Saturday, March 7, 2009

Observing elections


So I'm here in Nepal to observe the parliamentary election. Before I left Manila, I already blogged about why people do it, but you may ask how it is done. Long before election day (1-3 months prior), the accredited international monitoring organizations, like the Asian Network For Free Elections (Anfrel), The Carter Center, and the European Union (EU) send long-term observers (LTOs) out to (if possible) all areas of the country. Let me backtrack a little. Take note of the word "accredited," as the election commission of the host country has to officially invite each organization. Once this is done, each organization then selects which people to invite as observers, based on experience and other qualifications. After that, the host election commission will then officially approve of and issue an ID for each international observer. Only upon approval by the election commission can the observer be certain that he/she can come to the country and do the job. For this election, Anfrel has 20 long-term observers. A week before election, more than 80 Anfrel short-term observers (STOs) will arrive, making the Anfrel delegation the biggest to observe Nepal's election, with more than a hundred observers and staff from about 30 countries.

Right. So during the pre-election period, LTOs, usually teamed in pairs and accompanied/assisted by local partners, will then go around all the areas assigned to them, interviewing people from the government, the political parties, candidates, teachers, the local media, community leaders, youth groups, and ordinary citizens, to get a sense of the pre-election environment. The goal of the LTOs at this stage is to come up with periodic reports about their areas, which will then be submitted to their headquarters in the capital for analysis and synthesis. The headquarters will then come out with periodic press statements leading up to election day. These statements are then picked up by news agencies like the AP and CNN, and reported to you at home in addition to what their reporters have gathered on their own. Since it is also the main goal of election monitoring organizations to assist the election commission of the host country to hold a free and fair election that will adhere to international standards, these press statements and reports will also contain recommendations for the government and political parties, which they will (hopefully) accept and follow.

For many stakeholders, the mere presence of international observers is enough. If people are aware that their activities are being observed by foreigners: a) they gain more confidence in the system and will be encouraged to go out on election day to vote; and b) in the case of potential troublemakers, they will think twice or suffer the indignity of being documented and perceived negatively by international organizations, especially in Asia where locals tend to give more importance to what international observers have to say.

About ten days before E-day, the STOs arrive. Prior to their arrival, the LTOs book their hotels, cars, interpreters, etc., anything to make their stay comfortable, as they don't really have time to do these things. Generally, in my observation, STOs tend to be older, the academic-types, or the too-young type with less experience in this sort of activity (I started out as an STO). STOs also tend to be less adventurous than LTOs, so LTOs see to it that they don't feel inconvenienced during their short stay out in the field, or else they'll be breaking down our necks, or worse, say negative things about their experience at the headquarters, even if unwarranted. (I should know. In a previous mission, one STO complained in the capital that the vehicle I booked was not a four-wheel drive. We were far from civilization. Near the jungles. And she was expecting a four-wheel drive.)

Anyway, the STOs -- also in pairs, or individuals paired with one LTO -- will then be assigned to their own specific areas. We are assigned to observe the Lumbini Zone, comprising six districts, so we expect at least five more STO teams to arrive here in our zone so that each district will have its own Anfrel team. The STOs will then do practically the same thing, hopefully interviewing more people than what the LTOs were able to cover during their stay in the area, and covering/documenting campaign rallies. This is essential because the situation can change a week or mere days before the election, especially right around the end of the campaign period. Each STO team will then come up with a report, so if the headquarters used to receive only 10 field reports, they will now be swamped with about 50, and have to analyze (decipher?) each and synthesize in record time (I'm glad I was never part of the staff), and then come up with a press statement a day or two before E-day, right when the political parties have (supposedly) stopped campaigning.

On election day, each team will go around their assigned area, observing the conduct of the election from when it opens at around 6:30am, to when ballot boxes are transported from the polling booths to the counting center (usually way after sundown). Since observers will only have a few hours to cover 10 to 20 polling booths, it is essential that the observers plan their route very carefully, choosing which booths to visit with the help of maps and in consultation with other foreign observer groups, and (this is very important) actually visiting each booth at least the day before. I had a nightmarish experience in Indonesia in 2004. The day before the election, my interpreter and I decided to change the route due to reports of irregularities in one area, so of course we didn't have time to do proper reconnaissance. On election day, our car got stuck in the mud for hours, near the forests of Papua (Irian Jaya) for crying out loud, notorious for armed separatists, not to mention possible wild animals and gigantic mosquitoes. No, that will never happen on this mission. On that historic day in Indonesia's history, we were able to cover a grand total of five polling booths. (Not for naught. Almost all of the five were incredibly interesting.)

So on election day, observers go around the area, with checklists in hand about whether the correct procedures are being followed, and other questions pertaining to the location of the polling booths, etc. After the polls have closed, the team will then summarize their findings, to be immediately passed on to the headquarters, who will then call the teams one by one (whew!) to confirm their report and get other information verbally, for the organization's election day report which will have to be released that same night.

Usually, STOs will have to fly back to the capital the very next day for de-briefing and assessment. The LTOs are then left to observe the counting. You may ask why the international observers leave just when the potentially more crucial part of the election has just begun. You see, this is where the local election monitoring organizations come in. They usually don't have enough resources to mobilize people prior to election day, but on E-day and thereafter, they are present in the polling booths and counting centers.

After the counting, ideally the LTOs (or at least some of them) will remain in their areas for up to a month or so more, going around their area once again and talking to some more people, to get a sense of how the process and the results are perceived/accepted by the people. This is also the time when the different stakeholders will complain (or sour-grape), depending on the performance of their party or organization in the polls.

Throughout this whole process, it is essential that the observers maintain their impartiality. Impartiality can be a big challenge, especially to local observer groups, since they will have to recruit as many volunteers as possible in a very short time, and infiltration by political parties is not unheard of.

So here we are, the Lumbini Zone LTO team:

a. Me, Paolo Maligaya from the Philippines. This is my third international election observation experience, after Sri Lanka in 2001 (with Anfrel) and Indonesia in 2004 (with the Carter Center);

b. Air (real name: Chompunut Chalieobun) from Thailand. This is her second election observation experience, after serving as interpreter in Thailand in December (with Anfrel);

c. Our interpreter, Mukti Nath Adhikari, who heads his own NGO in Kathmandu called Prosperous Nepal, is alligned with some other youth groups, and is also an accredited observer for NEMA (National Election Monitoring Alliance);

d. Our driver, Bhimraj Tamang, or Bhimji for short. He can't speak English. We'd love to talk to him, but can't; and

e. Our vehicle, a Toyota Qualis. If this thing breaks down, we won't know what to do (hire a rickshaw perhaps?)

(Team photos). (Our car).

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