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    How Dictators Use Zombie Election Monitors To Stay In Power

    Hungry for legitimacy, authoritarians want to eat your votes.

    Hungry for the legitimacy that the appearance of democratic elections can provide, authoritarian regimes are increasingly employing "zombie election monitors" to remain in power. Dressed up to look like established election monitoring organizations, "zombie monitors" are organizations who are willing to ignore internationally accepted norms about what constitutes free and fair democratic elections in order to create confusion about the authenticity of an election among domestic and international audiences. Here are nine ways that undemocratic regimes call on and deploy zombie monitors to endorse staged elections and drown out the voices of credible election monitors.

    Create Mass Confusion


    As election monitoring has become a key tool for verifying the quality of democratic elections, a shadow market of less credible election monitors who are willing to praise pseudo-elections has also emerged. Zombie organizations who operate in the shadow market are designed to look as legitimate as possible, with official-sounding names, and may be based in any number of foreign countries. For example, the International Expert Center for Electoral Systems (ICES)—not to be confused with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), a credible organization that provides technical support to election authorities in new democracies—provides an umbrella for little-known election monitoring organizations based in Western democracies so that it can claim to work with “experts” from countries such as the United States, Great Britain, Netherlands, Germany and Israel.

    Infect Existing Election Monitoring Organizations

    Zaur Mustafayev, Trend Media / Via

    In some cases, authoritarian regimes may work with semi-credible election monitoring organizations to stack their observation missions with individuals who are sympathetic or who might be swayed to the cause of the ruling regime. One popular technique is to invite election monitoring missions of parliamentarians, who, despite being members of a foreign government, may come from minority parties with political affinity to the ruling regime. During Azerbaijan’s 2013 presidential elections, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) election observation mission included several regime-friendly observers who no doubt played a role in the gentle language used in PACE’s final observation report.

    Endorse Flawed Elections

    AFP Tofik Babayev / Via

    The United Nations Declaration of Principles for International Election Observations states that international election observation “can enhance the integrity of election processes” and “plays an important role in providing accurate and impartial assessments about the nature of electoral processes.” Taking advantage of the assumed impartiality that election monitoring organizations are supposed to maintain, zombie monitor organizations who endorse obviously flawed elections can drown out credible monitoring organizations and delegitimize critical monitoring reports. For example, although the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) reported serious problems during Azerbaijan’s 2013 presidential election, shadowy organizations such as ICES, the Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States, the Standing Conference of Political Parties of Latin America and the Caribbean, and the European Academy for Elections Observations provided glowing assessments of the vote.

    Dominate Media Coverage

    Kazakh TV / Via

    Authoritarian regimes have also been investing heavily in state-run media, which amplifies favorable assessments from zombie election monitoring organizations while marginalizing critical reports published by credible election monitoring missions. After the OSCE ODIHR denounced Kazakhstan’s 2012 parliamentary elections for “not [meeting] fundamental principles of democratic elections,” Kazakhstan instead invited election monitors from the Interparliamentary Assembly of the Commonwealth of Independent States (IPA-CIS) to observe their October 2014 Senate elections. This time around, Kazakh media and other regional media are citing the IPA-CIS report that “the election was held in accordance with the international standards and the law of Kazakhstan.”

    Build Zombie Alliances

    POOL New / Reuters / REUTERS / Via

    In addition to enlisting dubious non-governmental organizations to praise flawed elections, authoritarian regimes are also organizing their own election observation missions as a way of supporting other non-democratic regimes. For example, China’s government sent small teams to observe elections in Madagascar and in Zimbabwe in 2013 under the premise of maintaining friendship. Authoritarian regimes are also working together through inter-governmental organizations to send observation missions of zombie monitors to lend credibility to pseudo-elections, such the Commonwealth of Independent States – Election Monitoring Organization (CIS-EMO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

    Suck the Life Out of Election Monitoring

    European Pressphoto Agency / Via

    The repeated effect of zombie monitoring has not only called into question the authenticity of election observation missions, but has also had the effect of watering down standards for election monitoring. While the Organization of American States (OAS) has historically played a critical role in monitoring democratic elections throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, the recently established Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) has instead begun deploying missions who simply “accompany” election authorities. These “accompanying” missions do little more than sanction an election and endorse a country’s election authorities, who can be part of the problem and contribute to tipping the playing field if electoral bodies and institutions are biased towards the ruling regime—as was the case in Venezuela’s 2013 presidential election.

    Pretend Everything is OK


    In an effort to demonstrate his grip on power while waging a brutal war in which more than 190,000 people have died, Syrian President Bashar Assad organized Syria’s first election in more than 50 years in June 2014. Although the war waged on while voting took place in select government-held parts of the country, international delegations from Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Zimbabwe observed the election. The Russian observers declared that “The Syrian election was a success. It was legitimate, and we had no legal objections,” and argued that the vote represented a “seismic shift” in Syria’s progress towards democracy.

    Stop at Nothing

    Dan Kitwood / Getty Images / Via

    Despite widespread objections from the international community to the legality and legitimacy of the 2014 Crimean referendum, the Russian government threw its weight behind the voting exercise and even brought in zombie election monitors, including European representatives from extremist neo-Nazi parties to observe election day activities.

    Attack Legitimate Elections


    During Scotland’s 2014 referendum on independence from the United Kingdom, a small group of election observers from a little-known Russia-based organization called the Public Institute of Suffrage claimed that the United Kingdom’s voting laws did not meet international standards for a constitutional referendum. While Russia’s state-sponsored media quickly reported the organization’s criticisms that the rooms where voting and counting were conducted were “too large” to observe voting and counting procedures, international media have noted that the critical observations issued by Russian election observers reflected Russia’s frustration with the international community for criticizing the stage-managed Crimean referendum.