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OSCE: What Are 'Free And Fair Elections?'

By Sarah Martin

Free and fair elections: That catchphrase has been much in use in the past few weeks as monitors evaluate voting in Iran, Croatia, and Kyrgyzstan. But what exactly are the criteria for freedom and fairness? RFE/RL correspondent Sarah Martin spoke to the head of election monitoring at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to help provide some answers.

Prague, 22 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Over many years, Hrair Balian has worked as an election observer in former Soviet countries that are new to democracy. Today, he is the chief of the elections section (known as the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE.

Balian is in charge of sending observation missions to monitor elections throughout the 54-state OSCE region. His organization produces reports that offer observations and recommendations on the elections' procedures and outcomes -- in other words, how free and fair they are. In an interview with RFE/RL, Balian defined the terms "free" and "fair:"

"Freedom relates to the freedom of a voter to make a choice on a ballot without any undue pressure from any source. The fairness relates to conditions under which the candidates, political parties are able to compete in an electoral campaign."

But freedom and fairness are only two of seven elements the OSCE examines when it assesses the democratic nature of an election. The organization also evaluates the universality of the vote -- that is, who is deemed eligible to cast a ballot and who is not -- the transparency of the electoral process, the secrecy of the ballot, and the government's accountability to the electorate.

Balian says any one of these individual elements can be, and often are, violated:

"One of the most common violations -- where we are devoting a lot of attention and resources now -- is the transparency of an election. You can conduct a perfect election on election day. You can give your voters all of the chances they deserve to make a free choice of candidates, parties, etc. And if the process falls apart during the tabulation of the results arriving from the polling stations, then that becomes seriously problematic. "

Balian's office sends both long- and short-term observers to watch the entire election cycle. Ahead of the vote, they look at the registration of voters and candidates and the way the media covers the campaign. On election day, they watch the voting, ballot-counting, and declaration of results. And finally, observers monitor the installment in office of the winners.

The OSCE's rule of thumb is that its monitors observe at least 10 percent of the polling stations in a given country. That means they may send 400 observers to a large country, such as Russia, but only 100 to Croatia.

Balian says the OSCE does not monitor all the countries that have questionable electoral practices. It simply doesn't have the resources to do that. Instead, the organization looks for countries where it may be able to have a positive impact.

Most recently, these have been the countries that once made up the Soviet Union -- countries moving from a one-party system to multi-party pluralism. Balian says they present a particular kind of problem:

"In many of the transitional countries -- that is, transition-to-democracy countries, they've experienced for the first time in the history of their country any level of democratic election. So, for the first time they are confronted with the possibility of making a choice and their choice counting."

This weekend, Tajiks will vote in parliamentary elections for the first time since 1995. The elections are part of a peace accord ending a bloody civil war. Marie Struthers of Human Rights Watch, an international monitoring group, has been working in Tajikistan on and off since 1997, when the accord was signed. She told our correspondent that one of the most difficult obstacles on the road to democracy is voter education:

"People have not seen candidates express diverging views -- although the views are not so diverging in Tajikistan -- via the press. And they are not used to having one platform compared or contrasted against another. I mean, I speak to people every day in the streets, in the stores, and I ask them: 'Who will you vote for?' 'What party will you vote for?' And they say: 'We don't really understand the difference between the parties ... and we don't know many of the people presenting themselves because they haven't been exposed to us."

Struthers says the transition to free and fair elections in a country like Tajikistan is a slow process. But she has no doubt about the importance of implementing a democratic system. She says that people have to be given the right to exercise their right to choice in a free manner. In her words: "They should be able to say, 'I vote for this person' in an unrestricted manner -- without intimidation, without pressure and without reprisal."