Since 1993 the Organization of American States (OAS) has sent 177 missions to 26 countries around the hemisphere to monitor and promote free and fair elections. The regional body and its member states recognize that free and fair elections are a crucial component of democracy and the multilateral body’s role in ensuring them. But the quantity of missions tells us little about their quality. It also fails to highlight the key countries that have dropped out of the “community of observed countries.”
Using data provided by the OAS, we compiled a record of OAS election missions and countries. To capture larger trends—and because most countries do not typically have elections every year—we grouped elections into three-year periods (shown by the red line in Figure 1).
A quick view
Overall, the number of countries inviting the OAS to monitor the fairness of an election has grown from 1993 to today, as we show in Figure 2 below. This is largely due to an increase in small nations in the Caribbean basin requesting monitoring missions, turning to the OAS for both international validation as well as technical expertise in countries with limited resources.
Our second figure shows that those countries that invite the OAS missions tend to be repeat customers, such as Bolivia (14 elections), Peru (13 elections), Ecuador (12 elections), and the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua (11 elections each)—though it looks more than likely that Nicaragua will drop out this year, breaking its record.
Curiously, the ALBA countries of Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela have some of the highest numbers of OAS monitoring missions, for now, at least. The numbers hide some important emerging changes and likely forthcoming developments. Below we explain.
While Ecuador has been a frequent customer of OAS missions, it has harassed and shut down domestic observers, such as Participación Ciudadana—groups that serve as essential counterparts to credible international teams and efforts. These groups are on the ground before the international observers arrive and, in addition to also monitoring the balloting on election day, educate voters on how to vote and on the importance of free and fair elections. President Rafael Correa has called Participación Ciudadana an agent of U.S. influence (though ironically they certified as free and fair the election that originally brought him to the presidency) and has imposed increasing restrictions on “political” organizations. In addition, the Correa government has harassed independent media, an essential component in guaranteeing equal media airtime, especially when the government uses—as it does in Ecuador—public television and radio stations for partisan purposes.
The government of President Daniel Ortega has cracked down on Nicaragua’s internationally respected domestic electoral watchdog organization Etica y Transparencia. The Ortega administration and his odd coalition of allies have also packed the electoral commission, the CSE, with pro-government sympathizers, and recently used the Supreme Court to hand the leadership position of the main opposition party to a government ally and kicked 28 opposition legislators out of the National Assembly.
But Ortega in Nicaragua has gone even further than Correa in Ecuador. It recently announced that it will not allow OAS observers for the upcoming general elections to be held in November 2016. This is despite the fact that it was OAS observers that helped to legitimize President Ortega’s democratic return to power in 2006 and to validate his re-election in 2011. The recent turn of events unravels one of the most successful and recognized cases of democratic electoral rebuilding in the region.
Since 2006, Venezuela’s government has stopped inviting the OAS to observe its elections (despite its claims that it’s one of the most democratic countries in the world). Instead, the government has preferred to invite monitors from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) that have significantly weakened election observation standards in the region. According to UNASUR’s own mandate, its election observation missions are specifically sent to a country to accompany and verify the work of the state’s own electoral commission. In the case of Venezuela that means certifying the work of the infamously partisan national electoral commission (CNE) in which—as many have documented—over half of the members of the electoral oversight body, including its president, are chavistas.
The current political crisis in Venezuela has highlighted a major weakness of the OAS election monitoring mandate: the need for the country’s executive to guarantee a fundamental democratic right. Despite a request from the Venezuelan opposition coalition to monitor the December 2015 legislative elections (which the opposition won), the OAS couldn’t do so without the president’s invitation. Even now that the opposition controls the National Assembly, the legislative branch and local governments lack the authority to invite observers; that invitation can only come from the executive branch and the electoral authority.
In recent years, Venezuela has been a regional leader in charting the path to limit democracy more generally even beyond elections.
OAS election missions are seen as a legitimizing tool for governments on both the international and domestic stages. Populist leaders often tie the definition of democracy exclusively to elections, using their electoral mandate to justify eroding or trampling the other elements of democracy, such as respect for civil and political rights, freedom of the press and independent checks and balances on government, often manifested as an independent judiciary and legislature.
For this reason, the OAS is still invited by governments around the region. But as electoral standards have been undermined in places like Nicaragua and Venezuela the OAS has no longer been welcome. The reason is that the OAS is clear that it is not willing to compromise on the objective standards and access required for each mission. While its record hasn’t always been perfect, the OAS has spoken out against flagrant election violations (described below) and will refuse to participate in an election where it believes it does not have the access to guarantee a fair process. Part of this involves an agreement of diplomatic immunity for OAS observers by the local government and a procedural agreement by the local electoral authorities to guarantee access and provide information requested by the visiting mission. Negotiations over such details can take weeks after the initial invitation.
