In elections, beauty is in the eye of the beholder

[Published by the Cambodia Herald on May 13, 2014.]

Conducting a fair election is never easy (witness the dispute over the 2000 presidential election in the US). But it is particularly difficult in poor countries, and especially in poor countries that have recently emerged from, or are still trying to emerge from, conflicts.

But despite these common difficulties, the elections in these countries are evaluated according to quite different standards by rich-country politicians who have appointed themselves as international electoral supreme courts. Consider the following examples.


Afghanistan held presidential and council elections on April 5. For the previous presidential election in 2009, there were more than 1000 international observers. This time there were almost none, largely because of fear of attack by reactionary militias opposed to any sort of election.

The US National Democratic Institute withdrew all of its international staff, leaving only 80-100 local employees to monitor eight provinces. The International Republican Institute had no monitors.

The Asian Network for Free Elections announced that it was deploying only seven or eight observers, all of whom would remain in the capital. The International Foundation for Electoral Systems, which since 2002 has been assisting with training in things like voter registration and poll worker skills, was reported to have sent all its advisers out of the country before the election. Democracy International said it was keeping 16 observers in Afghanistan, but they would not go out on election day.

A 15-member mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe was reduced to seven after a militia attack killed an election observer. The European Union sent 16 observers, but the head of the group announced that they would not go out during the election.

Even international media largely avoided sending reporters, partly out of fear of attack and partly because of an editorial focus on Syria and Ukraine.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan announced that monitoring relied “entirely” on local monitors. But while the number of Afghan observers was reported as more than 200,000, most of them were not neutral but were official or unofficial supporters of particular parties or candidates.

Only about a third of Afghans who voted were women. The Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA) reported prior to the election that women also faced many obstacles to being candidates. Of 272 female provincial council candidates it interviewed, 67 said they were intimated through “threatening phone calls and night letters from a number of MPs, members of Provincial Councils and insurgent groups” as well as “hate speeches and negative preach[ing] by Mullahs, tribal elders, district governors and some illegal armed groups”. The women candidates reported that some electoral commission staff discriminated among candidates “based on gender, race, regional and political affiliation”.

A second FEFA report prior to the election criticised the electoral commission for a lack of voter education activities, resulting in many districts having a “significantly low level of awareness of electoral process and electoral timeline”. FEFA also noted that the most common violation of electoral laws (56%) was candidates making use of government resources. The organisation observed 123 campaign events and noted “violations including threats, abuse of public resources and negative campaign[ing] in 26”. (The above information on Afghanistan election conditions is taken from

About 58% of eligible voters actually cast a ballot.

The day after the election, all the problems were forgotten. US President Barack Obama praised it, saying that it “represent[s] another important milestone in Afghans taking full responsibility for their country as the United States and our partners draw down our forces … These elections are critical to securing Afghanistan’s democratic future …”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said, “It is a great achievement for the Afghan people that so many voters, men and women, young and old, have turned out in such large numbers …”

The UN Security Council issued an effusive statement full of praise such as “The members of the Security Council applaud the Afghan-led efforts to prepare for and hold these elections and recognize the important role of the Afghan electoral institutions … as well as the support provided by international partners.”

Officials from the EU, India, Canada and NATO (and probably others) were similarly enthusiastic.


Iraq held national elections on April 30. Sixty percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. During the time from the new year to the election, approximately 1000 Iraqis per month were killed in political violence. If there were significant numbers of international observers present for the voting, I have not been able to find a reference to this.

After casting his vote, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared: “Our victory is ensured, but we still need to determine how big this victory will be.”

Maliki had reason for confidence: a record of coming out on top even when the voters prefer someone else. In December 2005, parliamentary elections gave a plurality to the United Iraqi Alliance, which nominated Ibrahim al-Jaafari as prime minister. However, factional divisions forced Jaafari out in April 2006. After the four leading replacement candidates were interviewed by the CIA, the US ambassador endorsed Maliki, and he was installed as prime minister.

In June of the same year, the International Committee to Protect Journalists wrote to Maliki, complaining about his government’s “disturbing pattern of restrictions on the press” and “imprisonment, intimidation, and censorship of journalists”. Maliki responded in August by banning television stations from showing bloodshed in the country.

