Belarus Presidential Elections 2010: Observations on the Observations

BelarusI returned from election observation in Belarus several days ago (via Tokyo, of all places, thanks to snow in Frankfurt) and wanted to share a few observations that struck me quite forcefully during the election period.  First, however, I should clarify that this is not a comment about the overall conduct of the election in Belarus.  As observers for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe we promise–and for good reason–to leave public comments about the electoral process to the OSCE itself.  The OSCE’s report is online here and as with my previous OSCE trips I find that it corresponds remarkably closely to my own experiences.

MstislavlMy own comments here have less to do with Belarus than with what my experience in Belarus says about conditions necessary for genuinely free and fair elections.  One of the best meditations of this question can be found in Andreas Schedler’s magnificent 2002 Journal of Democracy article, “The Menu of Manipulation” (posted here –one hopes with permission– by the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy).  Schedler suggests that there is an almost infinite variety of mechanisms by which those in power can artificially inflate their own vote totals:  they can artificially add supportive voters (carousel voting) or ballots (ballot-box stuffing); they can artificially subtract rival candidates (ballot or media restrictions, or divide et impera through paper candidates) or rival voters (voter list manipulation or voter intimidation), and, of course, they can simply change the numbers themselves at some point during or after the counting process (which Lukashenka, in what may have been an attempt at humor, claimed to have done in 2006 to bring down his margin of victory).  Although OSCE observers saw nearly all of these methods in Belarus in 2010, the main problems arose during the counting process.

MinskThere is something striking about the counting process in Belarus.  The Ukrainian and Mozambican counts I have witnessed were loud and long and sometimes chaotic, but they produced a reliable result because many different voices contributed to the outcome, even in precincts where one candidate won over three-fourths of the votes.  In the Belarusian elections, by contrast the counting is quick and quiet, over almost before it starts.  This lets electoral observers come home earlier than usual, but they have to spend the rest of the night writing up reports.  In some things speed is a disadvantage; a fast vote count is about as useful as a fast clock.

So what to do?  External incentives may help those in power to allow a freer electoral process and a fair count, but in a place such as Belarus, the fast and unwatched count may be so habitual at the local level that anything but a change in the incentive structures of electoral management or direct monitoring from above may not be enough to change customary practice.  External observers can help, but their lightning checks are hardly enough to change anything (easier just to wait until they go away) and disregard for them has frequently manifested itself even during the counting process.

Does the presence of external observers do anything, then, other than generate data for reports?  Does it have any effect?  An interesting test of observers’ limits and capacities can be found in the OSCE’s unusual decision to post stationary observers who remained at the same polling place for three days of early voting.  My informal discussions with fellow observers suggest that many of those who did stay in the same place ended up building a degree of a rapport with the electoral committee of the polling place.  The rapport, in turn, seems to have resulted in more open and transparent processes–particularly during the vote count–than in those polling places where observers dropped in with little prior contact.  Having built up some degree of trust, the counters and observers were reluctant to wreck their tentative rapport and sought ways toward a mutually acceptable process.

But stationary observation is more a metaphor than a model.  There is neither the money nor the will (nor the tolerance of locals) to allow for the thousands of external observers it would take to build relationships in each polling station.  Only local observers can perform that role–and I have seen them do it with great skill and enthusiasm in Ukraine and Mozambique–but they too face limits.  While external observers may lack the relationships that could bring about a better process at the local level, but they are at least protected from political consequences of their observations.  Domestic observers, by contrast, have the necessary relationships but they may face power asymmetries that prevent them doing their jobs (or even from wanting to try).  In small communities with dense social networks, observers might be able to force a reasonable process, but they usually opt not do so because the costs of becoming involved in electoral antagonisms are higher than the benefits, especially where state-run organizations control the economic livelihoods of local residents.  There are greater chances for lasting effect in more anonymous urban communities where there are fewer social- and employment-related threats to prevent meaningful election day oversight.  The strong police effort in Minsk on election night may have been a way to send a message about the dangers of getting involved to those who faced fewer community constraints.

It is thus difficult for observers to have a direct effect on the conduct of local elections without a particular combination of connection and symmetry: the observers and the observed must have a relationship with one another, and both sides must have access to some form of power.  This combination is hard to maintain without a strong civil society or significant opposition parties that might plausibly gain control of regional or national governments.   The process of democratic competition thus contributes directly to the impartiality of local-level electoral administration, and the absence of one or the other can begin a vicious cycle that further grinds down both.  The dynamics of observer-observed relationships are just another reason for the cycle of gradual decline and sharp recovery exhibited by a number of postcommunist countries: since there is little opportunity for gradual improvement, things tend to get worse until something snaps yielding a new balance of power that may for a time restore a degree of fairness to the electoral process (as it appears to have done in Ukraine).

Belarus has not yet reached that point and I have found little compelling evidence that would allow a meaningful guess about when–or even if–it will.  As Timur Kuran pointed out nearly two decades ago in his “Now Out of Never” the answer lies in a hidden landscape of concealed preferences that we will only glimpse if change actually occurs.


Viorel--the best partner one could hope for--makes friends in Mstislavl

Astrid, Luka and Me

I’ve used up another 15 seconds of fame, this time in the Monday, September 29, Vitebski Kurier:

Vitebsk Election News Report


Did expectations come true?..

Our attempt to have a conversation with one of the long-time observers of OSCE, coordinator Gary Ouellet from Canada were not successful. He providently refused by phone or other means to make any evaluations or comments on organization or process of the elections. His interpreter politely advised us to address all the questions to the headquarters of OSCE in Minsk. Nor did we manage to meet any other observers at polling stations to ask for their impressions. Nevertheless we were lucky to have a brief conversation with short-time observers Astrid Ganterer and Kevin Deegan-Krause (see photo) before the meeting of the District Election Commission of Vitebsk’s DEC #19 in the regional state administration building. It is their first time in Belarus, and they saw some parts of Vitebsk and Minsk. The representatives of OSCE mission persistently avoided all the questions connected to the elections. They kept silence, not revealing if their expectations came true or not. One could see either exhaustion or disappointment in their faces. Still, our foreign guests promised to answer all questions at the press-conference in Minsk…” (Thanks to our translator and several friends for clarifying the Russian).

