Dead people voted. And many of the living voted more than once.
Such were the claims of critics of Moldova's April 5 parliamentary elections.
So when the ruling Communist Party walked away with a comfortable victory, opposition leaders cried foul, saying as many as 30 percent of the votes cast were fraudulent. The allegations sparked days of violent street protests in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, with thousands of people pouring onto the street to demand a recount.
International monitors, however, failed to raise much of a red flag of their own.
In its preliminary election monitoring report issued on April 6, the monitoring arm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the vote took place "in an overall pluralistic environment" and "met many international standards and commitments."
While the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) report noted that Moldova needed to make "further improvements" in order to ensure future votes would be free from what it called "undue administrative interference," critics nevertheless alleged that the OSCE had given the stamp of approval to a fundamentally flawed vote.
Moldova's Central Election Commission has since upheld the Communist win
after a formal recount.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Baroness Emma Nicholson, a British member of the European Parliament who observed the Moldova elections, called the vote "fundamentally flawed," adding that the ODIHR report was inherently contradictory.
"Major flaws in the electoral system were identified [in the report]. But then other parts of the report, and particularly the press statement, almost overlooked those and said it was a great election," Nicholson says. "Whereas if there are fundamental structural flaws, you could never have an election of the type that they were claiming. You could only have a limitedly democratic election in a system that is limitedly democratic."
ODIHR, which is tasked with deploying observation missions to the OSCE's 56 participating states, has long been seen as setting the gold standard in international election monitoring.
Critical reports following deeply flawed elections in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004 were instrumental in galvanizing opposition to undemocratic regimes and sparking their pro-Western Rose and Orange revolutions.
But critics say ODIHR's monitoring reports in the former Soviet space have become markedly less critical in recent years. The body has given a tepid stamp of approval to votes in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and elsewhere that were all later found to be flawed, sometimes profoundly. The Hand Of Moscow
Some see this as a direct result of pressure from Russia, which has long seen the OSCE as a tool of Western influence. Moscow has been scathing in its critique of ODIHR, and made observation standards so restrictive in its own country that ODIHR pulled out of both the December 2007 Duma elections and the March 2008 presidential vote.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has described ODIHR as a "politicized" organization that operates beyond the control of OSCE member states. Moscow has sought to put the monitoring body under the supervision of the OSCE's Permanent Council, which would give Russia and other CIS countries an effective veto over any ODIHR election report.
Speaking to RFE/RL's Moldovan Service, Ioan Mircea Pascu, a Romanian member of the European Parliament, says that with both the European Union and the United States seeking better relations with Russia, there is an increasing reluctance to challenge either Moscow or the increasingly autocratic post-Soviet regimes loyal to it.
"Everybody understands there are Russian interests in this region and are hesitant to interfere. But we have to call things by their name because if we ignore what happened, the situation will deteriorate," Pascu says.
A similar sentiment could be heard from Vladimir Shkolnikov, who worked for ODIHR for 13 years and monitored more than a dozen elections before moving to his current post as the European office director for the U.S.-based watchdog Freedom House.
As Russian attacks on ODIHR become stronger, he says, there is an "instinctive impulse" in the organization to try to see how Moscow's interests can be accommodated. He adds that Russia, a key member of the OSCE, has many bureaucratic tools at its disposal to disrupt ODIHR's work and prevent it from working against Moscow's wishes.
"It can sort of hold the budget hostage. It can affect important appointments within the organization. It can withhold consensus on other unrelated issues. It can be very difficult administratively. It can insist on silly quid pro quos. It can innundate the organization with different side issues," Shkolnikov says.Seals Of Approval
The controversy over the Moldovan parliamentary vote is just the latest example of what critics describe as a growing ODIHR trend toward timidity and caution.
In Azerbaijan's October 2008 presidential election, for example, incumbent Ilham Aliyev won with a whopping 87 percent of the vote after a campaign that saw a massive crackdown on the press and an opposition boycott of the vote. Still, an ODIHR report said the election marked "considerable progress towards meeting OSCE commitments and other international standards."
ODIHR also anointed Armenia's February 2008 presidential election, won by Serzh Sarkisian, to be "mostly in line" with international commitments. But that assessment appeared to fly in the face of widespread reports of fraud, intimidation, and violence during the vote. Public anger over the election culminated with the death of 10 people in clashes between protesters and police, and the arrests of some 900 activists and opposition politicians.
OSCE officials deny the organization is succumbing to Russian pressure. They also point out that ODIHR's preliminary reports, issued within 24 hours of an election, are often less critical than their final reports that come out months later when more information and analysis is available.
Speaking to RFE/RL's Moldovan Service, Nikolai Vulchanov, head of the ODIHR's long-term election-observation mission, stressed that the organization's initial report was not its final word on the vote.
"I want to point out that our statement on April 6 was of preliminary findings and conclusions. It covers developments until 2 [a.m.] on Monday, April 6. This is only an assessment of preliminary findings. It is not the final thing," Vulchanov said.
In fact, in an interim report released on April 21, ODIHR offers a more nuanced assessment of the April 5 vote and its aftermath, citing "credible reports" about mistreatment of detainees following the Chisinau protests and pointing to opposition allegations of voter fraud.
The report said ODIHR led attempts to verify a "limited number" of fraud claims, and found most cases "credible," but requiring greater analysis.
Critics point out, however, that it is ODIHR's preliminary reports that tend to carry the most weight. The organization's final reports, issued after the elections results are a fait accompli, get little attention, and have negligible impact.Political Pressure
ODIHR's election monitoring faces other challenges as well.
The body typically sends contingents of both long- and short-term observers to monitor country votes.
In Moldova, the international election-monitoring mission included 42 long-term observers and some 400 short-term observers on election day.
Many of the observers have traditionally been citizen volunteers from OSCE member states. But in an attempt to have the international community speak with one voice, ODIHR has increasingly brought groups of legislators from the Parliamentary Assemblies of the OSCE and the Council of Europe into its election monitoring missions.
Analysts say these lawmakers, who are only on the ground to observe elections for a short time, tend to be more reluctant to put strong language into monitoring reports because of their political responsibilities elsewhere.
Shkolnikov says that given the current arrangements -- which include constant bickering among OSCE states about the amount of money each should contribute to the organization for activities like election monitoring -- ODIHR reports will likely remain subject to political influence and pressure.
"As long as governments are the ones paying for this, you will always have something playing into the statement. And sometimes mistakes are made," Shkolnikov says.