The observation of elections is one way in which the Commonwealth Secretariat works to strengthen democracy. Observer Groups are asked to report on the credibility of the electoral process, whether the conditions exist for a free expression of will by the electors and if the election results reflect the wishes of the people. Each Group's report also contains practical recommendations to help improve election arrangements for the future.
Commonwealth Secretaries-General constitute Commonwealth Observer Groups (COGs) at the request of a member government. In addition to sending Commonwealth Observer Groups the Secretary-General also sometimes sends Commonwealth Expert Teams (CETs). These are smaller and less high-profile. These are the key points about COGs:
COGs are only ever sent at the invitation of the Government or the election management body; however, 'broad support' from political parties and civil society is required as well and an Assessment Mission is sent beforehand to ensure that this is forthcoming;
The Assessment Mission also establishes that the Observers can go wherever they want and have access to all stages of the process, which is vital if they are to make judgements on its credibility;
Terms of Reference from the recent Malawi COG are shown below. The key requirements are that the Observers consider the factors "impinging on the credibility" of the process, determine "whether the conditions exist for a free expression of will by the electors" and decide "if the result of the elections reflects the wishes of the people".
Part of Process
The "election event" should not be seen in isolation: the Commonwealth therefore views the election in the context of the democratic process as a whole. Observers are concerned with the integrity of key processes that affect the election but begin well beforehand, and the Secretariat sees election observation as dovetailing with work to strengthen these processes well before and after the election;
COGs are distinguished by the fact that they are composed of eminent and highly experienced Commonwealth citizens drawn from countries familiar with democratic processes and institutions;
COGs are constituted by, but are independent of, the Commonwealth Secretary-General and Commonwealth governments: their members participate in their individual capacities and their loyalty is to the fundamental political values of the Commonwealth, as reflected in the Harare Commonwealth Declaration
COGs Don't Interfere
COGs are present only to observe: theirs is not in any sense a supervisory or executive role;
COGs must observe without favour to any party and give an honest and impartial assessment of the election;
The reliability and integrity of the voters register is crucial for any election: since 2000 most COGs have therefore been preceded by at least one and sometimes two Expert Teams which observe the registration process and report to the election management body and the main COG;
COGs are also usually preceded by at least one Advance Observer, who may be in place more than a month before the election - demonstrating a Commonwealth presence on the ground well before the main Group arrives and ensuring that the main Group can be briefed by a Commonwealth Observer on arrival;
Role of Domestic Observers
While retaining their independence COGs work with other observers to avoid duplication and maximise the overall observation effort; in particular the Commonwealth recognises the vital role of domestic election observers.
The main COG usually begins work eight days before election day. It is briefed at the outset by the Advance Group, the election management body, the political parties, civil society and Commonwealth High Commissioners. It then deploys around the country in teams of two, samples the poll, count and results process and prepares its report to the Secretary-General. COGs may, and mostly do, issue an Interim Statement after the poll and count.
Terms of Reference
As an example, the Terms of Reference for the COG which was present in Sierra Leone for the General Elections held in 2007 are set out below. These are broadly typical of a COG Terms of Reference:
“The Group is established by the Commonwealth Secretary-General at the request of the Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone. It is to observe relevant aspects of the organisation and conduct of the General Elections which are scheduled to take place on 11 August 2007, in accordance with the laws of Sierra Leone.
The Group is to consider the various factors impinging on the credibility of the electoral process as a whole. It will determine in its own judgement whether the elections have been conducted according to the standards for democratic elections to which Sierra Leone has committed itself, with reference to national election-related legislation and relevant regional, Commonwealth and other international commitments.
The Group is to act impartially and independently and shall conduct itself according to the standards expressed in the International Declaration of Principles to which the Commonwealth is a signatory. It has no executive role; its function is not to supervise but to observe the process as a whole and to form a judgement accordingly. In its Final Report, the Group is also free to propose to the authorities concerned recommendations for change on institutional, procedural and other matters as would assist the holding of future elections.
The Group is to submit its report to the Commonwealth Secretary-General, who will forward it to the Government of Sierra Leone, the Chairman of the Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone, the leadership of the political parties taking part in the elections and thereafter to all Commonwealth Governments.”