Election Monitoring : Democratization :: Drug Testing : Sport

AP reports today that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is conducting an “extraordinary” audit of Jamaica’s drug-testing agency after allegations surfaced that the Jamaican organization had failed to do its job for most of the six months leading to the London Games.

“There was a period of — and forgive me if I don’t have the number of months right — but maybe five to six months during the beginning part of 2012 where there was no effective operation,” WADA Director General David Howman said in an interview. “No testing. There might have been one or two, but there was no testing. So we were worried about it, obviously.”

As fan of track and field and of cycling, I read AP’s story and got a little sadder. At this point, you can’t see stellar performances from guys like Usain Bolt and wonder if banned drugs are what gave those superstars their crucial edge, and failures like this one don’t inspire much confidence.

As a professional observer of democratization, though, I read the AP story and was reminded of the challenges of international election monitoring. Both anti-doping and international election observation efforts involve under-resourced and overly-politicized watchdogs deploying occasional and imperfect tests to try to catch determined cheaters whose careers hang in the balance. Because the stakes are so high, the screening systems we devise are tuned to favor the cheaters. We tolerate errors of omission, or false negatives, to avoid accidentally ruining the reputations of people who aren’t doping or rigging elections, but in so doing, we tolerate a higher rate of cheating than I think most of us realize.

In sport, the bias in the system is encapsulated in the defensive deployment of the phrase “never failed a drug test” by athletes who later admit they cheated. The AP story on Jamaica’s breakdown applies that phrase to world’s fastest man Usain Bolt, and “never a failed test” was a favorite weapon of cyclist Lance Armstrong’s right up until he finally confessed to years of doping.

As statistician Kaiser Fung argues, the fact that an athlete has passed lots of drug tests doesn’t tell us a whole lot when the tests are deliberately skewed to minimize the chance of falsely accusing a “clean” athlete. When we set the threshold for a positive test very high, we create a system in which most cheaters will test negative most of the time. Under these conditions, even a large number of passed tests isn’t especially informative, and the circumstantial evidence—the stories from Lance Armstrong’s trainers and teammates, or the peculiar collapse of Jamaican drug-testing during a critical training period ahead of the London games—should be considered as well.

The election-monitoring equivalent of “never failed a drug test” is the phrase “largely free and fair.” International election observation missions typically deploy staffs of a couple dozen people that are assembled in an ad hoc fashion and have to cover a wide range of issues across whole countries. The missions often expand greatly around election day, but most polling sites still go unobserved, and technical prowess is not necessarily the primary consideration in the selection (or self-selection) of those short-term observers. The quality of the resulting arrangements varies widely, but even in the best of cases, these missions leave plenty of room for determined cheaters to fix the process in their favor.

If the main goal of these missions were to cast doubt on suspicious elections, this piecemeal approach would probably work fine. Even these shoestring missions often catch whiffs of foul play and say so in their reports. For better or for worse, though, these missions also serve political and diplomatic functions, and those other concerns often compel them to soft-pedal their criticisms. Observers want to catch cheats, but they also want to avoid becoming the catalysts of a political crisis and don’t want to discourage governments from participating in the international inspections regime. So the system bends to minimize the risk of false accusations, and we end up with a steady stream of “mostly free and fair” topline judgments that agents of electoral fraud and abuse can then repeat like a mantra to defeat or deflate their domestic political opponents.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy fix in either case. As Kaiser Fung also points out, these trade-offs are unavoidable when trying to detect hard-to-observe phenomena. As long as the tests are imperfect, any reduction in the rate of one kind of error will increase the rate of the other kind. You can slide the threshold up and down, but you can’t wish the errors away.

In sport, we have to decide if we care enough about doping to risk damaging the careers of more “innocent” athletes in pursuit of the (probably many) cheaters who are getting away with it under the current system. In election observation, we have to wonder if the international missions’ declarations of “free and fair” have become so devalued that they don’t serve their intended purpose, and if so, to ask if we’re willing to see more governments disengage from the regime in exchange for a sharper signal. If these choices were easy, we wouldn’t still be talking about them.

Can International Election Monitoring Harm Governance? Actually, Yeah

According to a convincing new paper (ungated version here) by political scientists Alberto Simpser and Daniela Donno, the answer is a definite yes.

