In 2024, almost half the world’s population is set to vote — in elections taking place in more than 50 countries.
But why do they matter so much? And how can we make sure the elections taking place this year are above board?
Democratic elections are a time for our civil and political rights to come to the fore, playing a decisive role in the choice of our governments.
There is evidence to show that the increase in democratic practices around the world has contributed to the reduction of wars and conflict. But as we see each day, this trend is not irreversible. Democracy cannot be taken for granted either in countries where it was just beginning to put down roots, or in those with democratic traditions stretching back decades or even centuries.
Of course, the fact that a government is democratically-elected does not in itself ensure it delivers for citizens. But regular and democratic elections give citizens the ability to change course if they see a need. In this way, an election is the opportunity for citizens to hold governments accountable both for their promises and their actions.
So much for the elections themselves. But why observe them?
Election observation is a powerful tool to strengthen the democratic process, to help elections meet international democratic standards, and to ensure that voters feel they are safe and can cast their vote in secrecy.
International observation provides an impartial, independent and objective assessment of how election rules and practices are implemented. It looks at all aspects of the process, from the legal framework through voter and candidate registration to equal media access and the right to peaceful protest.
I have the privilege of leading the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, (ODIHR), which works to strengthen democracy and human rights across the vast OSCE region. The integrity of our election observation work is recognised worldwide, and could have a particular impact this year with nearly half of the elections taking place across the globe are in the OSCE region.
All 57 countries of the OSCE have acknowledged the important role of democratic elections in ensuring long-term security and stability. And over the last 30 years, ODIHR has observed well over 400 elections, with tens of thousands of observers and hundreds of detailed analytical reports to help improve the election processes.
ODIHR’s role is not to ‘judge’ the elections, as this is up to the national institutions of each country and to their citizens. But observation does provide an additional level of transparency, scrutiny and public accountability.
Observation has never been an easy task. But there are also new challenges that are maybe symptomatic of the current state of democracy worldwide.\
One is the growing reluctance from certain countries to extend an invitation to observe. As a community of states that has recognised democratic elections as a key pillar of long-term security, all OSCE states have committed to inviting international observers from other OSCE countries.
For many years, this happened both on paper and in practice. But now, the commitment to be transparent and hold elections that can be described as genuine or democratic appears to mean less to some countries.
And let’s be clear: depriving any country of the comprehensive, objective, and transparent assessment offered by impartial observers can ultimately do great harm to its citizens, its institutions and their collective democratic future.
Our increasingly digitalised world is creating additional challenges — for governments wishing to hold democratic elections, for voters, and for observers. One is targeted disinformation spread to mislead or simply confuse voters. Another is the use of new technologies, which in themselves can be a boon that make voting easier, faster, and more secure. However, they need to be introduced carefully, both to ensure they work and that they enjoy public trust.
Trust is key to any election. If voters don’t trust the result, the entire process is undermined, potentially leading to a never-ending cycle of new elections or even to social unrest that can spill into violence. And there we are back to observation: by helping to increase public confidence in the honesty of the election process, election observation also builds trust in elected representatives and democratic institutions.
These challenges, not just in the field of elections but also to our democratic institutions and rule of law, make bona fide observation all the more important.
Today we are seeing severe tests to our democracies and the respect for human rights whose universality was accepted for so long and in so many places (although never enough).
We are increasingly hearing the argument that centralised government action is more effective to tackle security threats and social issues than democratic debate. But this approach invariably goes hand in hand with a decrease in respect for human rights, civil liberties, freedom of the media, freedom of speech, or the right to participate in elections. In the long term, such repression cannot deliver stability or security.
The vast majority of the countries we work with appreciate our election observation and assistance. But in a time of uncertain commitment to democratic standards, the need to understand and support this work is needed more than ever.
We all have our homework to do. And election observation will help us continue do it.