International electoral espionage is bigger than one election, one person and one country. It is also bigger than elections themselves. It is a direct threat to our democracy and to other countries around the globe.
Headlines are warning us about Russian “mischief” in the U.S. elections. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence have said they are confident that the Russian government is behind hacks into US email accounts and that cyber-probes of some state election systems may also be traced to Russia. A group of prominent national security and defense experts has predicted that Russian hackers will use the stolen emails to build credibility, then leak fake documents in order to manipulate voters’ opinions and, possibly, choices at the ballot box. These cyber-espionage and disinformation campaigns sound like the stuff of spy novels, except they’re real. What’s going on?
“Le Magnific” fires up the crowd at a concert for peace in Côte d’Ivoire.
Democratic elections resolve a legitimate competition for power through peaceful, rather than violent, means. They constitute a critical moment in the life of a democracy, where citizens have the right to express their will through the ballot box and a peaceful transfer of power takes place. However, this is not always the case. During the 2010 elections in Côte d’Ivoire – the country’s first election in 10 years – former President Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down after narrowly losing in a run-off to Alassane Ouattara, triggering widespread violence that left over 3,000 people dead and thousands displaced. To mitigate the potential for violence as the 2015 presidential election approached, NDI assisted civil society organizations to monitor the elections, draft Codes of Conduct and spread messages promoting nonviolent conflict resolution.
As this blog series has highlighted, the 2015 Guatemalan elections were unique in many regards. Citizen protests resulted in the resignation and arrest of the president and vice president on corruption charges. Voter turnout was the highest since the return to democracy in Guatemala. The presumptive winner, the runner-up in elections four years earlier who was leading in the polls, failed to make it to the second round. And electoral violence was lower than expected and lower than during recent electoral processes. The question then becomes, what’s next for Guatemala?
Large numbers of Guatemalan citizens are excluded from political life. Indigenous communities are among the most marginalized, as they face both institutional and cultural barriers in the country’s political system. Since the 2006 electoral reforms and during the subsequent three elections, Guatemala has seen important steps forward in terms of increased political participation; however, challenges remain in translating participation into meaningful representation.
Larry Garber meeting with Jose Concepcion Jr, the first chair of NAMFREL on the day before the 2016 Philippines elections
The 1986 Philippines snap presidential election serves as a lodestar for international democratic activists who came of age professionally during the 1980s. The successful People Power Revolution demonstrated the role that electoral participation could play in mobilizing a population to reject a fraudulent process and to overthrow a dictator. And it introduced the international community to such concepts as “domestic election monitoring” and “parallel vote tabulations,” which are now core components of the menu used by democracy promoters around the globe. Indeed, since 1986, Filipino activists have frequently been called upon to share their experiences with those contemplating how best to challenge entrenched authoritarian regimes. I observed these developments in the Philippines first-hand.
For Yesica Hernández, an observer from Quetzaltenango, playing an active role in political life in her country is a civic obligation. At just 24 years old, Yesica has worked with the Central American Institute for the Study of Social Democracy (DEMOS) for nearly five years and already observed two elections. She sees election observation as critical to involving citizens, especially youth, in politics and holding political parties and politicians accountable to the public.
Macedonia became independent when Yugoslavia disintegrated 25 years ago. Many thought that Macedonia might not survive as a new country. It was in a tough neighborhood, the economy was in tatters, it had little experience with democracy, and there was a strong undercurrent of tension between the majority Macedonian population and a large Albanian minority.
But Macedonia did overcome those early challenges, got to work on its new democracy, and as a result it has progressed toward European Union and NATO membership.
Equal participation of citizens in politics is essential for strengthening democracy. Citizen participation must be inclusive, representative and intercultural. One of the foundations of democracy is respect for human rights, which includes recognition of individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples. And one of these collective rights lies precisely in the use of indigenous languages. This is especially true in Guatemala, where indigenous peoples represent a large and diverse, but frequently marginalized, population.
Louis Enrique Borrayo Hernandez is a young Guatemalan man who learned about the election observation through Association Ixim, the local organization that supported Citizen Action’s (AC) observation in the department of Sacatepéquez, just outside of Guatemala’s capital. We recently spoke with Louis, as well as his colleague Theylor (who preferred that we not use his full name), about why they decided to join the AC network as long-term observers. Their answer was clear: “we wanted to make a difference in our community and our country,” they both agreed.