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FPC Briefing-Election Observation in the European Space: The Role of the OSCE/ODIHR, the Council of Europe and EU

Article by Dr Beata Martin-Rozumilowicz

January 25, 2018

FPC Briefing-Election Observation in the European Space: The Role of the OSCE/ODIHR, the Council of Europe and EU

As the history of structured and methodologically-based election observation is nearing its twenty-fifth anniversary, it seems that the time is ripe to take stock of the current state of play with regard to election observation in the European space. Over this time-period, the Organization for Security and Co-operation’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE / ODIHR) has been instrumental in moving this rights and principles-based election observation approach forward considerably, with ground-breaking publications such as its Election Observation Handbook, first published in 1996 and now in its sixth edition. A number of methodological handbooks published over the years have built upon and nuanced this initial approach.[1]


Other organizations, such as the Council of Europe (CoE) and the European Union (EU) have very much modelled their approach on the one of the OSCE / ODIHR. While the former often joins OSCE / ODIHR election observation missions (EOMs) under the auspices of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), the later has adopted its own independent methodology and structure (large based on the OSCE / ODIHR model). Also, while the PACE observers in many EOMs, they rarely are involved in Election Assessment Missions, primarily deployed in European Union countries. The EU as a whole doesn’t send Election Observation Mission (EUEOMs) to observe in OSCE participating States.[2] The European Parliament, however, sometimes sends delegations to participate in OSCE/ODIHR EOMs, which in addition to signing up to the overall findings of an EOM, sometimes also report internally to the EP upon return.


As well, a community of good practice, based around the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation (DoP), has contributed to the methodological rigours of election observation in the European space as well as globally. The DoP is now in its thirteenth year and it has been endorsed by more than 50 organizations, including the UN, the EU, the European Parliament, the CoE, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), the Carter Center, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and many others.[3] Institutionally, the DoP community helps buttress and constantly builds upon the methodological foundations of credible international observation and further developments in emerging issues of concern.


At the same time, a ‘community of bad practice’ has sprung up with a plethora of organizations and individuals without methodological rigour or transparency as to their methods for reaching the conclusions that they do. Often, reports emanating from this community are not public or are rudimentary in their nature, their means of financing opaque, and they are often responsible for the phenomena of deployment of ‘zombie observers’ to many countries.[4]


As such, the time seems ripe for an evaluation of the current state of play of election observation in the European space. This piece will look at some of the outstanding problems and examine some of the remedies that are available. It is hoped that the essay will offer a comprehensive view forward on how international election observation can continue to be relevant in the years and decades to come.

The Problems Extant

One fundamental issue with election observation is that without a firm grounding in standards and principles, there is always a risk of it becoming politicized and arbitrary. This reduces both the meaning and the impact of the exercise. Of course, context is always important (and no observer will dispute this), but fundamental human rights principles and rights can’t be ignored and are not relative (rights such as the freedom of expression, association, assembly, etc.)


Throughout the course of the development of election observation as an institution, I would pose that there has been a fundamental tension between this rights-based approach, and an instrumental approach that sees it as a political tool to national-interest ends. This is true of both the good and the bad practice communities. This tension is particularly dangerous, as it introduces relativity and subjectivity to an electoral assessment process, which then can (and is) being used by opponents to destroy the institution of election observation.[5]


Part of the problem historically has also been the tension between parliamentary ‘leaders’ of observation efforts and the electoral experts that draw these assessments, based on certain pre-defined parameters. I would argue while both elements are necessary, both sides also need to understand their comparative strengths as well as the possible blind spots that make their involvement in election observation less effective. For instance, without the political weight and profile of parliamentary leaders, observation risks being shunted into unimportance or irrelevance by those who would rather ignore the findings. Thus, parliamentarians bring a higher degree of exposure to the process of election observation.


At the same time, for purely bandwidth reasons, such individuals don’t have the time to devote the level of depth of analysis and understanding to truly and credibly evaluate an electoral process. Almost all in the field now agree that election day is only one part of the process; one which starts months before the day with the delineation of constituency boundaries, the registration of voters and candidates, the ability of those candidates to campaign, the role of money in politics, the freedom of the media space to allow voters to make informed choices free from pressure and intimidation, the process of procurement and implementation of any technological aspects to the process, the adjudication of complaints and appeals and the declaration of final results. All of these processes are as important (if not more so) than the actual casting of ballots, counting of them and tabulation of the preliminary results.


In addition is the ability of women, minority groups, disabled persons, youth and other marginalized groups to understand and access the process equally to other citizens. This is an aspect which is receiving an ever-greater attention in modern election observation assessments.


In order to respond to these challenges there is a clear need for a complex evaluation mechanism that requires experts in each field of properly evaluate whether international obligations, standards and good practices have been met and then to balance these factors in an overall evaluation of a particular electoral process. Parliamentarians are crucial in helping find this evaluatory balance, but they should not be seeking to change reality for their own political ends, as happens far too often. The most recent allegations and investigations into various, high-profile cases of corruption and venality through this problem into stark relief.[6]


As discussed in the introduction above, on the other side of the equation is what I have come to term the ‘community of bad practice’, which mirrors and mimics this rights-based approach. This community is driven by certain States that seek to show that everything is relative, that there is no such thing as a rights-based approach, that all that is relevant is transactional foreign policy, and that all processes are ultimately corruptible. The current political climate both in Europe and in the United States has recently buoyed proponents of this point of view and it is to some degree gaining traction amidst all the furore of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’.


