May 26, 2018
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EU's election observation missions: 25 years of experience

 EU observers working in Freetown, in March 2018. (Photo: Victor Escribano/EFE)

EU observers working in Freetown, in March 2018. (Photo: Victor Escribano/EFE)

Madrid (EuroEFE).- It was 25 years ago that the European Union sent its first election observation mission to a nascent post-Soviet Russia.

Now, the EU sets aside 38 million euros ($46.5 million) of its annual budget to deploy a dozen of missions every year, led by a European Parliament lawmaker as "chief observer."

"It is one of the best (EP) business cards," lawmaker Elena Valenciano tells EFE.

"We are currently, undoubtedly, the best in monitoring elections," says the Spanish socialist leader, who has participated in missions in Haiti, Tunisia and Burundi.

Valenciano is leading the EU Electoral Observation Mission to Lebanon for the upcoming elections there, scheduled for May 6.

First mission in Yeltsin's Russia

Between 1993 and 1996, EU missions monitored three electoral processes in Russia. The first came just after president Boris Yeltsin had shelled the Supreme Soviet, the parliamentary body of the Soviet era, killing hundreds of people, and elections had to be held to form a new parliament.

During the 1990s, 10 out of a total 24 observer missions were deployed to former Socialist bloc countries.

In South Africa, the EU was present to monitor the first multi-racial elections held after the abolition of apartheid in 1994, in which the Nelson Mandela-led African National Congress emerged victorious.

In the Middle East, they saw through the first general elections in Palestine after the Oslo Peace Accords, won by Yassir Arafat's Fatah Party in 1996. 

The EU consolidated its role as an electoral observer after 2000, with a total of 85 missions in the first decade of the century, most of which were sent to African and Asian countries, with another 16 dispatched to Latin America.

European observers were present in the first elections after civil wars in Sierra Leone (2002), Liberia (2005) or Nepal (2008), in the first elections after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2004 and in the first ever elections in Bhutan, which abolished its absolute monarchy in 2008.

Since 2010, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean have continued to be the EU's focus, with missions sent in 2018 to El Salvador, Sierra Leone and Paraguay and observers deployed to Montenegro as part of a mission by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

European observers are currently deployed in Lebanon and Tunisia, both of which are to head to the polls on May 6.

182 missions in 25 years

The missions consist of a core set of analysts and groups of expert long-term observers that arrive in the country weeks in advance to monitor the campaign and preparations for the elections across the territory.

Always led by a member of the European Parliament, the EOMs are later joined by a delegation of European lawmakers and ambassadors in the country, known as short-term observers, in the week before the elections.

The missions arrive upon invitation from the country's authorities, which are given a preliminary report a couple of days after the elections, while the final report is submitted after two months.

The EU also takes part in broader missions, such as in Montenegro in April this year, or share the work with other bodies such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe or the Organization of American States.

With 182 missions already accomplished in almost 25 years, Valenciano, who is a lawmaker from the S&D bloc, says the EU is now very well equipped for election observation.

"We have kept learning and I believe now we have a technical skill which is probably the best among those engaged in election observation, a tremendous legitimacy," Valenciano says, adding that she is proud of her work as an observer.

"We make the difference"

Valenciano says election observation is an activity closely followed by lawmakers in the European Parliament, and often they have made a difference.

"The fact that the EU was present in an election observation mission has often prevented abuse or uncorroborated results," she says.

Luxembourg’s Frank Engel, a lawmaker sent to Sierra Leone in March, also says the EU's presence guarantees that elections are not manipulated.

But last year, the observers' presence was not enough to ensure elections were smooth in some countries, like in Kenya, where elections were repeated without the opposition present.

Elections were also controversial in Honduras, where opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla continues to reject President Juan Orlando Hernandez's victory.

The OAS has called for a new vote in Honduras, but the EU did not follow despite its final report saying the electoral process had been fraught with irregularities.

"What the EU has found is that, despite the opposition's candidate apparently winning at first, the final result seems to be what it is. It is true that it is challenged by half the electorate," says Valenciano.

She adds that the EOM report was clear in this regard and now efforts should be made to stop violence and open dialogue between political forces.

"Observers, not commentators"

The purpose of each monitoring mission is to strengthen democracy in the country and European observers keep returning for years to track subsequent elections and check if their recommendations are being followed.

United Kingdom lawmaker Jean Lambert, the chief observer of the EU-EOM Sierra Leone 2018, explains that the objective of a mission is to observe the elections, not just what happens on the voting day, but also the campaign, the media coverage and the role of the election commission.

"We observe it with a specific methodology, which is based on the country's laws and international standards," she says.

Engel adds that observers try to closely monitor the polling booths to see if they have the necessary equipment, if the voting officers are trained as they should be, if there is peace and order in the polling booths and if people have the freedom to vote as they want.

"We also monitor, as much as we can, the closure of the election day proceedings, the counting and recounting until we get the results. We try to make the process improve over time," he adds.

"Our mission is to be observers, not commentators; not interfering in the process, but collating the lessons that should be applied," says Lambert.

Valenciano recalls her experience as the chief observer in Haiti in 2015-2016, where the EOM dragged on for a year as voting had to be carried out again. She remembers women who left their village early morning and walked for hours to be able to vote in Port-au-Prince.

"Seeing the power of democracy even in difficult situations teaches us who don't value it as much as we should because we are old democrats _ a lot," says the Spaniard.

"For me, the EOMs are the most beautiful things which you can do, because you touch the evolution of democracy in different countries. It allows us, who practically take democracy for granted, to see that there are people who put everything at stake to defend it," she says.

By Julia R Arévalo, Catalina Guerrero and Victor Escribano

Translated by Iqbal Abhimanyu​


"The project was co-financed by the European Union in the frame of the European Parliament's grant programme in the field of communication. The European Parliament was not involved in its preparation and is, in no case, responsible for or bound by the information for opinions expressed in the context of this project. In accordance with applicable law, the authors, interviewed people, publishers or programme broadcasters are solely responsible. The European Parliament can also not be held liable for direct or indirect damage that may result from the implementation of the project."

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