than half an hour or more. Furthermore there are serious allegations about electoral fraud, especially in relation to postal voting, because one can register to vote in Britain and Ireland, in both parts, the UKâ€™s Northern Ireland and the southern independent Irish Republic (no, I will not make my â€˜observationâ€™ even more complicated by delving into the history of Irish secession and British partition of Ireland) without a proper identity check and one does not need to produce an ID to vote; I actually had the vote while living in Dublin as when I was registered because the person who registered me did not ask me what my nationality was, which should have excluded me.
As a cub reporter cutting my teeth during the (Northern) Irish â€˜Troublesâ€™, the euphemism for an actually so called â€˜low intensityâ€™, but not always, insurgency and (urban) guerrilla, a three way struggle between republican and loyalist paramilitaries (militia) and UK security forces, I did witness the old â€˜honourableâ€™ tradition of â€˜impersonationâ€™, ie assuming another personâ€™s (often dead) identity under the motto of â€˜vote early, vote oftenâ€™; it was a kind of sport and as all parties were at it, it had little impact on the ultimate overall outcome.
Today with the (Northern) Irish peace process still working despite a residue of mainly republican dead enders continuing their armed struggle Northern Irish elections are still mainly tribal and predictable, but politics seem to be moving beyond the politics of what is called the â€˜national questionâ€™, in other words identity politics of Irish versus British, ie continuing unity with Britain within the UK, or unity with the rest of independent Ireland, as peopleâ€™s social-economic concerns and anger over corruption by politicians were more expressed.
One of the surprises of the UK parliamentary elections was that Northern Irelandâ€™s First Minister Peter Robinson of the very tribal Democratic Unionist Party, ie Union with Britain as distinct from the Sudanese DUP originally standing for the Union of the Nile Valley with Egypt, lost his seat after 31 years to the local non tribal ally of the British Liberal-Democrat party because of anger in Robinsonâ€™s own constituency over corruption allegations against him and his family.
The peace process in Northern Ireland is still working because the tribal parties such as the loyalist DUP and the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party and its militia of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) have taken full ownership of the peace process and have stopped behaving as if they could on the one hand share power in a local government of national unity and on the other hand still pretend to be opposition and rebels.
Something which the SPLM and the SPLA have not learned, or even donâ€™t seem to want to learn, that it has become a partner in a government of national unity at national, central, level though still wanting to pretend that one is still an opposition, rebel, movement, while increasingly treating their own autonomous region as their own fiefdom with its army as the partyâ€™s own private army.
Being a STO was kind of â€˜back to basicsâ€™ crash course in local journalism, one can only report on what one has actually seen oneself or could verify oneself and dismiss everything else as hearsay , separating fact from comment, let alone opinion, especially as it came from national and international level.
In Wau and in the surrounding rural districts of Western Bahr el Ghazal my colleagues, including Guy Gabriel, and I observed that by and large technical procedures were observed of ink, stamped ballot papers, seals not being tampered etc; problems of electoral register had more to do with the transcription of the same name in Arabic and in English than people deliberately being omitted. Yes, illiterate electors, of which there were many, were assisted, but there is a difference whether such a person needed 15 minutes, which often happened indicating that the person could make his or her own mind, and five minutes, when there was a clear suspicion of the elector being led or leaned on.
Yes, there were many sign of attempts to influence the electors, from posters visible within 50 metres of the polling station, party agents were operating within the poling station (one SPLM agent complained that he was not allowed to sit within the polling station, which was actually the regulation regarding party agents!), to open blatant attempts of intimidation.
However, one such incidents I witnessed confirmed to me that the election process actually did work where I was: SPLM agents wanted to prevent a woman who was legitimately registered to vote from voting and put heavy pressure on the (one of the few) female head of the polling station, who with her colleagues refused to give in and allowed the woman to vote. In another incident a woman was arrested for using a voter registration card which had been used the day before (the woman had no ink marks). In both cases the system seems to work as it should.
As a STO I have not observed the registration process or the election campaign etc, I have only followed it as an interested person from afar, nor could I observe the election process in Khartoum, other northern states, the West, the East, or other parts of the South. My colleagues based in Bentiu and Malakal reported also irregularities and intimidation, putting a question mark over Angelina Tenyâ€™s defeat, while the reported incidents allegedly involving General Athor are another indication that are putting the results in this part of northern South Sudan in doubt.
There has already been plenty and predictable condemnation of the election results in northern Sudan by the usual suspects of opponents of the NCP and SPLM fan club, but may be especially the latter should learn to hold their counsel and learn that there protestations can hit them too as a boomerang.
May be the result after all still reflects the mood of the northern and southern electorate demanding that both the SPLM and the NCP take full ownership of the CPA and make it work, just like eventually the DUP and Sinn Fein are doing now with their peace process, including to insure that he referendum next January is held orderly and transparent.
But I stray from what I can say as an ordinary STO, though I would like to finish with saying that we observers from so called western democracies have to stop pontificating given the faults and failures of our own electoral systems.
Voters in Britain cast their ballots with 100% confidence that their votes will be counted and the boxes will not be lost or stuffed or the total reported by the returning officer will not be invented by him on political instructions. Voters in Britain know how their system works with its distortions and many of them choose to vote “tactically” for a second-choice candidate because of this. A few polling stations running out of ballots is completely different to an election where the home polling station of a candidate reports ZERO votes for that candidate. Maybe his wife and children secretly dislike him and voted for his rival but what happened to his own personal vote? If the next British general election has constituencies that vote 99% for the Conservatives and the Labour Party candidate gets zero votes then yes I will accept your comparison. Not until then.