As election monitoring has increased, governments intent on cheating have learned to strategically adapt, relying less on election-day fraud, and instead increasing their use of pre-election manipulation that is less likely to be criticized and punished…

We argue that when election monitoring missions encourage an increase in pre-election manipulation, they can unwittingly have negative effects on institutional quality and governance. While the effects of ballot fraud are generally limited to influencing electoral outcomes, many pre-election tools of manipulation—such as restricting media freedom and undermining judicial independence—have additional and much deeper consequences for the rule of law, bureaucratic quality, and governmental accountability.

We put our proposition to the test using an original dataset of 944 elections in 144 countries around the world, from 1990 to 2007. The dataset features comprehensive information on the presence of election monitoring missions from 12 reputable international organizations and NGOs. In a series of quantitative analyses, we find evidence that highquality election monitoring missions are associated with a decrease in the rule of law, bureaucratic quality, and media freedom. This finding is robust to a number of specifications, including an instrumental-variables approach that corrects for the possibility that monitoring could be endogenous to changes in governance.

It’s virtually impossible to establish causality from studies of observational data like this one, but Simpser and Donno do a good job increasing our confidence in their interpretation of the evidence with smart design choices and robustness checks. They also reinforce their argument with compelling anecdotes of the unintended effects in action in several recent cases. Here, for example, is how they describe the “spillover” effects in Peru in 2000:

Expecting intense international scrutiny in the 2000 election, incumbent president Alberto Fujimori expended considerable effort and resources to bribe legislators and Supreme Court judges, and to secure control over the media, in the years preceding that election. McMillan and Zoido-Lobatón (2004), on the basis of a leaked series of incriminating videos, estimate that Fujimori and his close aides spent over $3 million per month on bribes to TV stations. The losses to society associated with such actions are extensive. First, governance, the rule of law, and freedom of the media were clearly undermined in a general sense, even if their primary motivation was to guarantee Fujimori a third term of rule. Second, managing the entire system of corruption—obtaining resources for bribing, giving out the bribes, and supervising the media to keep it all under wraps—undoubtedly diverted the attention of top government officials from the tasks of governing. As Shleifer and Vishny (1993) argue, covert corruption is especially damaging to societal well-being, because it provides incentives for government to allocate resources to those sectors where it can most easily pursue corruption, not those with the greatest potential for social and economic development.

The authors are quick to point out that the negative effects they observe do not mean that international election observation is necessarily a bad idea, just that its effects are more complicated than we often presume.

Our findings do not imply that monitoring is unambiguously harmful. Even in cases where monitoring harms governance, it could have other positive effects, possibly over the longer-term, that balance or even outweigh the negative consequences. A more complex analysis would therefore be necessary in order to assess the full welfare effects of monitoring. What we have shown here is that the possibility of spillover effects [on governance and press freedom] should be included in any such assessment.

Ironically, the strategic interplay between regimes and observers that seems to be driving these unintended and unfortunate side-effects is reminiscent of the cat-and-mouse games those same regimes play with their domestic opponents. The neighborhood watchdog chases the house cat who hunts the mouse who calls for help from the dog…

Competitive Authoritarianism in Action in Armenia

In a nice backgrounder on parliamentary elections upcoming this Sunday in Armenia, RFE/RL’s Liz Fuller summarizes the state of play as follows:

The election is widely perceived as a vote of confidence in [President] Sarkisian’s administration and, by extension, as a preliminary to next year’s presidential ballot in which Sarkisian will seek a second term. As such, it is a struggle between Sarkisian and his team to retain power and personal wealth in defiance of the opposition parties’ determination to supplant and bring to account a leadership they regard as corrupt, venal, inept, lacking legitimacy, and as having contributed to the emigration over the past four years in search of a better life of at least 78,000 people.

The key difference between today and 1996 is that then, Vazgen Manukian was widely regarded as a viable, credible, and acceptable alternative to incumbent President Levon Ter-Petrossian, whereas now many voters either do not trust any opposition political party or, convinced that the HHK will rig the election outcome, have concluded there is no point in voting.

