In search of fair elections

Sending international officials to supervise contentious political elections can help give the voting public faith in the democratic process—in theory, at least. But according to new findings by political science professor Susan Hyde, the presence of international observers may actually lead to more election boycotts.

Hyde and Emily Beaulieu, of the University of Kentucky, studied 453 elections in 107 countries from 1990 to 2002. They found that 63 percent of boycotts took place when international monitors were present; boycotts were 19 percent more likely in a monitored election. (The results appear in the March issue of Comparative Political Studies.) "We were somewhat surprised," concedes Hyde.

What caused the counterintuitive pattern? Hyde and Beaulieu suspect several factors. Rather than preventing a ruling party from subverting elections, the monitors' presence may merely prompt it to use subtler methods. Opposition parties may fear that the hidden manipulation will go undetected. For an opposition party, Hyde says, the worst outcome is "an election that is biased against them and that international election monitors certify as fair and democratic." She adds that, because observers give the political opposition an audience, their presence may increase the potential benefits of a boycott.

Hyde's findings don't imply that international monitors should be eliminated, she says; on balance, they have helped make elections fairer. But "observers should be aware of the fact that governments are trying to have it both ways"—and they should beware of "leaders that are trying to invite monitors and cheat in front of them." 

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