Dear Pieter, would you prefer to live in democracy, British or Dutch style or in democracy, Sudanese style?
Thank you for your response to my observations on the recent Sudanese and UK elections as an official international election observer in Sudan and an unofficial â€˜observerâ€™ as a disenfranchised person in the UK.
Because of the honest way you made your points (I am sorry if I sound patronising) I will respond, but it is not my intention to turn this in a continuing ping pong discussion.
While your general observations on the UK electoral system and your assessment of the implications of its failures for UK parliamentary democracy are valid, they cannot take away anything from my own observations as an international election observer in Wau together with those of my colleagues in the Centre for Foreign Policy Analysis (CFPA) mission such as Guy Gabriel.
I travelled to Sudan with the predictions of doom by the (mainly northern) Sudanese opposition and their foreign based activist and â€˜advocacyâ€™ friends milling in my head and even before my return I was bombarded with the shouts of â€˜I told you soâ€™ and the â€˜evidenceâ€™ of â€˜riggingâ€™ and otherwise in the East, Darfur etc, but whether all he alleged â€˜riggingâ€™ actually happened or not elsewhere my colleagues and I did not observe this in Wau; may be Wau is the exception, the only place in Sudan where the vote was fair and transparent?
My colleagues in Bentiu and Malakal were more concerned about fairness and transparency, even though they did not witness first hand the kind of incidents that were alleged to have happened. I hope you donâ€™t mind me adding my own observation that the silence of the northern Sudanese opposition plus their foreign activist and â€˜advocacyâ€™ friends about alleged electoral fraud in the South mainly by the SPLM is deafening.
And I hope you donâ€™t mind me adding another observation that the northern Sudanese opposition does not seem to be able to read the SPLMâ€™s intentions, and also that the former and latter should realise that support in the West, from governments to activists is very fickle and arbitrarily.
Not only is alleged SPLM electoral fraud ignored, but also the killing of civilian demonstrators in Bangkok by the Thai army on the orders of an unelected Prime Minister does not generate the same level of condemnation if the same was happening on the streets of Rangoon in neighbouring Myanmar/Burma. Democracy is one part of our Ancient Greek heritage, and so is hypocrisy.
But then again the Eton and Oxford educated Abhisit Vejjajiva is regarded as â€˜one of oursâ€™ in the corridors of power in Washington and London, sharing similar educational qualifications with UK PM David Cameron, who is probably as unrepresentative of wider British society as Vejjajiva is of wider Thai society.
Dear Khalid, it really does not matter under what system I prefer to live, but I do wish that the UKâ€™s electoral system becomes more transparent and reflects fairer the peopleâ€™s vote and that the Sudanese elections are a first tentative step on the road to democratisation in all of Sudan as well as that you and others like you join me in that wish.
The election in Wau was, like many other parts of Sudan, technically ‘good’ with many, probably the majority, of polling station staff taking the matter seriously. What you missed was Dr Lam Akol being detained in his aeroplane at Wau airport and then his convoy being stoned on the way into the city. SPLM-DC activists had limited opportunity to campaign against Salva Kiir and according to Lam Akol, many of his supporters were detained or harassed. In the run up to the election potential polling stations were covered with SPLM campaign material, although I assume that was removed before e-day itself.
The important thing is that there were elections in Sudan, flawed though they might have been, and reports were written. Good reports don’t just contain criticism, but positive comment and recommendations for the future.
Election observation is not a science and can be seen as subjective. I know from long experience (10 years; Sudan was my 21st observation mission) that it is difficult to cover everything. There are 2 essential polling day methodologies. Firstly, favoured by international observers, is the OSCE/EU/Carter Center/CFPA system of visiting several polling stations to ‘sample’ the process. It is a good system for gaining a wide understanding of how well polling staff perform against a measured set of technical questions based on the election laws. Local observers generally sit for the whole day in one location and can observe any attempted frauds. The quality of observation depends on the training and experience of the observers. The various reports should, where possible, be read in conjunction with each other.
Additional to any short-term observation is detailed long-term monitoring of the process. This is normally carried out by experienced election experts. LTOs should be in country for a period that allows the whole process to be followed. The Carter Center observed the voter registration process.
Both LTOs and STOs require high quality support. If you can’t understand what is happening in the polling station it is because your interpreter has not been briefed properly. A poor quality interpreter with no local knowledge, as I had in Sudan on the days I had an interpreter at all, can act as a millstone around the observer’s neck. Local staff should do as requested by observers and should have no influence on the observation process other than to interpret what is being said.
Perhaps we should start asking questions about the big picture…
Do we need a Referendum For A New Democracy?
Are you concerned about the future of democracy? Do you feel democracy is under attack by extreme greed in countries around the world? Are you sick and tired of: living in fear, corporate greed, growing police state, government for the rich, working more but having less?
Can we use both elections and random selection (in the way we select government officials) to rid democracy of undue influence by extreme wealth and wealth-dominated mass media campaigns?
The world’s first democracy (Athenian democracy, 600 B.C.) used both elections and random selection. Even Aristotle (the co-founder of Western thought) promoted the use random selection as the best way to protect democracy. The idea of randomly selecting (after screening) juries remains from Athenian democracy, but not randomly selecting (after screening) government officials. Why is it used only for individual justice and not also for social justice? Who wins from that? …the extremely wealthy?
What is the best way to combine elections and random selection to protect democracy in today’s world? Can we use elections as the way to screen candidates, and random selection as the way to do the final selection? Who wins from that? …the people?