Has Election Observation Evolved for the Better?

The downgrading of electoral expectations and standards reflects the changing nature of elected autocratic regimes.


  • Christopher Sabatini

    Dr. Christopher Sabatini, is a senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, and was formerly a lecturer in the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University. Chris is also on the advisory boards of Harvard University’s LASPAU, the Advisory Committee for Human Rights Watch's Americas Division, and of the Inter-American Foundation. He is also an HFX Fellow at the Halifax International Security Forum. He is a frequent contributor to policy journals and newspapers and appears in the media and on panels on issues related to Latin America and foreign policy. Chris has testified multiple times before the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2015, Chris founded and directed a new research non-profit, Global Americas and edited its news and opinion website. From 2005 to 2014 Chris was senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas (AS/COA) and the founder and editor-in-chief of the hemispheric policy magazine Americas Quarterly (AQ). At the AS/COA, Dr. Sabatini chaired the organization’s rule of law and Cuba working groups. Prior to that, he was director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the National Endowment for Democracy, and a diplomacy fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, working at the US Agency for International Development’s Center for Democracy and Governance. He provides regular interviews for major media outlets, and has a PhD in Government from the University of Virginia.

Image Source: Reuters.

Just weeks before the election, after efforts by a government to tilt the electoral playing field decidedly in favor of the incumbent president, international election observers pulled out, refusing to monitor elections that were clearly unfair. International democracy and human rights activists, liberal governments and voters applauded the groups’ commitment to international electoral standards.

That was Peru in 2000. Today in Venezuela, international election teams from the European Union, the Carter Center, and the United Nations confront conditions far worse for the planned July 28 presidential contest. Despite sub-standard conditions, international and domestic attention has focused on when the pro-government electoral commission will invite the observers and on the hope they will accept. They have all now been officially invited, including a personally delivered invitation from the Venezuelan Foreign Minister to an EU representative.

Whether or not they should monitor clearly unfair elections has, until now, been a secondary concern.

The threshold for host governments to meet specific standards before electoral monitoring groups agree to mount observation efforts has slipped. That may not necessarily be a bad thing, but it merits caution.

The downgrading of electoral expectations and standards reflects, in part, the changing nature of elected autocratic regimes. The proliferation of anti-democratic leaders who ride to power on the popular vote, but then use that thin legitimacy to erode checks and balances on executive power, marginalize opponents, and vitiate electoral standards has become commonplace — as seen in Mexico, Turkey, India, Russia, and, of course, Venezuela, to name a few.

In many of those cases, though, elections, even those that bend and break minimal election norms, represent the only opportunity — however risky — for embattled oppositions to mobilize supporters and challenge their country’s autocratic regimes.

Equally at risk, though, are the standards by which governments and multilateral organizations have evaluated and responded to democratic backsliding.

Slipping Sliding Away  

The erosion of the international consensus on, and commitment to, democracy has given elected autocrats greater latitude to bend the rules of popular mandates to consolidate their personalistic political projects. With the emerging and swelling international prominence of the club of mixed democratic and autocratic governments, the power of democratic peers to scrutinize democratic practices and isolate or punish apostates has waned. Groups like the BRICS (originally Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, but now expanded to include Ethiopia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia) have created a norm-free, backscratching club of governments more interested in remaking the international system than ensuring adherence to basic human rights and values that protect citizens and popular sovereignty.

The past decades have also brought a raft of new multilateral groups sponsored by non-democratic governments like Russia, China, Nicaragua, or Cuba that promote their own election observation missions. Oftentimes, too, they are enabled and even embraced by democratic governments, such as those in Brazil and South Africa, in the name of creating a Global South alternative to election monitors from the UN, the EU, and long-standing multilateral and non-governmental organizations associated with the Global North. Groups such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Community of Latin America and Caribbean States (CELAC), the Inter-American Union of Electoral Organization (UNIORE) and the International Expert Center for Electoral Systems (ICES) now field their own election monitoring teams. Often framed as “accompanying” elections rather than observing them, these groups — termed “zombie election monitors” by Columbia University professor Alexander Cooley — are employed to give legitimacy to patently unfair elections of autocrats in Central Asia, Africa and Latin America, though with all the bells and whistles of professional, supposedly standard-based organizations. For example, ICES as well as a host of other like-minded groups endorsed the 2013 Azerbaijan elections, while the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) reported serious problems, though supposedly even those were watered down in an effort to be inclusive. Similar missions, including in some cases Chinese state-organized groups, have monitored elections in Kazakhstan, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela — to name a few — all endorsing flagrantly unfair elections: contests that in many cases the UN and other groups refused to send missions to, given pre-electoral conditions. Most recently, the SCO mission celebrated the farcical March 2024 re-election of Vladimir Putin as “transparent, credible and democratic.”

The rise of polarizing, elected autocrats and their fake election monitoring has created a fear of missing out (FOMO) among democratic governments and democracy advocates. As the lines between autocrats and democrats in the new world order grow sharper, so has the fear among democratic governments of potentially pushing on-the-cusp, aspiring autocrats into the rogue camp of Russia, North Korea, and Iran. With this, too, has come the growing need among multilateral organizations and democracy advocacy groups to try to stay in the game to preserve what rights and lives they can rather than abandoning the citizens living under those regimes to autocrats and international “NGO” shills.  

