September 2017 Monthly Meeting

Monitoring elections in emerging Democracies


When Simon White - our booked speaker for our meeting on 13 September - telephoned Edward Hackford early that morning to apologise that illness prevented him from coming, Edward gamely stepped into the breach and gave an impromptu and riveting talk on his experiences of Monitoring Elections in Emerging Democracies, notably in the former soviet states post Perestroika.

Edward, with experience as Returning Officer for St Albans District Council, became one of a team of international independent observers from 55 established democracies, set up to monitor elections with the aim of ensuring that they were conducted with integrity and transparency. In all, Edward completed 24 missions.

This role took him all over the world, including many of the former soviet states as well as Cambodia, Indonesia and Guinea Bissau. However, the observers could only go by invitation – and notably Zimbabwe did not extend an invitation – but by and large the newly established democracies welcomed them because of their desire to be recognised internationally as countries which could conduct their affairs in an open and transparent way. The British election model was held in especially great esteem.

The format of the missions followed a standard pattern. Between 12 and 20 observers were sent from the UK. They would attend a briefing in the capital city and then be paired with a colleague from another of the participating countries. Because of the aim to create balanced teams, Edward was usually paired with a young non-British woman, who was inexperienced in election procedures. For example, a Turkish lecturer in international studies at Ankara University who arrived in sub-zero temperatures with only ballet flats, or a young female MP from Moldova. What united these monitors was the desire to ensure fair democratic elections.

The teams travelled the length and breadth of the countries, going to remote rural locations in challenging terrains and weather, and staying in whatever accommodation was available –from a caravanserai on the Silk Road to a very basic home where the team of four shared an unheated bedroom with an outside toilet in temperatures of -10°C.

The monitors typically worked a 22-hour day, starting early in the morning and visiting all the polling stations, where they received a warm welcome and hospitality. They then stayed whilst votes were counted at the polling station and returned to the regional centre with the results.

Edward observed other election practices which could give the UK food for thought. For example, whereas we have no identity checks before we are allowed to vote, most of the new democracies require identification before people are allowed to cast their vote, and then stain the fingertip of those who have voted with indelible ink, to prevent people voting twice.

Edward showed photographs he took on the missions, of which the most striking were those in Moldova. The first elections there returned a non-Communist government. However, this had a number of unintended consequences, including ruining the Moldovan wine industry since there was no longer a guaranteed market throughout the Soviet bloc.   Many older people were disillusioned by the new regime and voted next time to return to Communist rule. This led to the Parliament building being taken over, a heavy police presence, military vehicles set on fire, but above all a visible sense of bewilderment among the younger generation. And in the midst of this, Edward, elegant as ever, snapped away for posterity.

The members present appreciated Edward saving the day and were rewarded with a highly interesting talk. Those more interested in Souvenir du Docteur Jamain or The Rambling Rector will be pleased to know that Simon White has agreed to be our guest speaker in March 2018

Susan Riddle