Domestic Observers as ‘unsung heroes’ of Electoral Democracy

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❖ The role of domestic and international observer groups is to: 1. gather information by directly observing key processes and consulting stakeholders, 2. draw informed conclusions as shared through statements and reports and 3. offer recommendations without intervening in the process.
❖ Domestic observation can only be done by citizens of the country that is holding elections.
❖ International observation can only be done by non-nationals that are invited by the host country to observe elections.

In every electoral process, there are individuals who work tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure the integrity, transparency, and fairness of the elections. While politicians, candidates, and international observers often take the spotlight, it is crucial not to overlook the significant contributions of domestic observers. These individuals are the ‘unsung heroes’ of electoral democracy, playing a vital role in safeguarding the democratic process within their own countries. Domestic observers play a hugely important and invaluable role in building and strengthening an electoral democracy.

Regrettably, the work of domestic observers is often undervalued, underfunded and their statements and reports often do not receive the same level of prestige and recognition compared to international observers. This can be attributed to a number of factors and perhaps international observer groups are guilty of their silence in how the work of domestic observer groups provides a steppingstone for their own observations and recommendations. Since arriving in early January, the EISA International Election Observer Mission (EISA-IEOM) has relied on the expertise of domestic observers to understand key developments characterizing the pre-election environment. EISA has also benefited from the insights of its Liberian staff that support the IEOMs outputs by sharing and clarifying key developments in the field of politics, law and security as it relates to the 2023 elections.

In using the electoral cycle approach to election observation, EISA believes that the election process is not a one-day event but rather a continuous process with no beginning or end. In the case of Liberia, preparations for the 10 October 2023 elections started as soon as the 2017 elections concluded. Domestic observers pick up on all the recommendations and findings delivered by immediately participating in review processes aimed at improving the next elections. Domestic observer groups are driven by a deep commitment to democratic values, patriotism and a desire to ensure free and fair elections. Unlike international observers who may have limited knowledge of local dynamics, domestic observers possess intimate familiarity with their country’s political, social, and cultural context. This local knowledge enables them to provide unique insights and identify any irregularities or issues specific to their own electoral system.

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It is safe to say that domestic observers lay the foundation for the work of international observers during elections as they are better placed to observe key electoral processes that international observers’ groups are often unable to observe due to resource and time constraints. Examples of such processes include the procurement of election materials, the conduct of voter registration and the follow-up on recommendations and review of electoral laws during the post-election period. Malawi always stands out as a case for the importance of understanding the difference between domestic and international observers. In 2019, Malawi international observer groups were criticised for brushing over serious irregularities after the ‘tippex scandal’ leading to the courts ordering fresh elections. In their defense, international election observer groups had explicitly mentioned that their preliminary statements released immediately after election day, excluded the results aggregation and tabulation process as they could not stay and follow the process until the end. In this regard, domestic observer groups such as the Malawi Electoral Support Network (MESN) were more prominent in following the result process until a credible election outcome was attained. Similarly in Kenya, following the overturning of the 2017 election results, domestic observer groups such as E-LOG were able to track and observe the fresh elections as most international observer groups withdrew mainly due to budget constraints.

On 7 July 2023, the EISA IEOM witnessed the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Elections Coordinating Committee (ECC) and Liberia Elections Observation Network (LEON) in Monrovia. Both groups have covered the 2023 elections long before the EISA IEOM arrived in the country. With more international observer groups expected to arrive closer to election day, domestic observers fill an important gap as the ‘eyes and ears’ of critical processes before and after elections. The EISA IEOM commends both LEON and ECC for strengthening collaboration as groups that are vested in the democratic advancement of Liberia. Collaboration among domestic and international observer groups is crucial in an era where the ideals of democracy are under attack and the role of observers is increasingly questioned.

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While domestic observer groups play a crucial role in ensuring electoral integrity, they often face challenges and obstacles in their work. These can include limited resources, legal restrictions, intimidation, and lack of recognition. It is essential for governments, civil society organizations, and the international community to support and protect the work of these “unsung heroes” of electoral democracy, working diligently to uphold the principles of fairness, transparency, and accountability in their own countries. This can be achieved through providing necessary resources, enacting favorable legal frameworks, and fostering an enabling environment for their activities.

About USAID Support to EISA-IEOM to Liberia: The USAID-funded EISA International Election Observation Mission (EISA-IEOM) Activity seeks to enhance the integrity of the 2023 Liberia Presidential and Legislative elections through the deployment of an independent international election observer mission (EOM) to monitor, assess and report on all phases of the electoral process in accordance with international and regional benchmarks. The IEOM is implemented in close coordination with the financial support of USAID/Liberia and will complement the efforts of other electoral stakeholders.