For the last few years, every general election in a South Asian country has seen a group of individuals from the region fly off to monitor the polls. The South Asian monitors, who are mainly academics, former ambassadors, retired civil servants, society women, journalists, politicians, various kinds of retired folks, and relatives of various VIPs, have so far been hosted by Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan. Similar monitoring groups also parachute down with predictable regularity from overseas: they come from the European Commission, from assorted North American think tanks, and the Commonwealth. They come with a pious mission of civilising and democraticing the natives, flying in on the penultimate days before polling and leaving as soon as the counting is done. The high points are the meetings with the head of state, the prime minister (interim or otherwise), leaders of the political opposition, and so on. It is also enjoyable to don the photo IDs and go around booth-hopping with local liaisons and—best of all—appearing on television to declare that the polls were “generally free and fair”.
As soon as the Pakistan elections were announced last November by President Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari, the monitor organisations were once again scrambling to arrange the next election tourism package. As far as the SAARC region was concerned, more or less the same categories as mentioned above were put together. In and around the 3 February elections, the regional monitors spent 12 days or so in Pakistan monitoring elections, writing reports and issuing press releases.
The fact that what the SAARC monitors had to say hardly made it into the Pakistani press is a separate matter. The main reason seems to have been the presence of another monitoring group, of the Commonwealth and led by former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser. The status of the Commonwealth group, representing among them the colonial forebears of South Asia, seems to have helped overshadow what the SAARC group had to say, even though possibly more important.
Civil Society Initative
What does all this monitoring mean in real terms? Funding for these activities come from sources outside South Asia and are channelled through various NGOs in the respective South Asian countries. All monitors get an all expenses paid, reasonably comfortable travel in a neighbouring country with a chance to visit far-flung places which would ordinarily form no part in an average traveller´s itinerary. There is also some spare cash to buy a few curios from the local bazaars. Usually, a “comprehensive” report may get written, as was the partial outcome of observing the last Pakistani elections in 1993, or the Bangladesh polls of June 1996. So far so good.
But beyond this, what are the benefits of these “civil society initiatives”, as such exercises are usually termed? What does civil society in South Asia get out of all this? It is doubtful that either the monitoring or the reports that come out of such exercises have much of an impact on the way elections are conducted in South Asian countries. The political forces in each of the countries have their own agenda, and it is hard to imagine them bowing to the presence of monitors, whether regional or otherwise. At best, these forces may temper their activities in areas where the monitors do reach for momentary visits. On the other hand, regimes are likely to take quick advantage of the green signal given by monitoring teams.
Programmed as they are to pronounce polls as “generally free and fair” due to their short stint and lack of preparation, it is never clear that freedom and fairness has overwhelmingly marked an election exercise. The word ´generally´ is introduced as a face-saving measure to take care of non-democratic practices that might have occurred followed by a few examples of minor election malpractices. There is thus the possibility that a monitoring group can derail the ´natural´ evolution of a democratic polity—for example by providing simplistic analysis of the political situation or giving more credit than due. Local and foreign media are likely to home in on monitors— particularly Western monitors—immediately after the polls are held for quick and credible-sounding sound bites.
Those leading observer teams are sometimes long-retired (like Mr Fraser) or South Asia-oriented politicians (like former US Senator Stephen Solarz, in the case of the Bangladesh elections of last June) craving for the limelight. These gentlemen and ladies are all too willing to speak into cameras about societies and processes they are not familiar with. On average, an election observation team through its flying-squad visits is only able to say that “due process” has been followed, and not much else. Intimidation unfortunately, does not mostly occur on the last day, within walking distance of the polling booth. If the monitors were to find time in their busy schedule to go and spend time with the people, rather than with those seeking the vote, it might be possible to see to what extent they feel empowered. Here, what I have in mind is an extended exercise somewhat like anthropological field work, which would invariably take more time and as such perhaps unattractive to funders.
A monitoring group, even if it be from the neighbourhood of South Asia, is bound to be seen as made up of ´outsiders´. It would be much more important, therefore, for those involved to try and develop ´in-country´ long-term monitoring capabilities. Many countries already have democratic-minded and courageous individuals and groups, all of whom must be supported to provide much more conscientious monitoring.
To ensure such an outcome, at the very least, poll monitors should have the power and the ability to expose election malpractices as they occur. That is not so easy when a bunch of armed and uncommunicative cops and sometimes thugs (if there is a difference between these categories) who apparently do not share your dreams of democracy in South Asia are peering over your shoulder. That is also not easy when your press releases are not taken too seriously by the press or the election officials. And neither is it helpful that reports published much later are not for mass consumption, and which in any case make little or no impact on the conduct of future elections. The only likely use of such publications would be as a document for future scholars researching some aspect of South Asian socio-political history.
There is not much one can say or do about the overseas monitors who bring their officious presence to South Asia. But their experience of monitoring polls in the Subcontinent over the last half decade should provide enough experience for the South Asian monitors to think of alternatives ways of supporting the evolution of free and fair polls. They have, to be sure, engaged in a more serious effort than some of the other groups in terms of far-reaching recommendations and so on. However, it is doubtful that all the activity so far has had a direct improvement of the electoral process in South Asia.
As things stand, there are probably many alternative ways to spend the money that is spent in the travel and hospitality of monitors.
~ S. Perera is with the Department of Sociology, University of Colombo.