to identify anti-Chavista voters, instant provision of voter identification
to Chavista supporters, unexplained
changes in voting lists and the registry, and placement of pro-Chávez poll
workers in polling places.
The events in Honduras in June
2009 signaled another problem: the
delicacy of responding to executive-led requests for observation in highly
polarized environments. At President
Manuel Zelaya’s request, OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza
prepared to monitor a national referendum that could pave the way to change
the constitution to allow for presidential reelection. The referendum had
already been rejected as unconstitutional by the National Congress, the
Supreme Court and the president’s
own political party, Partido Liberal.
An emissary sent by the OAS in advance of the mission, Raúl Alconada
Sempé, concluded that the referendum should be a nonbinding poll. But
that did not allay the complaints of
Honduran critics who charged that,
nonbinding or not, the referendum
would be used to legitimize the president’s unconstitutional ambitions to
run for office again.
The Honduran Congress asked the
observer to leave the country, but
President Zelaya pushed ahead with
the poll any way—a decision that led
to his ouster by the military. In this
case, forced into a misguided mission,
the OAS election observation efforts
unwittingly legitimized an unlawful
and rejected process.
Such incidents raise serious questions about how election missions are
deployed. Critics charge that the decision to accept all invitations to monitor elections of any type inevitably
lands the OAS in the midst of domestic
political controversies. While it is certainly legitimate to oversee presidential elections, it’s questionable whether
the oversight of national referenda or
local and legislative elections advances
the interests of democracy.
Missions have been dispatched to
oversee referenda on revoking a presidential mandate, on energy policy,
and on construction in the Panama
Canal. In 2011, a mission went to Bolivia for a national election of judges,
without serious consideration of the
flawed electoral method used, or its
implications for Bolivia’s democracy.
Another challenge faced by these
observation missions is irregular or
insufficient funding, which often results in understaffing or poor organization. The lack of funds also impairs
the ability of observer missions to follow up on whether their recommendations have been implemented. Further,
unreliable funding makes them dependent on a few donors—leading to
the perception that missions are not
independent or impartial.
The flaws and missteps of election
observation missions are beginning
to encourage several countries to ig-
nore them entirely in the interests of
making larger political points. Ven-
ezuela and Nicaragua, for instance,
charge that electoral observer teams
are under the control of the U.S. and
thus are inherently interventionist.
Venezuela has opted to invite election observers from friendly countries or regional organizations such as
the Unión de Naciones Suramericanas
(Union of South American Nations—
UNASUR) that often lack the technical training to be able to objectively
detect fraud. Such teams arrive two
or three days before the election and
tour polling places under the escort
of national authorities, who preapprove their reports.
A NEW LANDSCAPE,
A NEW BLUEPRINT
If they are going to be useful in facing the complex challenges of t wenty-first century democracy, multilateral
organizations such as the OAS need
to address many of the concerns of responsiveness, relevance and partiality
that have been leveled against election observation missions.
One of the priority reforms would
be to allow the OAS secretary general to dispatch a team of observers
to any member state without prior
invitation, especially in situations
where the opposition or significant
stakeholders question the validity
of the electoral process. Such a provision should, however, require that
the secretary general must do so in
consultation with the OAS Permanent Council and without objection
from the host government.
A process that allows election observations without a formal invitation
would also facilitate the planning
and organization of missions, while
avoiding the need to accept last-minute invitations—a practice that usually results in improvised missions.
In this light, other political actors—legislatures, the judiciary, local governments or even political
parties—should be able to independently request an election observation mission from the OAS. Allowing
only executive branches to invite missions can lead to distorted or biased
ALLOWING ONLY THE
EXECUTIVE BRANCH TO
INVITE MISSIONS CAN
LEAD TO BIASED RESULTS.
Americas Quarterly SPRING 2012