International election observation can be an effective way to expose electoral manipulation and encourage democratic reform. But observers’ reports can be used for good as well as ill, and determined governments can also simply ignore them. Judith Kelley, an associate professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, writes here about Vladimir Putin’s handling of election monitors in advance of Russia’s presidential election on Sunday. Kelley is the author of Monitoring Democracy: When International Election Observation Works, and Why it Often Fails, forthcoming this month from Princeton University Press, and she is also featured in this week’s Economist.
Oh bother! It’s outrageous how many hoops a Russian strongman must jump through these days just to steal an election. It used to be enough to indoctrinate voters into performing their civic duty to vote for the longevity of the regime. Today, alas, ambitious incumbents must give at least some semblance of propriety to their elections. Instead of (or in addition to) raw intimidation, then, they curtail political competitions to reduce opposition, dominate media to ensure favorable coverage, and stack the electoral commission to protect the interests of the (head of) state. In an age of worldwide communication, international election observers must also be handled. But with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Since Russia’s controversial parliamentary elections in November, Putin has made sure to buttress the appearance of correctness. After pictures of polling station officials showed them fudging the counts, Putin called for webcams in every station. Russian Central Election Commission Chairman Vladimir Churov has asked, indeed demanded, that election observers from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the post-Soviet club dominated by Russia, give an “unbiased assessment” of the media coverage of the election campaign.
Meanwhile, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has sent its contingent of election observers. Putin and Russia have a longstanding and contentious relationship with OSCE observer missions. Putin has tried to disempower the OSCE’s election observation mandate for years and has criticized observers for being nothing but western agents. During the 2007-08 election cycle he obstructed their participation by making travel and logistics so difficult that they decided not to come. But that didn’t look so good to the international community, so this time they were invited.
Perhaps that was not a bad idea. The OSCE did criticize the parliamentary elections last November, but not as forthrightly as they could have. Although they often declare directly whether an election complied with OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections, the final report did not do this. Instead it called the elections “technically well-administered” but noted that they were “marked by the convergence of the state and the governing party” and “narrowed political competition,” and that they “did not provide the necessary conditions for fair electoral competition.” Not exactly praise, but fairly polite criticism. And the interim report about the presidential elections was even gentler.
But with protests fermenting since the fall election, Putin is weary. Thus, Churov has ensured that friendly international observers will also report on the elections. These include the CIS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization–observer groups created for just such a purpose. Putin can count on them to praise the elections. This will allow him to fool at least some of the people some of the time. For the rest, there is always sheer old-fashioned power.