By Amy McCreedy
Eric Bjornlund: Woodrow Wilson Center Fellow and former Asia director, National Democratic Institute
A sizeable "democracy industry" has grown up in the past 15 years, and, as part of that industry, election observers are enjoying an increasingly important role. But while elections and election monitoring are extremely important, they receive too much international attention. This is the paradox pointed out by Eric Bjornlund, Woodrow Wilson fellow and former Asia director for the National Democratic Institute (NDI), who has worked on democracy assistance programs in 25 countries.
At a seminar on August 2, Bjornlund discussed how elections are only one piece of the larger process of democratic development. According to him, too many in the international community see elections as ends (one-day events that are either "successful" or "unsuccessful") rather than means of building democratic practices and institutions, an ongoing process that does not end when the winner is announced.
Using the 1999 elections in Indonesia as a case study, Bjornlund focused primarily on election monitoring by nonpartisan domestic groups as opposed to international observers. He argued that domestic monitoring groups can contribute both to better elections and to building civil society, thereby contributing to long-term democratic development. Election monitoring provides civil society organizations the opportunity to build networks and relationships that will enable them to continue to press for democracy after elections. It gives them a chance to learn how to build coalitions and advocate public policy reforms in a more democratic political system. But, he said, because international donors and advisors seeking to help Indonesian monitoring groups focused exclusively on the quality of the elections, foreign support largely failed to support long term democratization. Bjornlund argued that the funding that poured into Indonesia before the election was a mixed blessing at best. The way that funding was spent had unintended consequences, such as spurring the establishment of dozens of new monitoring groups, creating disincentives for monitoring organizations to work together, and encouraging inordinate focus on money issues rather than substance.
Bjornlund also lamented that international election observers often overshadow domestic monitors. He also pointed out that international observers sometimes neglect the input of domestic monitors—who are involved in the process from beginning to end, can mobilize in much larger numbers and who naturally have a deeper knowledge of their own society—although he pointed out that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter benefitted greatly from the advice and information he received from domestic monitoring groups in Indonesia.
International advisors can serve a crucial function by sharing knowledge with domestic monitors on sophisticated monitoring techniques—such as "parallel vote tabulations" to verify the accuracy of official vote counts. Bjornlund talked about the controversy in Indonesia about whether a statistically based parallel vote tabulation organized by a civil society organization was appropriate. Unfortunately, he said, many donors, diplomats, foreign experts, and Indonesian officials failed to realize how such an effort could build public confidence in the election process and help develop the capacity of civil society organizations.
In other words, according to Bjornlund, if we want to make a meaningful contribution we must focus on the overall process of democratization, not whether a given election day wins a high or low grade for "fairness." By focusing on elections as events, foreign donors, advisors, and observers miss an important opportunity to help domestic monitoring groups catalyze further democratic deepening. In any event, long after the bevy of American and Western European participants have flown off to the next global hot spot, the local organizations continue to build on their newly gained experience to effect democratic change.
In spite of these criticisms, Bjornlund pointed out that election monitoring has come a long way. The current danger is that authoritarian leaders have become sophisticated at "playing the game, doing just enough to keep their fannies in the seats" without bringing down the wrath of the international community. To counteract this danger, Bjornlund said that we must both insist on universal democratic standards and on broadening our concerns beyond election day. The brief but intense focus of the world on any given election makes for tremendous pressure to label it as "free and fair" or not, to render judgement too quickly. In Bjornlund's view, we must take a longer-term view: elections are not litmus tests of democracy, but rather one important stage of an ongoing process of democratic development.