COVER PAGE BRIEFING PAPERForeign Elections Observers and COVID- 19
Policy Brief, Issue No. 1, 2021
This Policy Brief offers insights for policymakers regarding foreign election observers in the context of COVID-19 pandemic. It forms part of the Political Science Association of Zambia’s research and interventions on elections and public opinion. Our work seeks to inform interventions by governments and other agencies and assist in informing policy and practice on elections related matters. Foreign observers form a sub-category of election transparency and integrity, which deserves special consideration from the policy community. Indeed, COVID-19 has received increasing international attention in recent years due to the devastating effects of the pandemic around elections. The notion of foreign observers is encapsulated in the term ‘transparency and integrity in elections”, serving as a benchmark for determining the legitimacy of elections. Foreign observer missions have always put in many efforts in Zambian elections, including electoral assistance, and monitoring missions, civic and voter education. Despite this, the understanding of the consequences of specific policies such as absence of foreign observers during COVID-19 pandemic remains limited.
The main conclusions and recommendations of this policy brief to a re-evaluation of mechanisms of foreign observation missions due to COVID19 pandemic and highlight five recommendations; (a) the policy makers should facilitate the exchange of expertise and good practice, with a significant number of webinars held on various aspects relating to COVID-19 and election management, (b) the Commission should place limited health and travel restrictions on foreign observers, (c) the Commission should also make it clear to foreign observer missions about the required methods for observe elections during COVID-19 and the limitations they are likely to face and communicate about the extra measures that should be taken to ensure the presence of international observers is not perceived as a health risk to them and the Zambian people, (d) the Commission should consider publishing a COVID-19 code of conduct for observers both local and international and (e) where international observation is not possible, or can only happen in a more limited way, the Commission should consider soliciting extra support to local Zambian observer groups, who are likely to receive increased visibility as well as health inspection amid COVID-19 pandemic.
This policy brief offers insights for policymakers regarding foreign election observers amid COVID019 pandemic. It is based on an ongoing study on the experiences of Elections and Public Opinion and COVID 19 as a cross cutting issue. We perceive of foreign election observers as a sub-category of pre-conditions for free and fair elections, which deserves special consideration from the academic community (Ndulo and Hong , 2020; Ndambwa, 2020; Aman and Das 2020). Indeed, the question of foreign missions in election monitoring has received increasing international attention recently due to the devastating effects of outbreaks of COVID-19 pandemic around the world. The notion of free and fair elections is now encapsulated in presence of foreign and local observers, serving as a benchmark for determining the legitimacy of elections. Efforts by local and international actors include electoral assistance, monitoring missions, civic and voter education (Ndulo 1996; international idea 2002). However, despite this important aspect of the electoral process, understanding of the consequences of the absence of international observers remains limited. Analysis for policy needs to take into account the social divisions and potential legitimacy problems associated with such an election. If not addressed, it can have longstanding consequences for political legitimacy and democratic consolidation (Ndambwa 2020).
FOREIGN OBSERVERS AND QUALITY OF ELECTIONS
Foreign election observation is a valuable tool for improving the quality of elections (Ndulo and Hong 2020; Ndambwa 2020). Foreign election observers help build public confidence in the honesty of electoral processes. Foreign election monitoring also helps to promote and protect the rights of candidates. It can lead to the correction of errors or weak practices, even while an election process is still under way. It can deter manipulation and fraud, or expose such problems if they do occur. When observers issue positive reports, it builds trust and integrity in the electoral process and enhances the legitimacy of the government. In the aftermath of an election, reports and recommendations by foreign observer groups often lead to adaptation in the electoral law.
Studies have indicated that foreign election observation takes on heightened importance in countries, in which groups may harbour strong suspicions of the political system and the election process (Commonwealth, 2020). In such cases, observation makes an important contribution to peace-building, since creating confidence in elections can help promote national reconciliation and sound democratic practices. Foreign election observers can be helpful especially that most local observer organisations do not have sufficient strength or resources to organize effective monitoring efforts, or when the impartiality of domestic observers is in question, as may often be the case in post-conflict countries or new democracies. However, foreign election observers are typically less knowledgeable about Zambia and a few may bring their own biases to the observation. Nonetheless, carefully designed and conducted election observation by foreign election missions can improve the implementation of the human rights and help to enhance their participation in electoral processes. Comprehensive observation should include an assessment of how all elements of the electoral process.
