Democracy at Work Sunday Business Post 11 September 2011
Politicians may have faced some hostility at Ireland's polling stations in the last election, but others can find themselves literally in the line of fire when observing the voting systems in more unsettled countries Words: Catherine Reilly
AS FAR AS hotel check-in experiences go, it was as unique as it was spine chilling. Former minister for justice Nora Owen had arrived as an election monitor in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, to an ‘‘alternative’’ welcome.
‘‘The first thing they hand you is not ‘Welcome to the hotel, these are our facilities’; it’s ‘Welcome to the hotel, in the event of a bomb or shooting incident, this is what you do’,” says Owen, a seasoned election observer who has monitored in Sierra Leone, Philippines and Romania, among other countries.
The former Fine Gael TD and soon-to-be presenter of Mastermind on TV3 is among hundreds of Irish people to have observed polls in nascent democracies following nomination by the Irish government or through international NGOs.
Owen was in Afghanistan in August 2009 for its presidential and provincial council elections. She was with the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a respected nongovernmental organisation which aims to ‘‘strengthen democratic institutions worldwide’’ and has strong links to the US Democratic Party.
Owen says it is ‘‘independent’’ in its functions and doesn’t recall the affiliation causing problems. However, the dangers for a western delegation in tumultuous Afghanistan were fully countenanced and starkly underlined at a security briefing in the hotel car park after check-in.
“[The security team] role-played an attack on the street and they run you back to the car, and literally throw you in and you land on your face on the back seat,” says Owen.
Delegates were also shown how they would pick up a wounded colleague and throw them over their shoulder if they were the only person who could remove them from danger. ‘‘That was scary because none of us could do it. We hoped it wouldn’t happen.”
When invited by NDI, Owen had felt duty-bound ‘‘as an experienced politician’’ to participate in the sevenday probono exercise. She feels that Irish people with political backgrounds are suited to monitoring as our electoral system is so hands-on. ‘‘There isn’t a politician who hasn’t been at a count and at a polling station, who knows how the system works and how to watch people maybe attempting to suborn the system. That’s not to say that other people are not also very good.”
NDI’s observation mission in Afghanistan involved over 100 international and Afghan observers and was held in cooperation with the authorities, as per global guidelines on election monitoring. Owen was among a leadership delegation which spent the days before polling day in meetings with the electoral commission, members of the Afghan government, NGOs and long-term observers with NDI.
At the polling stations, Owen says there are lines you can’t cross, although it is sometimes possible to engage in non-directional discussion with voters and polling staff.
The polling stations in Kabul which her delegation observed were generally ‘‘well managed’’, but Owen sensed ‘‘it was a little unreal because you couldn’t actually converse with people, both because of language and the security situation’’.
NDI’s monitors documented numerous irregularities in the widely discredited elections. Indeed, international pressure resulted in a UN-backed probe which would have forced a second round in the presidential polls had President Hamid Karzai’s nearest rival, Abdullah Abdullah, not pulled out claiming fears of further fraudulence.
‘‘We got lots of reports where the men went in with ten or 15 polling cards and no women with them at all and they cast the vote for all the women in their family,” says Owen.
‘‘We also found that there were a lot of areas where there seemed to be no movement into the polling station and yet 600 votes in every box, which is the maximum.”
A less dangerous, more interactive mission for Owen was in post-conflict Cambodia in April 2008, ahead of its parliamentary elections that July. She was with an NDI pre-election delegation which met political parties and NGOs to assess the political atmosphere.
The delegation noted an increase in women’s political participation, but underlined problems such as the removal of large numbers of eligible voters from the rolls, and the prosecution of government opponents. Interestingly, Owen recalls how the delegation also discussed democratic ‘‘mechanisms’’, such as coalitions with the opposition parties, although she underlines that ‘‘it wouldn’t be that NDI instructs them to form a coalition’’.
Mary Jo Dowling, a 48-year-old teacher and psychotherapist in Tralee, Co Kerry, is on the roster of election observers at Irish Aid in the Department of Foreign Affairs, which nominates Irish observers for election observation missions run by the EU and OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe).
Some 297 people are on this roster with the main entry requirements being Irish citizenship, knowledge of elections, a high computer literacy, good health and adaptability to difficult travel and living conditions. According to Irish Aid, a ‘‘relevant language’’ such as French, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic or Russian is also ‘‘desirable’’ and entry to the roster entails an interview.
‘‘The work combines what I would call three life-enhancing elements: travel, democratic principles and challenge,” says Dowling, who has monitored in Indonesia, Zambia and Macedonia. ‘‘You get an insight into the lives of people at a particular point in their history, which can be interesting.”
But she emphasises the importance of understanding the constraints of the work. ‘‘Whatever your personal ideas or opinions, you must set them aside and operate on behalf of the guidelines of the mission and parameters of the role,” says Dowling, who did development work in India prior to embarking on observer missions.
Before each mission Dowling attended briefings organised by Irish Aid which she found ‘‘extremely valuable’’ and with a practical focus. Two of her missions have been as an LTO (long-term observer) in Zambia in 2006 and Macedonia in 2008, which both lasted around eight weeks and encompassed a wide range of tasks including analyses of voter registration, rallies and media coverage, and managing the deployment of STOs (short-term observers). She ultimately believes election observers make ‘‘a significant contribution to change’’ and notes a curiosity among friends about a democratic tool which retains a mysterious quality.
Indeed, when Labour TD Eric Byrne is asked if constituents in Dublin South Central ever enquire about his monitoring missions in countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine and Moldova, which are referenced on his website, his response is an unequivocal ‘‘no’’. More is the pity, he adds.
The 64-year-old’s election monitoring has been through Irish Aid and his most recent was a two-week stint as a short-term observer for the OSCE in Albania - an applicant for EU membership which held mayoral and council elections in May.
It’s one of nine election observation missions which Ireland has participated in so far in 2011, the others being in Chad, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Niger, Nigeria, Peru, Sudan and Uganda, with three more scheduled for participation before the year’s end in Tunisia, Zambia and Kyrgyzstan.
Last year, 93 observers served on 17 election observation missions, costing the Department of Foreign Affairs just over €220,000 including expenses, flights, insurance and training (these costs mostly related to election observation missions with the OSCE, which asks sending states to cover the costs of observers. The organisation monitors elections in OSCE participating countries).
Irish Aid also makes available a ‘‘one off annual grant’’ of €600 for observers put forward for missions, covering costs such as vaccinations and travel to briefings.
According to Eric Byrne, there is a ‘‘wide acknowledgement’’ of Irish monitors’ high standards and Ireland’s participation enhances its international image. His key advice for prospective observers is to know your place: ‘‘You are not there to indoctrinate, you are not there to train, you are not there to educate the electorate. You are there to monitor, observe and report.”
UN International Democracy Day is on 15 September; see www.un.org/en/events/democracy day/index.shtml