That last sentence hints at a crucial aspect of some contemporary regimes, including Armenia’s, that often eludes cursory assessments of their elections. Steve Levitsky and Lucan Way refer to the kinds of cases I have in mind as competitive authoritarianism, and here‘s how they describe them:

In competitive authoritarian regimes, formal democratic institutions are widely viewed as the principal means of obtaining and exercising political authority. Incumbents violate those rules so often and to such an extent, however, that the regime fails to meet conventional minimum standards for democracy…Although elections are regularly held and are generally free of massive fraud, incumbents routinely abuse state resources, deny the opposition adequate media coverage, harass opposition candidates and their supporters, and in some cases manipulate electoral results. Journalists, opposition politicians, and other government critics may be spied on, threatened, harassed, or arrested. Members of the opposition may be jailed, exiled, or—less frequently—even assaulted or murdered.

Levitsky and Way see notable examples of competitive authoritarianism in “Croatia under Franjo Tudjman, Serbia under Slobodan Miloševic, Russia under Vladimir Putin, Ukraine under Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma, Peru under Alberto Fujimori, and post-1995 Haiti, as well as Albania, Armenia, Ghana, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, and Zambia through much of the 1990s.”

In these regimes, ruling officials didn’t or don’t retain power by banning opposition parties or blatantly falsifying vote counts. Instead, they win by blurring the lines between the ruling party and the state, keeping their opponents weak and off-balance, and, in some cases, demoralizing rather than inspiring voters. Come election day, the game appears to be more or less fair, but the deck has already been stacked.

Another recent RFE/RL Caucasus Report nicely summarizes how the Armenian regime has done this kind of deck-stacking in recent years.

The most widespread and pernicious irregularities registered during successive national elections in Armenia fall into two broad categories. The first is the use of “administrative resources” by the ruling party, meaning intimidation of voters in general and public sector employees in particular, ballot-stuffing, and the casting of ballots for the ruling party (or that party’s presidential candidate) in the name of people whose names remain on voter lists even though they are no longer resident in Armenia…

The second is vote-buying in the form of either financial or material incentives or under the guise of charitable activities. This approach has been particularly favored in previous parliamentary ballots by wealthy businessmen with links to the HHK running in single-mandate constituencies, generally in rural districts where poverty and unemployment are higher than in Yerevan.

Here’s a sample of what that looks like in present-day Armenia, as described in an April 27 interim report from European election observers. In the snippets that follow, RPA and PA refer to the Republican Party of Armenia and Prosperous Armenia. The former, also known by its Armenian initials as HHK, is the party of incumbent President Serzh Sargsyan; the latter is one of its junior partners in parliament’s ruling coalition.

While Article 18.6 of the Electoral Code prohibits campaigning and distribution of campaign material by pedagogical staff and in educational institutions, OSCE/ODIHR long-term observers (LTOs) reported a number of cases of teachers and students involved in the RPA campaign. In Edjmiadzin, on 11 April students and teachers were released from school to attend an RPA rally. On 14 April in Arabkir (a district of Yerevan), teachers asked students to attend, after classes, an RPA rally with President Sargsyan. LTOs observed RPA majoritarian candidates (constituencies 19 and 21, Armavir province) campaigning in schools with students and teachers present.

Some cases of the use of administrative resources by the RPA were observed, including use of an ambulance for announcing a campaign event in Kapan (Syunik province). OSCE/ODIHR LTOs also noted staff from the local tax office discussing that they had been released early from work on condition that they attended an RPA rally in Talin (Aragatsotn province) on 20 April…

On 15 April, in a village in Armavir province, a number of residents separately informed OSCE/ODIHR LTOs that they had been threatened with job loss by the authorities, the mayor and the RPA if they attended a Heritage rally scheduled for the same day…

Article 18.7 of the Electoral Code prohibits parties and candidates, as well as charitable organizations whose names may be associated with them, from giving or promising goods and services to voters during the campaign period. OSCE/ODIHR LTOs noted that after the start of the campaign period, new tractors appeared in Aragatsotn, Ararat, Armavir, Kotayk, Lori and Shirak provinces, next to or adorned with PA campaign material. According to a PA brochure, the party attached importance to the creation of tractor stations in all provinces. The OSCE/ODIHR was informed by the general director of Multigroup, a company which belongs to the PA leader, that the distribution of tractors is part of a business project. PA headquarters issued a statement that no tractors were being donated and that the party was not implementing any charitable programs…

Before the start of the official campaign period, the President and government officials received extensive news coverage by the media monitored by the OSCE/ODIHR EOM. This coverage decreased significantly after 8 April…

And the list goes on.