FOREIGN OBSERVERS AND COVID-19 PANDEMIC
COVID-19 has disrupted societies, economies and lives in many countries in the world today resulting in an unprecedented situation for holding meaningful elections. Policy makers are faced with the difficult question of whether to postpone elections or to conduct them with the necessary safety measures in place to protect voters, election officials and other participants. While there has been few debates on the postponing of Election Day itself, in practice many other related processes around the electoral cycle will be affected, and these are likely to impact on elections not only in 2021 but for years to come than the need for foreign election observers. It is important to note that other countries scrambled to put in place the necessary health and safety measures for foreign observers. Because of these health and safety considerations, more than 60 countries have postponed national and subnational elections while more than 50 countries have held such elections around the world (Commonwealth, 2020).
Since COVID-19 has affected countries and regions differently, the impact on electoral processes has also been uneven. The virus is currently spreading rapidly in some parts of the world while other countries have loosened restrictions in an effort to revive damaged economies. As a result, elections are increasingly taking place, albeit with health and safety measures that could become part of the process for some time to come. Localised lockdowns are also becoming a feature as countries attempt to contain new outbreaks, thus affecting the ability to hold elections in those areas. At the same time, leading international bodies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are warning of the risks to democracy that measures taken during the pandemic can bring – whether deliberate or not – and highlighting the need for vigilance.
For these reasons, COVID-19 is likely to place a limiting the role of foreign election observers. This is not only about the presence of foreign elections observers in Zambia, but also slowing or temporarily halting technical assistance (Commonwealth 2020). In such situations, foreign election observers should facilitating the exchange of expertise and good practice, with a significant number of documents produced and webinars held on various aspects relating to COVID-19 and election management. There is need for technical assistance on voter information and public outreach and on social media and disinformation, reflecting the challenges facing the Electoral Commission of Zambia, such as voting procedures, recruitment and training of polling staff and voting for vulnerable groups.
In addition, should the situation warrant lockdown and elections go ahead and at the same time international observation is not possible, or can only happen in a more limited way due to COVID-19, foreign election observer missions should consider extra support to citizen observer groups, who are likely to receive increased visibility. However, the Electoral Commission of Zambia should be transparent about the methodologies used in limiting observer missions during COVID-19. The electoral body should communicate about the extra measures likely to be taken. In this respect, publishing a COVID-19 code of conduct for observers could also be useful.
Election monitoring by foreign missions makes significant contributions to enhancing electoral integrity and public confidence in elections. However, due to COVID-19, strategies for election observation by foreign missions have significantly been altered in many jurisdictions. For these reasons, we recommend the following policy measures.
The Electoral Commission of Zambia should
a) Facilitate the exchange of expertise and good practice, with a significant number of webinars held on various aspects relating to COVID-19 and election management,;
b) place limited health and travel restrictions on foreign observers;
c) make it clear to foreign observer missions about the required methods for observe elections during COVID-19 and the limitations they are likely to face and communicate about the extra measures that should be taken to ensure the presence of international observers is not perceived as a health risk to them and the Zambian people
d) Consider publishing a COVID-19 code of conduct for observers both local and international and (e) where international observation is not possible, or can only happen in a more limited way, the Commission should consider soliciting extra support to local Zambian observer groups, who are likely to receive increased visibility as well as health inspection amid COVID-19 pandemic.
Ndulo, M, and Hong, D, E, (2020) International Observers and the Monitoring of National Elections: In Democracy and Electoral Politics in Zambia
Ndambwa, B. J. (2020) Electoral Integrity and Democratic Consolidation: In Democracy and Electoral Politics in Zambia (Brill, Leiden 2020)
Birch, S. (2010) Perceptions of Electoral Fairness and Voter Turnout (Comparative Political Studies Volume 43, Number 12 pp1601-1622)
Ndulo, M (1996) The United Nations and Monitoring of National Elections (Cornel Law Forum)
Commonwealth (2020) Managing Elections in the Context of COVID-19: Perspectives from the Commonwealth (Commonwealth Elections and COVID-19 Briefing Paper, Issue 1, 2020)