Part of this stems from the perpetual hope that governments like Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s in India can be kept in the column of pro-western regimes, instead of joining the club of autocrats proudly thumbing their noses at a fraying liberal order. Part of this also stems from an understandable desire, especially among multilateral organizations and democratic NGOs, to stay in the game, to not cede the field entirely to zombie election monitors, and to force the world to recognize the difference between their objective, hard-nosed work and the work of pretend human rights defenders and their enablers.

In many of these cases, the presence of credible, professional monitoring groups offers hope of at least one objective, democratic, norm-defending voice in the mix. Moreover, in many cases the presence of international observers provides essential support and cover to domestic election observation missions, that will remain on the ground long after international missions have packed up.

The participation of international monitors in questionable elections does not necessarily have to legitimize un-democratic elections. As long as independent, credible groups are committed to speaking publicly and in detail about any concerns or violations of election standards and democratic rights, they can help provide security for voters and local civil society.

But does democratic FOMO and the optimism of providing a single — often ignored — democratic voice amid a welter of autocracy-endorsing lackeys outweigh the risk of eroding the credibility and authority of those multilateral or NGO groups that agree to observe elections?

It depends.

Venezuela, Again

Venezuela’s troubled elections scheduled for July 28 will be a test case. After delays, disqualification of candidates, and state policies to undermine basic conditions for competitive elections by closing off media and harassing and jailing opposition leaders, the government of Nicolas Maduro agreed on October 17, 2023 to a set of commitments to free and fair presidential elections in 2024. Those commitments included guarantees to invite international election observers, re-adjudicate earlier disqualification of opposition candidates, and respect freedom of expression and association essential to democratic elections.

It took less than two months before Maduro and his government violated those promises, arresting opposition leaders and, in a kangaroo court, summarily refusing to reinstate previously disqualified candidates, one of whom had overwhelmingly won an opposition-organized primary.

In March 2024, the government finally set the date for the presidential elections, July 28, along with an unfairly tight window for registering candidates, March 21 to 25. The moves were clearly intended to put the opposition on the backfoot and complicate the ability of any international election groups to mount a serious observation mission. On the last day of the candidate registration period, Corina Yoris, the stand-in candidate for the banned winner of an independently organized opposition primary, Maria Corina Machado, was blocked from registering online, forcing them to register a relatively unknown second stand-in. The clear attempt by the Maduro government to wipe out the right of citizens to compete in the elections even prompted denunciations by leftist presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Gustavo Petro of Colombia, previously loath to publicly criticize the self-proclaimed socialist Maduro.

Worse still, there has been little progress on the implementation of previous electoral observation mission recommendations. An election monitoring team sent by the European Union, along with a UN panel of experts, for the 2021 regional and local elections had issued 23 detailed recommendations for reforms to improve electoral integrity (the latter in a private report to the Secretary General). The Venezuelan government has largely ignored recommended reforms to increase the independence of the electoral council and judiciary, though there have been improvements in other areas.

So, how can these groups defend returning to observe elections under conditions that they had previously criticized? To quote Ringo Starr, “it don’t come easy.”

But it may be justifiable.

According to public opinion surveys conducted by the polling firm Delphos, in February 2024, 66.1 percent of Venezuelan citizens see the 2024 elections as an opportunity. Similar numbers also intend to vote in the upcoming elections, apparently regardless of the challenges. The international community should embrace and defend their desire.

It is impossible to measure and predict the cruelty of the Maduro government. But it is imaginable that the presence of election monitors on the ground before, during and — perhaps most important — after the July 28 election can serve as a disincentive for the government’s open, brazen repression of citizens’ rights and flagrant flouting of the standards of free and fair elections. And their presence after voting day may also prove critical to preventing possible government retribution against political opponents and civil society.

Even if on-the-ground observation missions may not be able to discourage repression, independent, credible monitors can report government brutality to the world. Bearing democratic witness is something that the predictable cast of characters the Maduro government has invited to observe his election — including CELAC, BRICS, and UNIORE (whose mission is being supported by the Maduro government in a clear violation of independence standards) — is unlikely to do. In contrast, groups like the EU, UN, and Carter Center are accountable to democratic governments and standards. Without independent monitors, civil society and democratic candidates are left alone — abandoned, even — to fend for themselves.

Does a New Global Order Demand New Standards or Should We Stick to the Old?

Sending a credible election monitoring team to observe elections tilted in favor of the incumbent government does not necessarily legitimize those elections. But agreeing to send missions to countries irrespective of pre-electoral violations of democratic norms does risk diluting the future demands election observations can make on host governments before they agree to observe them. The report by the EU’s observation team for the 2021 regional and local elections in Venezuela proves that, with independence and courage, election monitors can bring to international attention threats to democratic leaders, activists, and free and fair elections that would not have been heard if they had sat out the elections. But it no longer guarantees that their moral and international authority will prevail or even prod future reforms.

Returning to observe elections under the same government, under even worse conditions than in 2021 will risk the integrity and credibility of legitimate election observers. The problem is that today, unlike in Peru in 2000, there are plenty of competitors willing to fill the vacuum: willing to certify — and even cover up — dirty elections at the bidding of dictators. That’s not to say multilateral and non-governmental organizations should rush to observe any election. But with the changing global terrain of democratic and non-democratic regimes drawing their own lines in a global contest over the future of international liberalism and seeding pseudo-NGOs to erode that consensus, it does call for a more nuanced understanding of the trade-offs and risks, and the need to be explicit about the shifting roles of monitors and the reasons why.

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