Warsaw, 3 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Universal Declaration adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 recognizes the role that transparent and fair elections play in ensuring the right to a democratic government.
Article 21 of the Universal Declaration says that "everyone has the right to take part in the government of his/her country, either directly or through freely-chosen representatives."
A second paragraph says the authority of the government rests on the will of the people. It adds that "this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage, and shall be held by secret ballot or by equivalent free voting procedures."
These sentences form the basis on which the OSCE's Warsaw-based election arm -- the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) -- seeks to strengthen the democratic process in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
The ODIHR's director, Swiss diplomat Gerard Stoudmann, says the organization tries to persuade governments to create a level playing field for all participants in an election, whether they are government parties and politicians or those out of government. ODIHR works together with a number of other western organizations with similar ideals.
ODIHR sums-up its program for ensuring free and fair elections in seven key words -- Universal, Fairness, Secrecy, Freedom, Transparency, Equality and Accountability. A breach of any of these cast doubt on the democratic credentials of an election.
UNIVERSAL: This means that all voters should be included in the electoral register without discrimination by the authorities. It also means that all those who want to become parliamentarians or stand for election as President can register as candidates without discrimination. Citizens who meet the qualifications, such as age, should automatically have the right to vote.
FAIRNESS: The minimum standard of fairness demanded by ODIHR is that the voter is given information about each party and each candidate and their programs. This minimum can be expanded to cover many other issues to ensure that the election is fair to all and that the voter is aware of the different policies.
SECRECY: This means that the individual must complete the ballot slip alone (without help from friends, election officials or anyone else) and must do so in private in a closed voting booth. Other people should not be able to see into it. It also means that the ballot-slip should be folded so that no-one can see what is written on it and it should be placed in a sealed ballot box which cannot be opened. "Secrecy" also means that unauthorized people -- including police or security officials -- should not be allowed into the polling station while the vote is taking place or the ballots are being counted.
FREEDOM: This principle covers many issues. One is that a citizen should be able to cast his vote free of intimidation or bullying from supporters of any party or from the security authorities. It also means that candidates should be able to make speeches, hold public meetings and have access to the media throughout the election campaign without intimidation. TRANSPARENCY: This also covers a number of issues. For example, the election law must be clear and understandable. Voting procedures must be clear and easily understood by all who go to the polling booth. "Transparency" also means that a small number of observers approved by the political parties and election monitors can watch the counting process at all levels to ensure that it is honest.
ODIHR believes the presence of observers limits the possibilities for election fraud. It argues that observers should watch the counting at individual polling stations, at the intermediate counting centers and finally at the national election authority. To make this system work, ODIHR says the number of votes won by each candidate should be announced at regular intervals so that the observers can check progress and ask questions about anything which seems suspicious.
EQUALITY: In practice, this means that every vote should be as important as those of other voters. It has different meanings according to the system of voting. In the majority system of voting, "equality" means that each constituency should have approximately the same number of voters and, therefore, about the same number of deputies. The number of voters should not vary by more than about 10 percent from constituency to constituency. The proportional system of voting is different. The number of voters in each constituency may vary from small to large. However the number of deputies elected in each constituency will differ because it depends on the number of voters. ODIHR's election experts do not advocate the proportional system.
ACCOUNTABILITY: Basically, this means that the candidate who is elected is the one who actually takes office. ODIHR says it knows of cases where an elected politician was unable to take his seat.
The extent to which some of the elections which occurred last year fell short of these seven goals can be found in the detailed reports sent to ODIHR by its international monitors.
One example is the Final Report of the presidential election in Armenia in March last year. The observers said they found examples of discrepancies in the counting of votes and of ballot stuffing. In some polling stations many unauthorized people were allowed into the room where voting was taking place. ODIHR said there were also instances of intimidation directed toward voters and members of the election commission. Among the problems which most disturbed ODIHR was the presence of unauthorized people in some of the polling stations. It said that among them were police and military officers, representatives of the Interior Ministry or the Security Forces and some local authorities. The ODIHR said the presence of unauthorized persons inside the counting places could have an intimidating effect on voters.
Last year ODIHR also issued reports on elections in Moldova, Ukraine, Hungary, Yugoslavia, the Czech Republic, Bosnia, Slovakia, Latvia, Azerbaijan, and Macedonia. Some reports were critical while others were more or less satisfied with the progress toward normal democratic procedures.
In general the ODIHR and other international organizations conduct an almost continuous program of electoral education. Every year training workshops and seminars are conducted for electoral officials from various countries. When it comes to the actual election, the international organizations usually send preliminary teams into the country about two months before the poll to investigate the situation and see where improvements are needed. One of the things they watch for is access to the media. The ODIHR presses the authorities to ensure that all parties have unimpeded access to the media without discrimination. In a handbook prepared for election monitors, ODIHR says that "all contesting points of view should be fairly and equitably communicated."
ODIHR acknowledges that larger and better-financed parties and candidates may be able to purchase more media space, but adds: "an equitable formula should be reached to permit all contestants reasonable access to print and electronic media."
Based on its experience in many elections, ODIHR says: "problems which can arise include defamation of candidates by State-owned media, exclusion of particular parties or candidates from state-owned media coverage or coverage only at times of low penetration, intimidation of the media in the context of the elections, [and] manipulation of paper and ink supplies."
ODIHR's monitors also pay attention to the conduct of the security forces. An ODIHR guideline says: "security forces have a duty both to prevent intimidation of voters and candidates by others -- and not to propagate intimidation themselves." Another paragraph borne of experience in some elections says that to ensure a democratic election: "candidates must have the freedom to convey their programs to the voters without disruption of campaign meetings. There must be a well-defined process for issuing permits for conducting public rallies, political meetings and fund-raising activities. There must be judicial recourse in the case of unreasonable delays in granting such requests."
In the coming 12 months, elections are scheduled in Estonia, Armenia, Macedonia, Ukraine, Croatia, Georgia, Turkmenistan, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. ODIHR and other international organizations hope and expect all of them to meet these standards for a fair and free poll.
(First of four features on OSCE efforts to promote free and fair elections in Central and Eastern Europe and the states of the former Soviet Union.)