Inviting the OAS to observe the local elections is not without risk to the government. In past missions, OAS observations that have detected flaws or fraud in an election have forced governments to change their actions. Widespread fraud in the Dominican Republic election of 1994, documented by the OAS, led to new elections 18 months later; criticism of the Peruvian pre-electoral conditions and elections of 2000 led to increased international attention on President Fujimori, who later resigned and fled to Japan, after the eruption of a corruption scandal; and in Haiti in 2010, an OAS review of the voting results changed the winner of the presidential election.
Today, though, much of the stifling of the opposition, of civil society and of the press has taken place long before an election is announced and international observers arrive. It’s a system Venezuela perfected. As Venezuela has demonstrated, a government can ensure a weak opposition through restrictive regulation and laws against freedom of the press and assembly, a biased electoral commission, criminal prosecutions, and generally using the judicial system to hound opponents. Then, when an election is eventually called, the government is able to further tilt the playing field by hogging media airtime for presidential addresses and ribbon-cutting ceremonies, refusing to grant permits for rallies, and increasing government spending for clearly partisan projects.
Countries like Venezuela and Nicaragua have so gutted civil and state democratic checks and balances and packed their national electoral commissions that they have already gamed the system to remain in power. Just recently, the Venezuelan CNE’s dragged its feet to certify the signatures needed for an opposition-driven recall effort against Maduro. After months of unjustified delays, on August 10th the CNE finally announced that the country-wide signature collection process to trigger a potential recall referendum will not take place until at least late October, making it highly unlikely the actual referendum will take place in time to trigger new elections to remove the chavista government.
The trend is not limited to ALBA countries. The most recent election in the Dominican Republic had numerous problems, with the opposition candidate accusing the government of using government jobs to influence voters and of paying people not to vote. The OAS follow-up report detailed disparities in access to media and the distribution of government funding to parties as well as loopholes in financing, such as the lack of limits on private contributions to campaigns. However, despite these problems and some limited violence, the OAS preliminary report did not report any serious reservations about the outcome of the election. Informally, however, a number of outside observers and participants expressed frustration over the lack of access to the voter registration audit and the limited freedom of mobility imposed on diplomats on election day.
And in Peru, the most recent election, also held in May 2016, exposed fault lines within the OAS itself. With just weeks to go before the presidential election, two of the four leading candidates were disqualified by the electoral commission for breaking new “vote-buying” laws, despite evidence that the frontrunner, Keiko Fujimori, acted similarly but was not disqualified. This led the Secretary General of the OAS, Luis Almagro, to claim that the election would not be fully democratic if the same standards were not used for all candidates. Nevertheless, the official OAS electoral mission said that the electoral commission was within its legal authority in choosing to disqualify just the two candidates and demurred from passing judgment on the legitimacy of electoral commission’s decision.
The difference between the Almagro’s statement and the OAS mission’s position highlighted the limitations of OAS election monitoring. Often a mission sees its role as being in country to evaluate elections against the country’s domestic elections laws. In fact, though, there is a set of agreed-to international standards that election missions should adhere to. But missions sometimes don’t, either out of diplomatic nicety or personal discretion. Instead, rather than raise a stink in country during the process, the mission will make recommendations for improvement in its post-election report, which does little ex-post to resolve the tensions and questions of the election they were sent to monitor. In the case of this year’s elections in Peru, while the OAS mission was commenting on the legal authority of the electoral board, Almagro was commenting politically on the inadequacies of the Peruvian electoral set-up. Unfortunately, those post-election reports are often ignored.
It remains to be seen whether Venezuela’s rejection of OAS monitors is an exception to the region or the beginning of it leading a new trend, with Nicaragua now following its lead. Regardless of whether Nicaragua eventually allows OAS monitors or not, President Ortega has set the stage for his own re-election, one not likely to be approved by any independent monitor.
For now, whether through UNASUR or individually, a number of countries, such as Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua are clearly bucking the standards developed and defended by the OAS. Their success in doing so has not been lost on countries like the Dominican Republic, which has managed to bend the standards but not break them. Ironically, those standards and in some cases the OAS and civil society’s protection of them were central to the election of the governments that now seek to undermine them. More than the OAS’s political will, what seems to have faded is the regional and international consensus and commitment to truly free and fair elections and the international community’s own successes in guaranteeing them before.