Recent reports by non-governmental groups on the Iraqi election and the Jan. 9 Palestinian presidential election reveal similar problems and stress the need for high levels of security.
Election officials and international observers focused on reports of poll-worker preparedness, freedom of movement and the importance of widespread civic participation. Security issues in Iraq prevented international organizations from directly monitoring the elections and limited the monitoring capacity of domestic groups.
“Each observer stayed in his own local region — if he couldn’t get to a polling place by walking, then it wasn’t observed,” said Chris Foley of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, a non-governmental organization responsible for overseeing the training of more than 9,800 Iraqi election observers.
“We’ve been there about 18 months, from the summer of 2003,” Foley said. “Since then, we’ve worked with a host of Iraqi civil society groups.”
One of those groups is the Iraqi Election Information Network, an Iraqi-based non-governmental organization established to coordinate the activities of 154 Iraqi civic organizations. The institute’s primary goal has been to train Iraqi nationals as election monitors in the absence of international election monitoring.
The National Democratic Institute was also involved in election monitoring for Palestinians. Jennifer Collins-Foley, an election observer and pre-election monitor in December and January, praised the high level of preparedness of election workers and the enthusiasm of voters in the West Bank. Collins-Foley compared her experience to reports coming from election monitors in Iraq.
“Both sets of monitors were working in what some people called an ‘occupied territory,’” she said. “The West Bank and Gaza saw high levels of participation; that was not universal in Iraq. Everyone said this election commission was very competent and independent from political pressure.”
The Iraqi Election Information Network, which posted a press release in English, Arabic and Kurdish, noted that although elections were conducted without systematic flaws and in accordance with basic international standards, there were problems, such as low turnout and sporadic violence.
“The lack of Sunni participation was not fully covered,” Foley said. “There needs to be closer scrutiny of their participation when the votes are counted.”
Foley added that an estimated 60 percent of voters turned out in the regions that were secure, but he thinks that certifying the numbers would give the Iraqi government legitimacy in the eyes of Sunnis as well as Shiites.
Hanna Nasser, head of the Palestinian election commission, said that 71 percent of eligible Palestinian voters cast ballots in their presidential elections.
Collins-Foley said that problems like undelivered election materials and inadequate freedom of movement for Palestinian candidates have been reported in Iraq as well.
Foley thinks the election in Iraq might not have been possible without the combined security of U.S. and Iraqi forces. This combination could be necessary again for Iraq to host a constitutional referendum in October and new elections in December, he said.
“Both the U.S. and Iraqi governments had full security available for the elections,” Foley said. “They might have to do that again. Circumstances will tell.”
Foley also praised the United Nations and the European Union for assisting in the Iraqi election. Both groups provided financial support, and the European Union employed Iraqi nationals as election observers.
“We’re blown away by how successful the elections were,” he said. “It bodes well for future elections.”