Considered individually, none of these transgressions seems particularly egregious. It is the cumulative effect that matters. To win multiparty elections, the ruling party doesn’t have to make itself look better than the other guys. It can also win by making the other guys look worse, and demobilizing or demoralizing voters along the way.

In Armenia, there may be a heightened sense of uncertainty around this Sunday’s elections, but the most likely outcome is still another ruling-party victory. Importantly, the HHK will effectively retain power even if it fails to secure a parliamentary majority because President Sargsyan is the country’s chief executive, and his term doesn’t end until 2013. Whichever adverb international observers stick in front of “free and fair” in their post-election reports, Armenia will still be stuck under authoritarian rule.

Elections in Kyrgyzstan and the Problem of Administrative Resource Abuse

Kyrgyzstan elects a new president today. The winner will replace Roza Atunbayeva, who helped lead the April 2010 uprising that drove President Kurmanbek Bakiyev from the country and led to Kyrgyzstan’s freest and fairest elections since the USSR disintegrated in 1991. Since the 2010 revolution, Kyrgyzstan has revised its constitution to move from a presidential system to one in which the presidency is single-term, largely ceremonial job, and parliament and the prime minister wield the most power. In spite of the position’s diminution, today’s presidential election has attracted dozens of candidates, including a few heavy hitters.

Where there’s a presidential election in an uncertain democracy, there will be concerns about electoral malfeasance. One of the biggest concerns about today’s vote in Kyrgyzstan centers on the partisan use (or abuse) of state resources. As a recent post on Eurasianet reported,

As voters in Kyrgyzstan prepare to elect a new president on October 30, allegations that some candidates are using their official positions to influence the campaign – employing ‘administrative resources,’ in local parlance — continue to saturate the Kyrgyz press.

The principle of avoiding partisan abuse of state resources seems clear; for challengers to have a fair chance, incumbents should not be allowed to take advantage of their incumbency by using state funds or bureaucracies as extensions of their political campaigns.

In practice, however, this sort of violation is particularly hard to judge, because the line between governing and campaigning is inevitably fuzzy. For example, if an American president showers a disaster-stricken state with recovery funds a few weeks before a presidential election, is he doing the right thing or trying to win votes?

And the complications don’t stop there. The use of state resources for partisan ends is also subject to something economists call the principal-agent problem. This problem arises in any situation where one party (the agent) acts on behalf of another (the principal). When the two parties have different interests and the principal cannot perfectly monitor the agent’s behavior, the agent will be tempted to pursue his own interests instead of the principal’s, and principal will find it hard to keep the agent on track.

In the context of elections, the principal-agent problem helps us see how partisan activity by state employees might not always be the fault of the candidates on whose behalf those employees appear to act. State bureaucrats will often have good reason to believe that favoritism from powerful officials will help them advance their careers, and election season gives bureaucrats a great opportunity to curry favor by demonstrating their loyalty. Without any instructions to do so, bureaucrats seeking personal advantage might end up doing partisan tricks with the resources at their disposal. Where one candidate is widely favored to win, those partisan tricks might all end up pointing in the same direction without any conspiracy or coordination. In other words, what looks like an organized plot to sway an election through the partisan use of state resources can also occur by emergence, like geese flying in formation without being told to do so.

If Kyrgyzstan’s front-runner is to be believed, this is exactly what’s happened in the run-up to today’s presidential vote. As RFERL reports in this election-eve story (emphasis added),

Kyrgyz presidential candidate Kamchybek Tashiev has accused the frontrunner in the race of using official resources to aid his election campaign…Tashiev said at a press conference in Bishkek on October 28 that Almazbek Atambaev, who stepped down as prime minister last month to run for president, was using his official ties to the government to help his campaign.

“The authorities are trying to use all sorts of dirty methods to turn the election result in [Atambaev’s] favor,” he said. “We all see how starting from the Central Election Commission, governors, district governors, and municipal chiefs are scaring teachers, doctors, students, ordinary people, and veterans; how they are intimidating them [to vote for Atambaev].”

