Accessibility links

East: OSCE Works With International Groups For Free, Fair Polls

  • Roland Eggleston

Warsaw, 3 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Months before an election is held in one of the states of the former Soviet Union, international organizations send in teams of experts to educate voters and try to persuade the authorities to create conditions for a free and fair poll.

In most of these countries, the ODIHR -- the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, an arm of the OSCE -- plays a crucial role. Other important organizations include the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES); the National Democratic Institute of the United States (NDI); the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation; and Electoral Reform International (ERIS).

In many cases, these organizations cooperate with one another. The ODIHR, the NDI and the IFES are working together in Kyrgyzstan to review election legislation. In Tajikistan, the ODIHR is working with the United Nations, the IFES and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) on a number of projects connected with holding free and fair elections. In Uzbekistan, the ODIHR is working with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation on various election projects.

Some of the projects are international in scope. Last September, election officials from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan were brought to Germany for an election-training program. The seminar focused on campaigning, the role of the mass media and election administration.

Other projects are national. In Uzbekistan, the ODIHR cooperated last October with three other international agencies to organize a seminar on transparency in the electoral process and the registration of voters and candidates.

An important aspect of the work of most of these international organizations is trying to educate voters on their rights, particularly their rights to know the views of the candidates; to know the laws on elections; and to know the conditions they should expect to find at a polling station.

Many of the ideas designed to help voters may seem minor at first but can be important in practice -- such as designing a ballot slip that is easy to understand, or persuading polling-booth administrators to allow posters to be hung that show how to fill out a voting slip.

Let's take a closer look at three of these international organizations -- the IFES, the NDI and the USAID. Our correspondent spoke with representatives of these groups when they gathered in Warsaw last week to discuss efforts to assist with elections this year in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

THE INTERNATIONAL FOUNDATION FOR ELECTORAL SYSTEMS - The IFES has been working in Central Asia since 1994 and is represented across the area, although it is not currently working in Turkmenistan. Thomas Leckinger -- regional manager in Central Asia for the IFES -- said that one of the most important goals of his organization is legislative reform. It works with parliamentarians on legislation that effects the electoral process and tries to ensure it meets democratic standards. Leckinger said it is often the little things that make a big difference. As an example, he cited election systems in which -- in a race with five candidates -- voters would cross out the names of four candidates in order to vote for the fifth. The IFES teaches that instead, voters should be allowed to specifically indicate the individual for whom he or she is voting.

Leckinger called such a change a form of "positive thinking." He said: "The voter is saying, 'This is the [candidate] I want, instead of, 'These are the people I don't want.' "

The IFES also works with election administrators to ensure they know how democratic elections should be conducted. The IFES has produced a guidebook for them. Like other organizations, the IFES also helps train local NGOs to monitor the counting of ballots and to watch for possible irregularities at polling stations.

For example, one local tradition that persists in some areas of Central Asia and the Caucasus is so-called "family voting." The male head of the family appears at a polling booth with the identity documents of his wife and voting-age children and expects to vote for all of them. He must be persuaded that they should cast their own votes.

The IFES training programs cover many fields. Last November, it convened a conference in the former Kazakh capital, Almaty, of the chairmen of 55 election commissions at the oblast level. The discussions included civic education -- such as improving voter information -- as well as streamlining grievance procedures. Such procedures allow those dissatisfied with some aspect of the poll to protest -- first at the local level and then, finally perhaps, in a courtroom.

Leckinger says grievance procedures are not widely understood in parts of Central Asia. The IFES is planning a seminar later this year for judges in courts that would receive such protests.

The IFES has also adapted a U.S. institution -- the town meeting -- in some areas where it operates. Leckinger described one such meeting in a town in Kazakhstan as being "as open and democratic as anywhere in the world." The meeting was scheduled to last for three hours but continued for seven.

The IFES also offers to train candidates for an election campaign. In some places, it works together with local NGOs to organize televised debates in which the candidates learn to answer questions from journalists and others.

NATIONAL DEMOCRATIC INSTITUTE OF THE U.S. - Another organization deeply involved in democracy-building in Central Asia is the National Democratic Institute of the United States. The NDI has 40 field offices around the world, although it no longer has a field presence in Kazakhstan. It works with political parties in and out of parliament to strengthen internal democratic structures, reform constitutional laws and clarify voters' rights.

The NDI also helps political parties in such matters as drawing up election manifestos or legislative agendas. It works for the development of civil societies by encouraging civilian participation in policy formulation and by emphasizing such matters as an open parliamentary process and the publication of draft laws. Last month, it helped conduct a roundtable in Kyrgyzstan between parliamentarians and NGOs on how to improve the draft election law. THE U.S. AGENCY FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT - International election organizations could not operate without extensive financing. Some of the money comes from the European Union and other bodies, but a great deal is provided by the USAID.

Officials at last week's meeting in Warsaw said the USAID provides about three million dollars a year for democracy-building in each of the Central Asian countries. The amounts differ according to the needs of individual countries. The USAID has a regional mission in Almaty and offices around the region -- the largest in Bishkek, the smallest in Turkmenistan.

The USAID participates in a wide range of activities, including election education, administrative reform and improvements to laws and regulations. It also finances projects dealing with legal reform -- particularly the reform of laws to encourage democratization -- and finances technical assistance projects, such as drawing up lists of registered voters.

(This is the third of four features on international efforts to promote free and fair elections in Central and Eastern Europe and the states of the former Soviet Union.)