In the 2010 parliamentary election, Maliki’s party came second in the vote. Not an insoluble problem: in backroom negotiations that took more than nine months, it was eventually agreed that Maliki should continue in the job. Two months later, a spokesperson declared that, to encourage democracy, Maliki would not be a candidate in the 2014 election (it seems he changed his mind).

“Neither Maliki, nor other candidates, spent much campaigning time trying to establish their governance credentials with war-weary voters”, Martin Chulov reported in the 30 April Guardian. He also noted:

“Already disenfranchised since the ousting of Saddam Hussein 11 years ago, which led to Iraq’s long-marginalised Shia majority taking over, Sunni Iraqis claim this election has failed to re-absorb them into the body politic, or to share power.

“Sunni communities in Anbar and in some provinces south of Baghdad say Iraq’s Shia-led military makes little distinction between them and insurgents. A Maliki-led crackdown on civil protests in Anbar last December exacerbated their fears.

“‛What is the point of voting,’ said Ali Mansour, a Ramadi resident. ‛All we would be doing is giving legitimacy to Maliki. He is ensuring that the country will be torn apart.’”

The US secretary of state, John Kerry (who doesn’t live in Iraq), disagreed. He said that, by voting, those Iraqis who did vote sent “a powerful rebuke to the violent extremists who have tried to thwart the democratic process and sow discord in Iraq and throughout the region”.

(Several days later, the speaker of the Iraqi parliament, Osama al-Nujefi, presented the US ambassador with his concerns about a large number of complaints regarding mishandling of ballot boxes. Nujefi also said that security forces had prevented observers from entering a number of polling stations.)

The UN Security Council backed Kerry in applauding: “The members of the Security Council welcome the holding of timely parliamentary elections in Iraq on 30 April, and commend the people of Iraq for demonstrating their commitment to a peaceful, inclusive and democratic political process.”

(Information for people who are not used to reading diplomatic weasel words: the statement did not say that the Iraqi elections were “peaceful, inclusive and democratic”. It said that the act of voting indicated that Iraqis would like a “peaceful, inclusive and democratic” political process. I hope they will get that wish some day, but in the meantime the Security Council has an escape clause if it is revealed that the election results were grotesquely rigged.)


In the National Assembly elections in Cambodia on July 28, 2013, more than 68% of eligible voters participated (more than in Afghanistan or Iraq). This election had many many fewer international observers, 292, than previous elections. This is presumably for one or both of two reasons: (1) confidence among previous observers that the elections would be conducted fairly, or (2) the campaign by opposition leader Sam Rainsy urging that there be no international observers for this election.

There were, however, very many national observers. First of all, there were representatives of the parties competing in the election. The NEC accredited 18,012 representatives from the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), plus 14,839 representatives from Funcinpec and lesser numbers from smaller parties. Later, at their request, the NEC added another 9931 observers from the Sam Rainsy Party and 4780 observers from the Human Rights Party, even though those parties had earlier merged into the CNRP. The main opposition party alone thus had nearly 33,000 observers at the country’s 19,000 polling stations. As well, election-monitoring NGOs, most of them hostile to the governing party, had more than 40,000 accredited observers – an average of more than two per polling station.

All of these observers were allowed to be present during the counting of votes. At every single polling station, all of the observers signed the official forms certifying that the votes had been counted and recorded accurately. At each subsequent stage of compiling the votes, the totalling was similarly observed by and endorsed by independent and/or pro-opposition supporters.

Strangely, however, I can’t recall the US or the EU or the UN issuing any ringing endorsements of the Cambodian elections. I think that Obama’s third undersecretary for colonial mismanagement might have indicated that his boss was pleased that there hadn’t been a lot of people killed on voting day, but that was about it. (And the statement didn’t mention that the small amount of election-day violence was caused by opposition supporters.) Cambodian opposition leaders continue circling the globe, telling gullible politicians that they were cheated out of victory but refusing to specify the details of where they think their representatives signed inaccurate vote totals.

What should we conclude?

Given these quite different standards that some governments apply to elections in countries like Cambodia, what are we to conclude? One possible conclusion would be that the leaders of these countries are not really mainly concerned about democracy, but mostly about how well or badly poor-country governments are carrying out the wishes of those rich-country leaders.

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