Tashiev, 43, did not give any examples or offer any proof to support his charges…

Atambaev’s campaign staff has denied using any administrative resources since the election campaign began last month. Atambaev did admit during his televised debate on October 27 that some people are trying to “butter him up” and are “overacting” in an attempt to show their support for him as the frontrunner.

In other words, seeing that state resources are being used to partisan advantage does not necessarily reveal that a conspiracy is afoot. And the distinction matters. If Atambaev wins and his campaign was aided by overzealous bureaucrats, we have a structural problem. If Atambaev wins and his campaign was aided by a directed effort to take advantage of his party’s incumbency, we have a cheating problem. The first challenge for Kyrgyz watchdogs and international observers is going to be figuring out if there’s fire behind all that smoke about abuse of administrative resources.  If they do find fire, the next–and probably harder–challenge is going to be determining if it was set deliberately by Atambaev or erupted spontaneously under propitious conditions.

Resistible Force Meets Immovable Object

How’s this for a nerdy parlor game… Guess which country is being described in these three snippets from a preliminary statement by international observers about recent elections:

Most candidates and party representatives whom [international election observers] met said vote-buying was a major and widespread problem, but were unable to provide concrete information or evidence substantiating their concerns. The Ministry of Interior informed that investigations into a number of suspected cases of vote-buying had been opened. Regardless of the veracity of the allegations of vote-buying, their pervasiveness diminished trust in the fairness of the election process. Some opposition parties and candidates also claimed that pressure had been put on some of their municipal candidates and supporters. These allegations usually referred to threats of job loss or pressure through inspections of businesses owned by candidates or their relatives.

The number of voters registered for the presidential election totaled 6,933,748, and 6,514,917 for the municipal elections. According to the 2011 census, [Country X’s] population is 7,364,570. The ratio between the number of inhabitants and the voting-age population raises concern.

Interlocutors expressed concerns about the political balance of election commissions and that the law does not guarantee opposition parties to be adequately represented in leadership positions. The meetings of the [Central Election Commission] were closed to the public and to election stakeholders, thus reducing transparency.

Answer: Bulgaria!

Given the small size of the OSCE election observation mission involved and observers’ general tendency to downplay abuses in “transitional” cases, I suspect these and other concerns identified in the report are hinting at some real and serious flaws. Intimidated voters and inflated voter rolls are a far cry from the violent attacks and outright fraud that bedevil elections in some “developing” countries, but Bulgaria is not any old “developing” country; it has been a member of NATO since 2004 and the European Union since 2007.

In the 1990s, Western officials argued that conditional expansions of NATO and the EU would encourage reforms in candidates for membership and then help lock in those reforms once the new members had joined. None of those organizations’ new members has suffered a democratic collapse, but as Bulgaria’s electoral troubles show, some of those new members have also failed to reach the point where that kind of collapse seems out of the question.

Why is democracy still fragile under these, arguably the most auspicious, conditions? There’s a substantial academic literature on EU membership and democratization that I won’t try to summarize here, beyond waving my hand in the general direction of the collected works of Geoffrey Pridham and Milada Vachudova as a starting point.

Instead, I’ll stick to the general and say that I think the Bulgarian experience shows how hard it is to overcome organizational and institutional legacies that conflict with democratic practices, even in cases where the incentives to do so appear to be strongest. In Bulgaria, a core problem is the deep involvement of organized crime in politics. As one Bulgarian parliamentarian told the New York Times in 2008, “Other countries have the mafia. In Bulgaria, the mafia has the country.” The story goes on:

The United States helped Bulgaria into NATO, has rotated troops through for joint exercises since 2004 and has tried to encourage commerce, education and democracy. It has just announced that it will invest more than $90 million in facilities and equipment for joint use in military exercises. The European Union, eager to improve the lives of the 7.5 million Bulgarians, has promised 11 billion euros, or nearly $15 billion, in aid.

Far from halting crime and violence, the money effectively spread the corruption. Once Bulgaria’s shady businessmen realized how much European Union money was at stake, said many of Sofia’s advocates for reform, they moved from buying off politicians to being directly involved in politics themselves.

