Who observes the observers?
Article by Laughland, relevant to Croatia.
The west's condemnation of Zimbabwe's election process is a breathtaking case of double standards
Monday March 18, 2002
The chasm that opened up between the various teams of observers at the Zimbabwean elections shows the urgency of reformulating one of the oldest questions of political philosophy: who observes the observers? For over the last decade, election observing has become little more than a tool for powerful states to interfere in the internal affairs of weak ones. Monitors delegitimise elections which elect a candidate the west does not like, while turning a blind eye to the deficiencies of polls that produce the desired outcome.
The hypocrisy is breathtaking - and not least because we in Britain do not allow observers at our own elections. For instance, British TV viewers may have been surprised to see Nigeria's Abdulsalam Abubakar reading out the Commonwealth's condemnation of the democratic process in Zimbabwe. But Nigerians will have been even more surprised. General Abubakar was military dictator of Nigeria from 1998-99. Now facing accusations of stealing more than $2bn from Nigeria's foreign reserves, Abubakar shares responsibility, as a member of Nigeria's top brass, for the cancellation by the military of the elections there in 1993. The man who won those elections died in prison while Abubakar was president.
Less well known is the record of Kare Vollan, the head of the Norwegian observers, who denounced the Zimbabwean poll as unfair because of pre-election violence. This same Kare Vollan found that the Ukrainian parliamentary elections in 1998 "were managed with professionalism" while his team "did not call into question the results" - despite what he described as the "violence, intimidation and harassment during the run-up to the election". Maybe it was because Ukraine was then the west's favourite former Soviet state that the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, for which Vollan works, was happy, unlike in Zimbabwe, to trust the Ukrainian authorities to investigate these allegations.
Another charge levelled at Zimbabwe is government control of the media. But this did not bother the OSCE at the Montenegrin parliamentary elections in 1998. There, the local Mr Big, Milo Djukanovic, has received tens of millions of dollars in western aid - not bad for a country with half the population of Birmingham. Apart from using the money for his gigantic police force of 30,000, and for ensuring to tal state control of the media, Djukanovic habitually ensures that he is the only candidate with any election posters. For the west, though, he was a useful thorn in the side of Slobodan Milosevic.
But even this cannot compare with the stifling of democracy in Russia with which the west wholeheartedly cooperated throughout the 1990s and in 2000. Having welcomed the shelling of the Russian parliament to put down recalcitrant backbenchers in 1993 the west and the OSCE turned a blind eye to the massive fraud in the subsequent constitutional referendum, which reduced the power of the Russian parliament to that of a library reading room. One observer, the Tory minister Kenneth Baker, declared that poll a resounding success - even before it had closed. It later turned out that millions of votes had been added to the turnout to render the vote valid.
All through the 1990s, western observers turned a blind eye to the government's grip on the broadcast media. At the 1995 elections, the OSCE and Council of Europe even managed to ignore the fact that 17 people were killed in campaigning. And at Putin's election in 2000, the west ignored reports that millions of votes had been added to achieve the desired result.
In Slovakia in 1998, the west - via the OSCE - was determined to unseat the incumbent prime minister, Vladimir Meciar, even though (or maybe because) he is the most popular politician in the country. The main charge against him was bias in the state TV. When I asked the OSCE chief (Vollan again) why no one mentioned the greater bias in favour of the opposition of a far more popular foreign-funded private TV station, he promised "scientific proof". When it came, in the form of a statistical survey by an Italian media-monitoring organisation, the figures actually showed the state channel to be a model of neutrality and the private channel to be grossly partisan. But facts would not move Vollan. He just said icily: "You have the figures. Maybe your interpretation is different."
The Zimbabweans were vil ified for the queues at polling stations in Harare. But at the Italian parliamentary elections last May, the socialist government reduced the number of polling stations by 30%. The chaos was so severe that the last Italian to cast his vote did so at 5am. So why were Francesco Rutelli's friends not accused of trying to stop Italians voting for Silvio Berlusconi?
Western election monitoring has become the political equivalent of an Arthur Andersen audit. This supposedly technical process is now so corrupted by political bias that it would be better to abandon it. Only then will other countries be able to elect their leaders freely.
· John Laughland is a trustee of the British Helsinki Human Rights Group: www.bhhrg.org
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