As the country goes to the polls in 2014, the issue of the quality of election observation will once again come to the fore. In this interview, Jacob Jimu asks human rights activist Moses Mkandawire to explain the key principles of election observation.
Every election year we hear about election observers. Why do we need election observation?
For us to understand why election observation is crucial, we need to define the concept of election observation. In short, election observation is the gathering of information regarding the election process and making informed judgements on the conduct of the process on the basis of such information. The information is collected by people who are authorised to intervene in the process and whose involvement in the mediation or technical activities should not jeopardise their observation responsibilities.
Therefore, election observation is a valuable tool for improving the quality of elections. It helps build public confidence and trust in the integrity of the election process.
Election observation can help promote and protect the civil and political rights of participants in elections. At the same time, the reports and key recommendations by the election observation groups can lead to changes and improvements in a number of national legal and policy frameworks as well as the practice of conducting elections to ensure the processes are legitimate, clean, credible free and fair.
What areas do observers focus on to assess the credibility of elections?
Election observation should be considered as a process. It would, therefore, be important that the entire electoral process be observed ie pre-election period, during elections and after elections. Observers, both domestic and international, should put in place both long-term and short-term observer missions. During the pre-election period, observers pay attention to issues of the legal and policy framework governing the electoral process and assess whether it is inclusive, promotes participatory approaches and other fundamental principles of human rights.
Observers also look at aspects of the voter registration process, political campaigns that are issue-based and not those that promote character assassination and hate. Nomination of candidates at all levels, conduct of the election management body and media coverage are some of the critical issues that observers assess during this phase.
During the polling day, observers pay much attention to the developments at the polling centres/stations. They critically look at the set of the polling centres, security at the centres, design of the ballot papers, nature of the assisted voters etc. For instance, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, we observed that the ballot paper was almost a poster in that there were over 46 presidential candidates. Since Malawi has over 44 registered political parties and if all decided to participate, I am not sure what sort of the ballot paper we would have and what impact it would create among the potential voters.
Finally, during the post-election period, observers pay attention to the announcement of election results and the reaction of the contesting parties as well as their supporters. Failure to observe the agreed frameworks leads to post election violence like what happened in Kenya in 2008 as well as some episodes of violence in 1999 and 2004 elections in Malawi.
Do you think election observation has helped to improve the way we conduct elections in Malawi?
Malawi has had election observation missions since 1993 when we had our referendum. We have had both international and local observation missions that have written and submitted key recommendations to the Malawi Electoral Commission ranging from the conduct of the commission itself to funding of political parties that participate in elections. For instance, observers were concerned about a trend that has been developed by MBC where in all elections that have taken place, 95 percent of its coverage is towards the so-called ruling parties and 5 percent is shared among opposition political parties. The second issue is the current electoral system (First-Past-the-Post or ‘Winner-take-it-all’) that we use. I am pretty sure that some observers recommended that we should reflect on the system as to whether it is contributing to building our nation. Elsewhere, such system has been a source of violent conflict. The issue was raised in view of the nature of our national politics where ethnic or tribal politics takes stage centre stage. Malawi has not moved away from voting based on tribal or ethnic identity and the system is largely contributing to that.
What do you propose to improve the quality of election observation in Malawi?
The challenge we have had with election observation is that it is neither a right nor as yet recognised as an international standard. State sovereignty still requires that there should be a formal invitation to international election observers and that there should be stringent requirements for accreditation for observers. We have seen that in Zimbabwe and elsewhere some international observers are not allowed to come in and observe elections. We need to improve on that. At the same time, we should avoid international observers making quick statements in validating or invalidating the election results without proper and accurate information. Such developments have been observed in many African countries in that some observers bring their own biases.
We should also improve in terms of promoting local domestic observation mission since it is cost-effective, the majority of the people that are involved in the process have full knowledge of the country in terms of its political dynamics and that it will also promote sustainability of the programme. However, we also need to review all policy and legal frameworks governing domestic election observation and monitoring to ensure that civil society organisations and other private institutions are recognised and fully involved in the process.