The nation’s homegrown mobs of men in black–the “mutri,” or mugs–control construction projects in city halls. And questionable business networks have moved from declining black markets for smuggled cigarettes and alcohol to legal investments in booming real estate. They have made their mark on the capital’s atmosphere: men nicknamed “thick necks” for their muscular appearance linger in neon-lighted nightclubs like Sin City and Lipstick, or keep watch over Mercedes jeeps and Audis outside. Sofia guidebooks offer tips: Avoid restaurants that draw businessmen with four or more bodyguards. Now, men like this are muscling into public office.

These criminal networks trace their roots to the collapse of Communist rule in 1989, and the corruption they have sown is directly linked to the kinds of electoral malfeasance the OSCE is still seeing more than 20 years later. According to that 2008 New York Times article,

Admission to the European Union did not halt the carnage, but emboldened a power grab. According to corruption fighters and election observers, votes can be traded, depending on the town, for marijuana cigarettes or sold for up to 100 leva, or $69. People document their votes by taking pictures of their ballots with their cellphone cameras, according to Iva Pushkarova, executive director of the Bulgarian Judges Association. “They trade votes freely on the streets, kill and threaten people with no shame,” Ms. Pushkarova said.

If entrenched interests can resist and distort large investments in democracy promotion this effectively inside the European Union, just imagine how hard the task must be elsewhere.

“[adverb] Free and Fair”

News stories about recent balloting in several African countries are reminding me how media coverage of elections in regimes with uncertain democratic credentials often reads like a mash-up of dueling press releases. From one direction, we get the top-line assessment of international election observation missions (EOMs), usually in the form of the phrase “[adverb] free and fair,” where the adverb, when attached, manages to sound a hopeful note without offering a full endorsement. From another direction, we hear complaints and criticisms lodged by losing candidates and domestic watchdog groups.

The results can be puzzling, because the assessments from those two camps often don’t match. Take this opening line from a Voice of America story on presidential elections held in October 2011 in Cameroon, a country with a regime widely regarded as authoritarian:

International observers have given authorities in Cameroon a passing mark after monitoring the October 9 presidential election amid widespread opposition allegations of fraud, organizational lapses and elevated voter abstentions.

Or this snippet from a recent CNN.com story on this month’s presidential election in Liberia:

The U.S.-based Carter Center said Thursday that the balloting was “was peaceful, orderly, and remarkably transparent.” The center’s election observation mission has been in Liberia since September 1, at the invitation of the [National Election Commission]. However, [opposition party spokesman] Tweah cited reports of ballot stuffing and discrepancies in the numbers.

If the international observers’ summary statements sound like dodges or spin, that’s because they often are. The goals of these reports are not only to describe and assess the balloting but also to discourage political crisis and encourage future improvements. In other words, they are political and diplomatic exercises as much as they are forensic ones.

Nowhere is EOM’s dual-purpose nature clearer than in the Handbook for European Union Election Observation. On page 14, the handbook makes like a forensic tool, stating that, “EU observers assess an election process in terms of compliance with international standards for elections.” Seven pages later, however, the handbook says this:

The conduct of an election can be influenced by a range of contextual factors. In circumstances where international standards have not been reached, or where national law or international best practice has not been followed, an EU EOM will consider whether there are mitigating or aggravating factors, thus placing those circumstances into context…Both mitigating and aggravating factors will be considered carefully when an EU EOM assesses any failure to meet international standards.

Some of the reasons observers might tilt their assessments in a more positive direction have little to do with the actual conduct of the election at hand. The full table of mitigating and aggravating factors can be found on page 21 of the EU handbook, but the fact that an election might be judged more favorably because it was a “post-conflict or first multiparty election,” the country has “poor infrastructure,” or the election took place in a “peaceful atmosphere” makes clear that this is not a strict standards-based exercise. Instead, countries are graded on a variety of curves, and these curves make it really difficult to extract basic information about election quality from the observers’ assessments.

At a time when even the largest international news organizations can barely afford to keep bureaus open in some regions, it’s understandable that journalists lean heavily on these press-ready summaries when describing a process as large and complex as a national election. Even so, the frustrating results of this chain of  imperfect information are stories that tell us little about the state of democracy in the country in question beyond the obvious fact that it remains uncertain. The currency of the phrase “free and fair” has become so badly devalued as to tell us next to nothing about the politics to which it’s applied. As consumers of these stories, we should understand what we’re getting and why.

