Is election observing in Central Asia a lost cause?

Portrait Rennschmid.jpg

Until Central Asia’s autocracies take their numerous commitments to democracy seriously, election observers can’t do their jobs. What can be done? Русский


Anne Rennschmid
10 March 2017

A woman casts a ballot in presidential elections in Uzbekistan, December 2016. The vote, widely seen as fraudulent, saw acting president Shavkat Mirziyoyev elected with 89% of the vote. Photo (c): Valery Melnikov / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.To varying degrees, the post-Soviet states of Central Asia are governed by autocrats. These ruling elites have little to no interest in democratic governance, monopolising politics helping those in power to stay in power – in some cases, for life. Last month, Turkmenistan’s president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was re-elected with 97% of the vote. In neighbouring Uzbekistan, acting president Shavkat Mirziyoyev won elections held in December 2016 with 89% of the vote. In cementing his position, Mirziyoyev slammed the door on hopes for a more pluralist approach to politics than his late predecessor, Islam Karimov who has ruled the state since it had started to exist. 

These political systems concentrate lawmaking and executive powers in the office of the president. From Tajikistan to Turkmenistan, political parties represented in parliaments are pro-regime and far from providing political alternatives. Any form of meaningful opposition has been extinguished by a policy of intimidation by powerful state security apparatuses. Consequently, the public mostly remains passive, and with no democratic structures, elections are a sham.

After 25 years of independence, it’s clear that Central Asian states do not take their commitments to these agreements seriously

This makes one wonder why the international community still sends missions to these countries to observe the implementation of democratic standards for elections. 

As elections are central to state sovereignty, observation missions are only allowed upon formal invitation of the host government. In cases such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the results of elections are more or less clear even as observers’ presence in the country is being negotiated. Can election observers keep their full independence and integrity in states with such sham elections?

Promises come cheap

All republics of the former Soviet Union are participating states to the OSCE/ODIHR, and are therefore politically bound to its commitments on elections, most importantly the Copenhagen Document and Charter of Paris, both signed in 1990, and repeatedly confirmed by the participating States over the following years. The states committed themselves to hold regular free and fair elections, ensuring that the will of the people serves as the basis of the government. OSCE states are also to guarantee conditions which ensure in practice the free expression of opinion, free choice of representatives and accountability of those representatives towards their voters.

OSCE/ODIHR election observers come from other OSCE states and are deployed by their governments to monitor the implementation of these commitments in a country where elections are being held. They take their duties seriously and apply a rigorous methodology, releasing comprehensive reports to the public in English and in the state’s local language(s). Their reports are outspoken, too: while some states would prefer a focus on election administration as being a less politically sensitive issue , the OSCE/ODIHR election observation missions consider the broader political context including the stage of media freedom and other other fundamental civil and political rights. 


Be careful who you vote for. A monument to president Berdymukhamedov in Ashgabat, capital of Turkmenistan. Photo CC: Lyuba Brank / Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.For example, in regard to Tajikistan’s parliamentary elections in March 2015, the OSCE/ODIHR election observer mission reported that although the government stated its ambition to hold democratic elections, restrictions on opposition politicians’ right to stand, freedoms of expression and assembly, and access to media limited voters’ opportunity to make a free and informed choice. Furthermore, the appointment of election commissions lacked transparency. 

Following parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan in March 2016, the OSCE/ODIHR reported that the country “still has a considerable way to go in meeting its OSCE commitments for democratic elections. The legal framework restricts fundamental civil and political rights, and comprehensive reform is required.” The report indicates that Kazakhstan’s political landscape is dominated by president Nazarbayev’s political party Nur Otan and that there is a lack of genuine opposition in the country, with several prominent critics of the government either imprisoned or living in exile. 

Election observers are sometimes monitored by these states’ security services, hampering their ability to speak with and hear the concerns of ordinary voters

The December 2016 elections in Uzbekistan were unique in the way that, for the first time beside the acting president himself, three other candidates were allowed to run for president. But this meant little, in a sham election described in the OSCE/ODIHR’s statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions as a “campaign devoid of genuine competition,” held in a “highly restrictive environment”. 

Central Asian states are legally bound to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), whose Article 25 mandates members to ensure freedom of expression, assembly, and association. Over 25 years of independence have shown that, with the exception of Kyrgyzstan, the Central Asian states do not take their commitments to these organisations and agreements seriously, nor to democracy in general. Their “virtual democracies” strive for all of its spectacle, with none of its substance

Hope springs eternal 

This disdain for democracy is patently obvious, but the continued presence of OSCE/ODIHR observation missions reveal that the international community still cares about the implementation of commitments on democratic elections. The election observation missions of OSCE/ODIHR are deployed on the formal invitation of the respective state, and one advantage of them is their use in keeping up political dialogue even with the region’s most closed states like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. 

This is an important advantage, but it’s not enough. Election observation in autocratic states cannot fulfil its primary purpose as mandated by the OSCE/ODIHR: to enhance public trust in the elections and thus in government and public institutions. In such elections, no real social actors are being represented. 

Central Asia’s autocracies happily mouth off about “democracy”, “human rights” and the “rule of law”, using them widely in the wording of political programs while at the same time in reality they are systematically suppressed and electorates are deceived. 

How do you oversee the implementation of democratic ideals if you know before boarding the plane that they won’t be implemented?

Election observers are also prevented from doing their job, and sometimes monitored by these states’ security services, hampering their ability to speak with and hear the concerns of ordinary voters. For example, OSCE/ODIHR’s final report on the 2013 parliamentary elections in Turkmenistan notes that “election observers were required to be accompanied to most meetings by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials or other local officials throughout the observation period, including on election day.” 

This shows how difficult it is for election observation missions not to be controlled or used by host governments, or for their presence to legitimise sham elections. Observers have to guarantee at all times their full independence and integrity. Only in this way can they be a credible instrument for monitoring whether and to what extent the will of the people serves as the basis of the authority of government. How do you oversee the implementation of democratic ideals if you know before boarding the plane that they won’t be implemented?

In a time when democracy appears to be hollowing out across the world, it’s easy to cling to the hope that if we treat liberal democracy as universal, it will be universally implemented. Indeed, vibrant democracies with accountable leaders must be encouraged. OSCE/ODIHR election observers have a clearly defined remit, and the states they visit have clearly defined commitments. Until the latter will be taken seriously, the international community should refrain from sending fully fledged observer missions to sham elections in autocratic states. 


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