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Political Cheating: Do Election Observers Help or Hurt?

Tomorrow, 6,000 fraud cops will be deployed for elections in Madagascar, one of the world's poorest nations.
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Tomorrow, the nation with the world's largest percentage of people living in poverty, Madagascar, holds elections to pick a parliament and a head of state. Stakes are high. The last elections were four years ago, but ended in the removal of the elected government after street demonstrations led to a coup. The coup meant the country was thrown out of various international conventions, and some key regional organizations have been barred from admitting it to trade and political treaties. Today, as many as nine in 10 Malagasies live on a few dollars a day, though the statistics are somewhat skewed by the country's enormous under-18s, which make up about half the population. The 10 million kids who aren't yet of voting age represent a lot of people with a big future, if the enormous island nation can get on track. All-in-all, just under eight million people out of the country's 22 million total population are registered to vote Friday.

So the world has sent watchers. As many as 6,000 election monitors are likely to be in the country to monitor 20,000 polling stations. AllAfrica reports that most of the observers (5,000) are from Madagascar, and another 800 are from places as distant as China. Agencies like the South African Development Community and the African Union have sent teams, as has France. That's a lot of critical eyes, from a lot of places. But this is still the world's poorest nation, facing an unstable political environment, and off the radar of most of the world's media. Will it work?

Last March, a Johannesburg-based NGO that advocates for fair elections, the earnestly-named Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA), asked a few questions about election observers in that region's voting. The practice of having watchers on the polling places cuts both ways, the group notes. In cases where election fraud is likely—the recent voting in Zimbabwe is a common example—the presence of observers can backfire, lending legitimacy to a vote that may smell of fraud, but can't be proven clearly fraudulent.

In other cases, the observers themselves have brought elections into doubt because the different bodies sending observers reached different conclusions. If the observers couldn't agree, something must be fishy, right? "Drawing of [sharply] contrasting conclusions in what is supposedly deemed to methodologically result in convergence of some kind has raised concerns on the value of election observation in electoral processes in Africa, and whether deploying missions is worth such an expensive endeavour," the group wrote back in March. More concisely: observers working from the same guidelines, and the same data, should reach the same general conclusions about an event. If they don't, maybe they muddy the process more than they aid it.

A few months later in May, Duke political scientist Judith Kelley, writing in Think Africa Press, noted that election observer missions were bureaucratic entities and had bureaucratic problems that could affect their role. A spring election in Kenya, she pointed out, received extensive international scrutiny. But the important European Union observer mission didn't tender its report on time, leading to problems. Why were they late? Did they have worries? Were they just inefficient? The upshot was more meddlesome than helpful to Kenya's vote.

Kelley, who is critical of the African Union's election monitoring efforts, echoes EISA's concerns about different observer teams reaching contradictory conclusions. She points more sharply to the difference, though, saying Africa-based organizations and off-continent groups had taken up sides in one key case, the elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The disparity between African and other international observer missions was startling. The [US-based] Carter Centre called the elections problematic, while the National Democratic Institute, International Foundation for Electoral Systems and EU were also highly critical. Even citizen observers and local media called the process highly flawed. Yet by contrast, the African Union and four other African observer missions including SADC declared the polls “successful” and urged both sides to show restraint. Some suggest the African bodies’ positive reports stemmed from economic and political interests within South Africa.

Voting starts in Madagascar in about 12 hours. It's probably safely within the bounds of editorial propriety to wish the hard-pressed Malagasy voters good weather, a calm vote, and nothing but boredom all weekend for the 6,000 observers watching it all. Barring a clear majority among some 33 parties and candidates, a runoff will be held in December.