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FOCAL Views: Election monitoring in the Americas

The election observation missions of the Organization of American States (OAS) have been a major success in the hemisphere. In the span of 30 years, the region has been transformed from a majority of dictatorships —from both the left and the right— to one that is predominantly democratic. Cuba remains the exception. And there are growing caveats about Nicaragua and Venezuela. Important elections will be held this year in the region including Colombia where election monitoring will play an important role in reinforcing fairness and transparency.

The credit for success in improving and maintaining democracy goes to the countries themselves; however, the process has been facilitated by OAS and other international electoral observations. Over 100 such observations have taken place since Canada joined the OAS in 1990. 

The function of the election observers is to assess not only the fairness of the count and freedom from manipulation, but to determine whether the electoral infrastructure is capable of providing a reasonably accurate result. Technical teams have helped to develop essential expertise on ballots, voter registration, counting, legal framework, complaint procedures, transparency and a myriad of other pieces that gel to form effective electoral mechanisms.

The most spectacular vindication of this process was the Nicaraguan election of 1990. The Sandinista leader and President Daniel Ortega had agreed to invite the OAS among others to observe the election in the firm expectation that the organization would be endorsing his victory. When it became apparent that he had lost, Ortega had second thoughts; but through the diplomacy of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and President Carlos-Andres Perez of Venezuela, was persuaded to accept the victory of Violeta Chamorro. These diplomatic efforts, however, would have been futile if the observers and the advanced preparation had not delivered a highly credible verdict.

Another example of success occurred in the Dominican elections of 1994 when the OAS together with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) and National Democratic Institute (NDI) blew the whistle on election manipulation that deprived the opposition of victory, which led to fresh elections. A similar pattern was followed when the OAS withdrew from President Alberto Fujimori’s blatantly rigged 2000 elections in Peru.

Election monitoring have contributed significantly to a more robust —if still very imperfect— democratic culture in the Americas. What is less understood is that these successes could not have taken place without disciplined attention to the professionalism and neutrality of the observers and technical experts. The system works because the observer missions (OAS, Carter Center, IFES and NDI) have developed high credibility.

But the OAS cannot dispatch observers wherever they choose. Each mission must be invited by the state holding the election and each mission must solicit funding from the donor community.

Inconsistency in this process can undermine the delicate role and importance of high credibility. Such was the 2006 Venezuelan presidential election when restrictions that were placed on the OAS mission hindered its ability to observe the entire electoral process and limited the electoral mission’s observations and conclusions to election day. The mission’s limited role meant that conclusions failed to ameliorate opposition concerns that the electoral process was flawed.

Canada, through the Canadian International Development Agency, is playing an exemplary role in election monitoring. OAS missions are not financed through its regular funds, but are wholly dependent on voluntary contributions. Canada is unique among OAS members in providing substantial sums two to three years in advance to facilitate advanced planning for missions.

This engagement has contributed to improving the standards for electoral processes throughout the region. However, other parts of the democratic architecture are not as sound. Much work remains to turn back the erosion of citizens’ rights and the balance of independent constitutional powers in several countries.blue square

This new section reflects our institutional position on current issues in the Americas. It presents collaborative opinion articles originating from staff, board members, non-resident fellows or colleagues at sister institutions.


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