“Election observation and monitoring missions can play key roles in diminishing conflicts before, during and after elections” (African Union, Guidelines for African Union Electoral Observation and Monitoring Missions, 2 February 2002).
Observing elections has become an important part of supporting post-conflict democratisation processes and the maintenance of universal human rights. As political theory posits elections as critical junctions on a path to democracy, to observe an electoral process in a country to some extent evaluates and assesses the extent of the democratisation process. Observation can therefore assist in creating public confidence in the electoral process.
The dictionary defines the word observer as “an interested spectator”, a person who “notes proceedings but does not participate, and the word observation is defined as “accurate watching and noting of behaviour, phenoma”. As Carl Dundas points out, “the presence of observers at the polling and the count have a calming effect on the election atmosphere and is believed to promote the transparency of both the polling and counting of the ballots”. He defines the observers’ role to pronounce whether an election is ‘free and fair’”.
Democratisation can be significantly enhanced through the constructive use of observers as well executed observation exercises can not only lend credibility and legitimacy to an electoral process, but improve the quality of the process while it is underway. Ideally observers should be available to evaluate the complete electoral process commencing from the pre-election phase, during the election phase and after polling until the certification of the result. This may include: boundary delimitation; voter registration; the political environment and whether it allows for debate and discussion in the media, campaigning and canvassing of parties without fear of intimidation, the role of the media, voter education, information and misinformation, the role of the electoral authority, the level of training of electoral staff, opening and closing of voting stations, non-partisanship of security forces, performance of electoral officials and party agents, mechanisms for resolving conflict, the speed with which election results are made public and the acceptance of the results by contesting parties and the electorate.
The importance of having national and international observers has been strengthened over the past decade. This is reflected in the various international and regional guidelines and principles by which to benchmark how “free and fair” an election process has been.
The key understandings in this Module illustrate the contribution that national and international observers make to the democratic electoral process.
This Module is broken into the following sections: The Purpose of Election Observers, National and International Election Observers, Code of Conduct, Deployment of Election Observers and EMBs and Election Observers. It therefore considers the role and function of national and international observers who as the “eyes and ears” of citizens is to actively observe, assess and make sure that the electoral process is conducted in terms of the required legislative framework, in a free, fair and credible manner and one that affords all eligible voters the opportunity to cast their vote for the candidate or party of their choice, free of intimidation or coercion.
Professionally run observation operations illustrate these points when their findings are taken into account by candidates and political parties, electoral authorities and other institutions. But there are no prescriptions for launching an observation operation: this module considers the similarities and differences in the roles and responsibilities of various observation methodologies, including between international and national observers.
International and national observers should aim to ensure that their observation of the election process is conducted in a non-partisan and impartial way. To ensure that this can be done it is necessary to agree on a Code of Conduct for both national and international observers. In some countries electoral authorities include in their legislation (and where this is not legislated for it may be included as part of the invitation to observation missions) a Code of Conduct to which observers should adhere. A Code of Conduct can improve the professionalism of an observation mission and may include requirements such as: do their duties in an unobtrusive manner; comply with all national laws and regulations; and observe and base their conclusions on well documented, factual and verifiable evidence
Electoral authorities’ Codes of Conduct include requirements such as observe the election impartially and independently; remain non-partisan and neutral and be professional in observing the election
BRIDGE is mindful of the contribution that observers make in an election. Observation missions require extensive logistical and administration arrangements to be effective. Bearing this in mind, this Module includes theoretical and practical information and provides activities that give participants the opportunity to practice these skills. This Module is designed for both Electoral Management Bodies and civil society organisations, as the deployment of observers in an election affects both these stakeholders.
 Carl Dundas February 1994 “Dimensions of Free and Fair Elections”, Commonwealth Secretariat, page 44