Actually I am not allowed to clarify what emotion was on my face that day, but if it was reflective of the faces of those who reported for the OSCE in Minsk that day,  then “disappointment” would seem to be an appropriate choice (see

P.S. Search the picture above closely for the Hidden Lukashenka. If you enjoy that, you might want to try this Hidden Picture.

P.P.S. More election observation pictures (taken by others) online at:

Not To Minsk Words

I returned two days ago from Belarus where I was an observer in the 2008 parliamentary elections.

Lukashenka and Flag Courtesy of Wikipedia

OSCE rules request that we leave assessments to the organization’s main report and remain silent.  Fortunately, in this instance, the OSCE judgement so closely corresponds to my own experience that I can refrain from my own judgments and express my own  empressions exclusively through quotations from the initial report.  That report can be found online at  Unless otherwise noted, the quotations reflect my own personal experience.

The Scope Of The Mission:

As OSCE notes, “On Election Day, 449 observers were deployed to observe the opening of polling stations, the process of voting, the vote count, and the tabulation of the votes at DECs. This included 76 specially designated teams to observe the tabulation process.”

What Went Relatively Well: The Voting Process

The OSCE report perfectly mirrors my own experience regarding the experience of voters in the voting process:

  • “On election day, observers reported that voting was well conducted overall in those polling stations visited.”
  • “Observers generally evaluated the opening procedures as good or very good in 100 per cent of the 93 cases observed.”
  • “The voting procedures were also positively assessed by observers, with 95.4 per cent of cases evaluated as good or very good.”

With a relatively minor exception:

  • “Campaign materials were displayed inside polling stations in 3 per cent of cases.”

What Did Not Go Quite As Badly: The District Election Commission Process

Again, the OSCE report mirrors my own experience regarding the conduct of the aggregation of the count at the district level:

  • “While some opposition candidates claimed to have been the subject of pressure on the part of local administrations, other candidates, including from the opposition, declared that the attitude of DECs was friendlier and more open than in the past and that the pre-election climate was improved.”

Nevertheless, as the OSCE reports,

  • “In 54 per cent of tabulations observed, they were not able to observe the figures being entered into the spreadsheet tables.”

What Went Badly:  The Counting Process

As the OSCE report concludes, “Voting was generally well conducted, but the process deteriorated considerably during the vote count. Promises to ensure transparency of the vote count were not implemented….” The process deteriorated considerably during the count and tabulation, violating paragraph 7.4 of the Copenhagen commitments of the OSCE.

  • “The integrity of the process was undermined by the vote count which was assessed by observers as bad or very bad in 48 per cent of observations [including me]. “
  • “37 per cent of observers, including some of those who noted hindrances [i.e. including me], reported not having a full view of the vote count proceeding, thus compromising the transparency of this fundamental element of the election process.”
  • “OSCE monitors were prevented or hindered from observing the vote count in 35 per cent of cases. This compromised the transparency of this fundamental element of the election process.”
  • “In 50 per cent of cases, early votes were not compared with the number of entries in the voter lists.”
  •  “Observers could not see the voters’ mark in 53 per cent of cases.
  • “Numerous cases were noted of counting procedures taking place in complete silence with small slips of paper being passed between commission members; this significantly undermined any transparency in the count.”

Reading Between the Lines:

What to make of an election that combines relatively smooth voting and district-level counting with comprised transparency at the polling-station counting stage?  The OSCE report makes certain suggestions about the possible reasons.  These conform to my own experience.

  • “From observers comments, in some instances it was noted that there were significant discrepancies between turnout observed and the number of votes noted in PEC protocols…. A high incidence of mobile voting was noted in some cases.”
  • “Where access was possible, several cases of deliberate falsification of results were observed…. Deliberate falsification was observed in 5 cases by observers.

If, indeed, the non-transparent counting procedures reflect discrepancies, this requires an explanation of how the aforementioned discrepancies could be combined with a relatively transparent voting process.  The OSCE report offers several potential explanations that correspond to my own experience:

  • “Lack of clear detailed regulations on the printing of ballots, the number of ballots to be printed, the percentage of extra ballots, and security features”
  • “Lacking instructions on observation, each PEC was free to decide on how observation would be dealt with.”
  • “The Electoral Code does not provide any clear mechanism for securely keeping the ballot boxes after the start of early voting, nor does it provide specific regulations for enhancing the integrity of the ballot.”
  • “The lack of any official protocols to document the record of voting on each day of early voting remains a concern.  These outstanding issues allow the possibility of electoral malfeasance.”

And, perhaps most significant of all,

  • In nearly all cases in which OSCE/ODIHR EOM observers had access to such information, they reported that PECs were composed of staff from the same place of work, such as enterprises or schools. Existing hierarchical relationships seem to have been transferred to the PEC, i.e. heads or deputy heads of such work places became PEC chairpersons, with their staff as the PEC members. This further contributed to the lack of independence of individuals in the commissions…. The composition of election commissions diminished stakeholders’ confidence in the process.

Most interesting of all, is the question of why.  If, as OSCE notes, “The election took place in a strictly controlled environment with a barely visible campaign,” why should engineered discrepancies and falsifications be necessary at all?  The need to make minimum turnout requirements? The desire for overwhelming margins of victory?  Simple habit?  I will leave answers to these questions for other experts and other venues.