Elise P. Schoux, who was among the foreign observers at the recent Bangladeshi
elections, argues the importance of such a job.
IN June, as the people of Bangladesh sought to elect a new government and progress
down the bumpy road to democracy, I served as a member of the multi-national election
observation mission sponsored by the National Democratic Institute for International
A number of Cambodians representing government and non-governmental organizations
(NGOs) lent their services as election observers, as well. Delegations sponsored
by NDI and The Asia Foundation included Pok Than, Sam Rainsy, Chan Chamman, Chem
Vuthikar, Lao Mong Hay, Iv Borin, Thang Leng Huot, Im Suosdey and Sam Borin. The
Cambodians made a special point of being observers as a way of gaining experience
with elections and to learn important lessons to apply in the upcoming Cambodian
What we learned may be pertinent to Cambodia as it prepares for commune elections
and national elections. In its work to promulgate laws, regulations, and procedures
necessary for elections, it is hoped that the government will provide for both international
and domestic election observers. Both groups play important roles in the election
process, especially in the case of elections for democracies in transition.
International observers represent the eyes of the international community, and a
positive report can go far to legitimize the election results. In Bangladesh, for
example, many people looked to the election to supply more than a freely elected
Thoughtful people of all political presuasions commented that a free and fair election
was important as a demonstration of political stability, which is necessary to attract
and hold badly needed foreign investment. They understood the value in having their
elections declared "free and fair" by 160 foreign observers from a large
number of countries and sponsored by the Commonwealth Community, the European Union,
the Japanese Parliament, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC),
and the United States (NDI and The Asia Foundation).
In addition, the presence of international observers can serve as deterrents to the
problems of voter intimidation, ballot fraud and intentional mis-counting and mis-reporting
of ballot results that can be attributable to individual candidates and their supporters.
During the Bangladesh election, for example, members of the NDI team in the Chittagong
area received reports of a pattern of intimidation and threats to a group of Hindu
women. The reports were investigated and the matter brought to the attention of local
police, who then escorted the women to their polling place.
This experience was isolated, however, and despite the concerns we identified before
the polling - the wide availability of illegal weapons and the resultant potential
for violence and intimidation, black money used to buy support for particular parties
and their candidates, irregularities with the list of registered voters - most international
observers in Bangladesh agreed that the polling was conducted without major incident
Our efforts on election day began at 7:30am with a visit to a polling center in order
to observe preparations for the opening of the polls. Already scores of men and women
were lined up in anticipation. Empty ballot boxes were shown to polling and election
agents and the domestic and international observers. When polls opened as scheduled,
with our list of potentially "hot" polling places in hand, we toured as
many polling centers as possible before the scheduled closing of polls at 4:00pm.
We then spent two and a half hours observing the unfolding, smoothing out, and counting
of 2,118 ballots at one of the polling places.
What did I see on election day in my area of Khulna? In the morning, each polling
center had long but separate lines of men and women. Both men and women (51 and 49
percent of registered voters respectively) had turned out in large numbers. The women
were often dressed in their best clothes and many wore jewelry. An air of eagerness
and celebration could be felt. By early afternoon, the long lines had diminished,
but voting continued.
In all eleven polling centers we visited, the only problem observed was that of false
voting, in which a person arrives to vote and finds that someone has already voted
using his or her number. We found this in three centers, and it seemed limited to
less than half of one per cent of the voters at each center. Other observers in the
Khulna area reported a few instances of false voting and no other irregularities.
However, we did not conclude that the false voting constituted fraud. In Bangladesh,
people often have no identification documents; even birth certificates are rare.
Because there is no system by which voters can be easily identified, some amount
of mis-identification is to be expected.
International observers do not impede the election process. These observers follow
internationally recognized standards that require neutrality regarding the election
results. I and all my fellow observers were instructed to abide by relevant laws
and international agreements and to avoid interfering or becoming involved in the
election process. We were firmly instructed that our roles were limited to distinguishing
facts from allegations and to documenting observations; it was up to the people of
Bangladesh to manage their voting process and to decide which candidates should be
seated in Parliament, which party or parties should form a government, and ultimately
whether the process was free and fair.
It is not surprising that half of the Cambodians who served as international observers
in Bangladesh are members of non-governmental coalitions organizing to specifically
support election activities. Their experiences in Bangladesh will be useful in their
work for the coalition activities, which will include the conduct of training for
election monitors as well as voter education programs for Cambodian citizens.
These coalitions - COFFEL and COMFREL - serve an important role as civic organizations
that serve important public functions of an election such as voter education, transparency
of the elections process, accountability of all participants whether government or
nongovernment, and independent investigations of irregularities.
For the Bangladesh elections, there were two domestic monitoring organizations -the
Fair Election and Monitoring Alliance (FEMA) and the Coordinating Council on Human
Rights in Bangladesh (CCHRB) - that greatly contributed to the transparency of the
Both are coalitions of Bangladeshi non-governmental organizations whose more than
17,000 trained observers monitored polling centers across the country.
Now that the 160 international observers have returned to their home countries, FEMA
and CCHRB are the entities that continue to provide civic education, monitor the
media, examine electoral rolls, train observers and similar activities necessary
to maintain the integrity of the electoral process. Like the members of COFFEL and
COMFREL, these election monitoring organizations understand that NGOs and associations
like theirs contribute to a vibrant civil society, which is essential in building
and maintaining democracy.
These civil society organizations are meant to complement the role of government,
not supersede it. The role of civil society institutions is to link ordinary citizens
with governmental institutions in which decision making takes place.
In this way, these organizations help ensure effective governance through which the
people at large, rather than elite minorities, are able to set priorities for themselves,
their communities, and ultimately their nation.
The upcoming Cambodian elections are important in the country's history. Elections,
however, are events, and democracy is a process. A successful contestation of the
commune and national elections will help keep Cambodia progressing on the road to