Egypt Bucks the System

On July 20, Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) announced that it would not invite international election observers to monitor the country’s upcoming parliamentary balloting, now scheduled for November (link). Egyptian and international human-rights advocates promptly expressed their surprise and dismay. “This is a very terrible development,” Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies director Bahey El Din Hassan told Kristen Chick of the Pan-African News Wire (link). His institute was one of several which signed a statement decrying the new law as “blatant interference” in the work of the country’s electoral commission, interference that “raises doubts about the integrity of the election process” (link).

This decision surprised many people hoping for democracy in Egypt because it is highly unusual. As Yale political scientist Susan Hyde demonstrates in her excellent book The Pseudo-Democrat’s Dilemma (link), since the end of the Cold War, the idea that foreign election observation missions (EOMs) are an crucial enabler of free and fair elections has hardened into a widely shared international norm. As a result, only a very small share of elections in recent years have gone off without international observers present.

The decision alarmed many people because they believe the norm is rooted in sound practice. When I emailed Susan Hyde to ask for her thoughts on the SCAF decision, she wrote that the presence of international EOMs “can deter certain types of shenanigans, and their criticism (if it is warranted), packs a much bigger punch at the international level…The general reason for the norm, in my view, is that observers can increase information about the quality of the process for both domestic and international audiences.”

I was surprised by the decision, but I was not entirely dismayed. I agree with Susan that EOMs can improve the quality of elections, but I also believe they are neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve that outcome. The problem is that EOMs are neither as effective nor as impartial as we often imagine. They usually involve a small number of people who arrive close to election day and can only cover a tiny portion of the country. For political and diplomatic reasons, their top-line judgments–the only part of their analysis most of us ever will see or hear–often gloss over apparent flaws or abuses documented in their own reports. As one veteran of these missions bluntly put it to me in an email exchange about the SCAF decision, “International observers are truly full of shit. They come late, leave early, don’t know anything, and the method they use is crap. And that’s [the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights], who is the best…Also international observers give a BS judgement, they say ‘flawed’ or ‘sort of flawed’ or ‘a step forward but there were concerns’ or crap like that that nobody cares about.” (To be fair, I suspect that Susan and many other advocates of international election observation would acknowledge some truths in those criticisms; see this essay of Hyde’s in Foreign Affairs, co-authored with Duke University’s Judith Kelley.)

I also think we make a mistake when we focus narrowly on how the rejection of foreign election monitors relates to international expectations. Seen through that lens, the decision has been widely interpreted as a signal that the SCAF has something to hide. My exposure to Egyptian political discourse is extremely limited, but from what I’ve read and heard, I get the impression that the decision was genuinely driven, at least in part, by nationalist pride. Among the many impulses driving the 2011 revolution is a desire for greater autonomy from the foreign forces that long endorsed and materially supported the Mubarak regime. This desire was on clear display in a recent episode of Al Jazeera English’s The Cafe, in which Egyptian activists and intellectuals from various camps discussed the future of Egypt’s international relations (link). Seen in that light, international election observation missions might reasonably be construed as part of the Western imperialism many Egyptians are trying to throw off. In fact, this is how SCAF has explained itself. “We have nothing to hide,” Maj. Gen. Mamdouh Shaheen told reporters (link); “we reject anything that affects our sovereignty.” That the SCAF felt like it could reject this particular norm may be telling us more about the decline of U.S. and European influence in Egypt than it does about SCAF’s intentions for electoral skullduggery.

Last but not least, I’m optimistic that the absence of foreign observers does not necessarily lower the odds that Egypt’s revolution will produce a democratic national government. While I agree with critics of SCAF’s decision that international observers would probably help improve the quality of the upcoming elections, I also see the possibility of a silver lining. The hopeful part of my mind says that the absence of international observers should strengthen incentives for domestic groups to mobilize their own election observation activities. If Egyptians respond to that incentive, this mobilization could help to catalyze the organization or expansion of domestic advocacy groups and the emergence of new political parties that Egypt will need to develop a durable democratic regime. The optimal path would involve effective international and domestic observers, but if I had to choose between the two as an engine of democratic development, I would pick the home-grown version every time.

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