Vol. 15 No.5 (May 2005), pp.379-381

BEYOND FREE AND FAIR:  MONITORING ELECTIONS AND BUILDING DEMOCRACY, by Eric C. Bjornlund.  Washington, DC:  Woodrow Wilson Center Press, and Baltimore, MD:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.  408pp.  Cloth. $55.00.  ISBN:  0-8018-8048-3.  Paper. $22.95.  ISBN:  0-8018-8050-5.

Reviewed by Thomas G. Walker, Department of Political Science, Emory University.  Email: polstw@emory.edu .

Eric C. Bjornlund has produced a work that examines the development and growth of election monitoring systems around the globe. After previously serving as an associate director of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Bjornlund founded Democracy International, an organization that evaluates and designs democracy-building efforts worldwide.  Trained as a lawyer, the author relies on his own election monitoring experiences in more than twenty-five nations and on a database of information covering 94 countries.

Bjornlund’s volume, BEYOND FREE AND FAIR, focuses on the “third wave” of democratic transitions that began in the 1970s in southern Europe and continues to the present time.  During this period many nations embraced democratic political institutions or, at a minimum, converted to semi-authoritarian regimes.  One of the hallmarks of these transitions has been the adoption of periodic elections, giving the people a greater say over how they are governed.  These electoral systems vary greatly with respect to how closely they approximate the desired standard of being “free and fair.”  A central purpose of the book is to examine the role of election monitoring in building and maintaining democratic institutions in these transition states.

Allowing observers to monitor the electoral process has become nearly routine.  Between 1989 and 2002, international observers were present in 86 per cent of the national elections in 95 newly democratic or semi-authoritarian countries.  The practice has become a regular part of the political process in Latin America, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and Africa.  The activities of the monitors have become increasingly important as a way to legitimate a government, promote human rights, and encourage political participation. Today governments seeking international legitimacy are expected to invite neutral observers to monitor their elections.

Bjornlund discusses two forms of election monitoring:  international and domestic.  International election monitoring involves groups outside the host nation.  Commonly these are multi-national organizations with a significant history of observing and evaluating elections.  International monitoring emerged from the early peacekeeping efforts of the United Nations in the days following the Korean War.  Other groups, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe, the Organization of American States, and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, have since initiated efforts to [*380] conduct or support election-monitoring programs.  The most prominent of the international efforts has been that spearheaded by former president Jimmy Carter, who is characterized by Bjornlund as “the reigning celebrity of international election observation.”  In order to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of international monitoring, Bjornlund provides case studies of elections in Cambodia and Zimbabwe.

Domestic monitoring involves election observation by nonpartisan groups originating within the host state.  The first effective use of such efforts occurred in the Philippines in the 1980s when the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections, with support from the Catholic Church, monitored the events surrounding the 1986 campaign in which Corazon Aquino challenged Ferdinand Marcos.  The generally successful efforts of domestic monitoring in the Philippines led to similar groups forming first in several Latin American nations and then in Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Domestic organizations have certain advantages over international efforts.  Unlike multi-national organizations that enter a country for a relatively brief period surrounding an election, domestic groups are a continuing presence within the society.  This allows local groups to have a more enduring influence on the building of democratic practices.  In addition, domestic organizations tend to have greater expertise about the political forces relevant to the election.  International groups, however, usually enjoy better funding, greater visibility, and superior prestige.

Bjornlund is a strong supporter of election monitoring. He sees the monitoring process as contributing significantly to the democratic cause throughout the world.  It deters fraud and corruption, improves public confidence and civic education, energizes citizen involvement, and strengthens nongovernmental organizations.  Critical reports from monitoring organizations can seriously weaken a government’s legitimacy at home and damage the respect it receives in the international community.

In spite of his advocacy, Bjornlund is balanced in his approach, readily admitting the limitations and weaknesses of election monitoring.  Monitoring organizations can have conflicting interests and goals.  Incumbent political powers may intimidate election observers.  Observers can fall to the temptation of favoring a particular candidate or party, and thereby be perceived as excessively partisan.  Monitoring efforts that focus on what happens on election day may miss corrupting practices that occur before or after the casting of ballots.  These limitations warn us that too much can be expected of the election monitoring process.

Bjornlund offers several suggestions for improving the effectiveness of election monitoring.  First, democracy-building organizations must seriously consider whether they should participate in elections held in nations with flawed systems or practices.  By participating in such elections organizations run the risk of unintentionally conferring legitimacy on an election that fails to approximate the standards of being free and fair.  Second, to maintain credibility and independence participating organizations must challenge brazen manipulation of [*381] the monitoring process.  Third, organizations should take pains to avoid duplication of efforts and the adverse effects of inter-group competition.  Fourth, monitoring groups should strive to develop more effective and consistent observation practices.  Fifth, there is a need to enhance the professionalism of election observers.  Sixth, monitoring groups should accelerate efforts to shore up international consensus on universal democratic principles and the importance of democracy promotion.  Bjornlund cites the efforts of Jimmy Carter as exemplary in promoting these goals and using the best available practices in his own monitoring activities.

For many regular readers of Law & Politics Book Review, BEYOND FREE AND FAIR will be of only passing interest.  The book offers no jurisprudential insights, says little about law or courts, builds no theories of judicial behavior, and makes no effort to generalize beyond the specific topic at hand.  Of course, it was not the author’s intention to pursue such goals.

Instead, Bjornlund strives to examine an increasingly important international practice as comprehensively as possible.  He is not guided so much by theory or the desire to fill gaps in existing literature as he is motivated to share his knowledge about a subject that has dominated his professional career.  He accomplishes this goal in excellent fashion, combining personal insights with an abundance of empirical information about efforts to improve democracy by observing and evaluating election practices.  The treatment is thorough and richly documented, covering the organizations that are active in election observation as well as the nations that have hosted election monitors. The book contains the right mix of facts and statistics supported by interesting case studies.  The author avoids obvious partisanship.  His approach is balanced, offsetting a general advocacy of monitoring with a pragmatic awareness of the inevitable weaknesses and pitfalls.  Bjornlund offers both objective information and prescriptions for reform.

BEYOND FREE AND FAIR might be considered a niche book.  If so, it fills its niche exceptionally well.  It takes a subject that has received insufficient scholarly attention and treats it in a comprehensive manner.  The volume might not speak broadly to other subjects and literatures, but those interested in election monitoring will find it indispensable.


© Copyright 2005 by the author, Thomas G. Walker.