This grouping has made significant progress in undermining the institution of election observation in a variety of ways. They meet regularly amongst themselves to share experiences that undermine observation and are increasingly engaging in alternative electoral technical assistance amongst their like-minded associates. They more regularly deploying ‘zombie’ observers and organizations to counter credible observation reporting and fill the media space with such alternative truths to confuse and mislead citizens and voters.[7] More insidiously, there is the work done corrupting individual politicians on election missions to in an effort to alter the findings as well as at an organizational level to limit funding and political support for election observation and to administratively hamper such credible observation.


There is also some evidence to suggest that they are more regularly funding political parties throughout Europe and in other parts of the world to actively change the political space and discourse.[8] More overtly, the recent attempts to make incursions into electoral / voter registration systems during the 2016 Presidential Election in the United States, which targeted new voting technologies with the aim of potentially tampering with results is a particularly worrying development.[9] It’s altogether likely that the lessons learned from these incursions will be increasingly used in other country contexts. While the United States to some extent may have been saved by the fragmented and de-centralised electoral systems in place, it is somewhat frightening to think what might be possible in a smaller, more unitary and less tech-savvy state in the future.


All of these elements described above are individually dangerous and undermining to international election observation in the European space. Taken together, however, they spell a significant danger for elections, in general, and for the democratic process itself.

International Response and Remedy

Given the situation described above, what can be done about the current situation? In this section, a few recommendations are offered that may provide food for thought in these discussions. One, and probably the primary, is for individual States to recommit to the human rights principles espoused in the 90s, namely that a rights-based, evidence-grounded approach to election observation is still valued and necessary in promoting democratic principles worldwide (including amongst Western countries themselves).


Secondly, organizations such as the EU, the CoE and the OSCE should introduce internal checks and balances to weed out any potential corruption in their organizations. Recent moves in the CoE to have observer delegation members to investigate past corruption fully and to have members declare potential conflicts of interest in advance of deployment is a step in the right direction. This should go hand-in-hand with such organizations understanding the need for a balanced role between parliamentary personalities and technical electoral experts as equally indispensable and mutually supportive to credible election observation, and to develop institutions in this direction.


More attention must also be given to appropriate evaluation and attention to all parts of the electoral process, starting months before election day and continuing until all electoral disputes have been resolved and a final electoral result has been reached that enjoys integrity and public confidence.[10] The over-reliance of parliamentarians on their specific experiences on a single day or days of this process should be tempered and balanced against the longer-term narrative, which is integral to such an assessment.


Finally, it is important that organizations which observe election are properly resourced, both humanly and financially, so that these exercises remain robust and meaningful. This is particularly challenging in a time of global economic downturn, shrinking government budgets and populist political agendas. Ensuring such sustainability, however, is essential if the gains of the past two decades and a half are not to suffer setbacks and erosion. It is also necessary for these organizations (and the States and comprise them) to work at all levels to rebut the growing narrative that all values and principles are relative and that, therefore, no independent and impartial electoral evaluation is possible or desirable.


In conclusion, the challenges that currently face election observation in the European space are numerous and growing. Greatest of note is the concerted push-back to the exercise which is growing amongst a number of states and which is likely to increase in the coming years. With continuous examination and self-reflection, however, as well as with continued developments and consistent financial support, international election observation is an institution that continue to yield benefits in the years to come.


Although the current environment, both politically and economically, may seem bleak for the continuation of such multilateral exercises, the gains made over recent years both in terms of methodological soundness and international consultation and cooperation give hope that all is not lost. With consistent and systematic support, it is expected that election observation will continue to play a key role in the European space for many years to come.

[1] Amongst the set of methodological publications are the recently published Handbook on Observing and Promoting the Electoral Participation of Persons with Disabilities, the Handbook on the Follow-up of Electoral Recommendations, the Handbook for the Observation of New Voting Technologies and the Handbook for the Observation of Campaign Finance, amongst others. See

[2] EUEOMs are coordinated by all branches of the EU system with the HRVP confirming the countries to observe (as suggested by EEAS and in consultation with the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament), the European Parliament often providing the lead observer, supported by experts chosen by EEAS and the Commission and observers picked by them from suggested participants from member states. Kosovo is not an OSCE participating State and on this basis the country has been observed by the EUEOMS and not the OSCE / ODIHR.

[3] For a full list of endorsing organizations, see

[4] See and

[5] If one imagines a financial audit that states that for a company in country X, it is fraudulent to embezzle company funds, but for a company in another country Y, some level of embezzlement is acceptable or can be overlooked, this would be a nonsense line of argument.

[6] For stark detail, see, and

[7] See, for instance, Merloe (2015) “Authoritarianism Goes Global: Election Monitoring vs. Disinformation”, Journal of Democracy, vol.26, no. 3,

[8] See, for instance, and

[9] In at least one U.S. State, there is evidence of voter registration data having been changed or deleted, although the incursion was noticed and resolved before it became a problem on election day. With other States, the degree of incursion remains unclear. See and

[10] This will become increasingly challenging as more countries turn to new technologies to aid their processes, presenting the danger that a greater part of the process may become ‘black-boxed’. To counter this, credible election observation organizations should pay greater attention to how fundamental principles, such as equality are translated into a technology evaluation framework and to cultivate experts that are knowledge in both elections and technology who can make their findings understandable to the general audience.

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