Zim: International election observers must do no harm

Various foreign countries use elections as a litmus test for democracy and a pedestal for their foreign policy interests.

AS elections draw closer, there has been an influx of international observer missions into the country.

The role of international observers has become more pronounced in recent years. This is well demonstrated by the mixed signal of the political elite in Zimbabwe.

In one moment, they are asserting the sovereignty of Zimbabwe and lambasting the ‘West’ and in the next moment, begrudgingly inviting the same perceived antagonists to observe our elections.

The contours of legitimacy have transcended domestic politics making an endorsement of elections by the international community an important pursuit with potential international political and economic dividends.

Instrument for international politics

Elections have become an instrument for international politics.  The political elite seeks to instrumentalise elections as a showy display of their democratic plumes and in our case, the touted reform persona of the ‘second republic.’

Various foreign countries use elections as a litmus test for democracy and a pedestal for their foreign policy interests.

Skeptics like this writer fear that certain countries within the international community may undeservedly sanitise and instrumentalise the conduct of elections by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) as an excuse to justify re-engagement with Harare.

This is where the role of international observers as instruments for international politics potentially gets murky. I will stretch this thought further in a moment. Let me first give due accolades to international observers.

An important role in elections

International election observers play an important role in elections with a demonstrable positive impact. The presence of international observer missions has been touted as enhancing democratic elections, strengthening credibility, and lending legitimacy to electoral outcomes which are more likely to gain broader acceptance by domestic and international actors.

Broadly, they support democratisation and democratic consolidation. They also enhance transparency and help build public confidence and trust in the election.  This increases the chance of the electoral outcomes being widely accepted.

Beyond detecting irregularities, the mere presence of international eyes on the polls can also be a deterrent to electoral fraud and political violence while strengthening peace.

The reports of international election observer missions also help set the agenda for electoral reform and improve future elections. All this is essential for long-term political stability and democratic growth.

There is no vacuum

International election observer missions do not operate in a vacuum. The countries in which they observe have a particular context. International politics also play a defining role, especially in this era of upheavals and re-alignments in geopolitics and global economic interests.

As such, the interests of international observer missions go beyond just the elections to political and economic pursuits, which can best be achieved through a certain portrayal of the election. This means their assessments are not always as depoliticised.

While Zimbabwe is not that significant within the grander scheme of things, two key considerations may renew the focus for re-engagement. Great power politics to check Russian and Chinese influence in Africa comes to mind. The second consideration pertains to global supply chains in which Zimbabwe is set to occupy an important role as the biggest supplier of lithium in Africa and sitting on sixth in the world in terms of reserves.

It is not lost on the writer that relations with the West are a bit strained and this election could very well be the image laundering moment that can be leveraged to present Zimbabwe as a reformed global citizen ready for the embrace of the West and the rest.

That would be a handy way to salvage the West’s liberal conscience governed only by its own interests and whims. I may be taking a wild swing here, hyper-imaginative even, but I do not think the bug of delusion has caught up with me yet.

On the other hand, international observers from the Sadc would look the other way even in the face of serious irregularities, in the name of liberation movement solidarity.

The greater interest would be maintaining political stability considering that any instability in Zimbabwe affects the whole region as is the case already.

The African Union mission also has a notorious history for endorsing elections even where brazen manipulation and fraud are recorded.

International organisations are also sometimes motivated by the need to preserve their status in the country hence they may not be willing to be too critical of the electoral process.

The closest they would come to criticising the process would be to politely ‘note some incidents’ of irregularities but ‘by and large’ the election was ‘peaceful’. Peaceful is the operative word here!

A good enough election  not enough

The body of literature on election observation presents a growing concern that sometimes the election must just be ‘good enough’ to be endorsed as free and fair by international election observers. Good enough in this case might mean there was not much violence. Or that according to ‘African standards’ the conduct is acceptable.

The fear here is that the whole operation can be reduced to election tourism, just a public relations exercise and not much more.  This presents the pitfall where international observers may not have much ability to detect nor deter electoral manipulation.

In such an event they may end up sanitising electoral fraud. Two recent embarrassing incidents in Kenya and Malawi are fresh in this columnist’s memory.

The ghost of Kenya and Malawi

The biggest elephant in the poll is that usually, missions are unable to detect and deter electoral irregularities. Sometimes they observe such but are reluctant to point out the flawed process or outright discredit the whole election for the sham that it would be.

A blight still fresh in the conscience of perennial international observer missions are the elections in Kenya, 2017, and Malawi, 2019 which were largely praised as credible by international observers.

The Supreme Court in both instances annulled the outcomes. That was a damaging indictment of the endorsements by international observers.

It is the ghost still haunting election observers as uncomfortable conversations about international election observation have been ignited. Inconvenient questions continue to be asked. Legitimately so.

While the observer missions do not outright say they endorse the election, their statements presenting the election in a positive light are themselves a stamp of approval.

This is especially so because they rush to present their preliminary reports even before the announcement of results. Hence, they upstage and potentially discredit any dissent from local observers or even from aggrieved political parties with this stamp of approval.

Of course, International Election Observation is not an ice-cream stroll in the park. It is sometimes tightrope walking filled with contradictions and political pressure.

Tight rope walking

Elections observers must be careful not to discredit the whole election because of one issue. That will be akin to throwing out the baby with the dirty bath water so to speak.

So, they are faced with the burden to judge and weigh the relative gravity of different aspects of the election and decide if the irregularity observed is important enough to seriously impact the credibility of the election. This is not easy considering that elections are not the same everywhere and context plays a pivotal role.

On the other hand, election observers are expected to lend credibility and legitimacy to the electoral process and not the opposite.

For instance, by pointing out weaknesses in the administering of elections before polling day, international election observers risk preemptively discrediting the election and even setting the stage for a disputed poll.

This is what the missions seek to remedy whenever they can, hence, they may downplay some incidents to avert stoking the fires of a disputed election.

As an election is a highly political event, international election observers may face political pressure from contesting parties and other actors to consider their views and present the election as credible or to discredit the election as those actors’ interests may dictate.

In addition, they may face political pressure from their home countries or institutions to advance the political and economic interests of those nations or institutions.

For international organisations, the political pressure could be about them preserving their status within that country. All these dichotomies and contradictions exert pressure on international observers.

The sober view

International observers play a crucial role in supporting democracy, enhancing the credibility and legitimacy of an election, and pointing out weaknesses in the conduct of elections which may inform future electoral reforms.

However, they also carry a stamp of approval on the freeness and fairness of elections which has in the past sanitised electoral fraud later to be reversed by courts in some countries.

That is fatal to the pursuit of free and fair elections. It is fatal to the growth of electoral democracy.

Further, international election observers must not upstage local observers and political parties as their pronouncements can upstage and discredit any dissent that may be registered by these local actors. In other words, international election observers must do no harm!

Necessity and, gratuitous self-pleasure for my cynic self, demands that I say to international election observers; ‘remember the ghost of Kenya and Malawi.’

This is my sober view; I take no prisoners.

  • Dumani is an independent political analyst. He writes in his personal capacity. Twitter - @NtandoDumani


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