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How Close Is Iran's Election To "Integrity"?

Massimo Tommasoli, a permanent observer for the International IDEA

For decades, political and civil activists have called for Iran to hold a free and fair election based on established international principles. During the early 2000s, a collective was formed by a group of renowned lawyers and political activists to pursue such an ambition, but after the 2009 disputed presidential election and re-election of Mahmud Ahmadinejad, the group was targeted by authorities and members were imprisoned. One of the last demands of the group before the 2009 presidential election was to invite independent observers to the country, a demand repeatedly rejected by Iran’s supreme leader himself.

RadioFarda sat down with Massimo Tommasoli, a permanent observer for the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) to the United Nations, to talk about the requirements for free and fair elections. Tommasoli discusses the new global trends surrounding the subject as well as the results of a research project by an independent group of experts on Iranian electoral processes.

Do you consider the idea of free and fair elections a relative concept or something established and concrete?

There are international standards that define elections with integrity, and this has been mainly based on a body of knowledge, especially observation by both international and domestic monitors, of several election cycles in most countries of the world.

However, nowadays we in the electoral assistance community no longer use, as we used in the past, the term “free and fair elections” because we need to specify what we mean by “free and fair.” Also, by using this terminology, there was an excessive emphasis on the election event and on what happens on and around election day. In fact, there has been a growing awareness that the integrity of the electoral process goes well beyond what happens on election day.

[This] has to do with the management of an election cycle as a whole, which in fact starts with the end of an election and is completed through the next election, and it has to do with a number of different dimensions.

I will refer here to an interesting academic initiative by an independent group of experts called the “electoral integrity project” that International IDEA supports. The project produces a perception of electoral integrity index based on experts’ assessments, and it compares these perceptions across the globe.

For example, in this assessment there are 11 dimensions for elections with integrity, from electoral law to voter count, communication of results, and independence of election bodies. Therefore, we have a much better understanding now about what is meant by elections with integrity. Although we always have to consider interpretations and take national and local context into account. Something that could be considered of a lower quality in a particular context can be the best possible outcome that you may have in, for example, a post-conflict situation.

So, in these circumstances, there are certain considerations of the variables of the context that may affect the assessment by experts. But all in all we are in a much better shape in defining what we mean by “elections with integrity.”

Back in 2013, you mentioned that the issue of free and fair elections would be part of an ongoing policy debate at the international level. Is this new term and the ways of defining it the result of such a debate?

The debate is ongoing. It’s about which factors provide incentives to increase the integrity of electoral processes when we know the outcomes are in fact of a low standard.

I already mentioned the importance of international election observation on one hand and the role of domestic monitors on the other. Basically, this has to do with the possibility of providing an independent assessment that may reinforce the role of independent election management bodies.

This is interpreted in many ways around the globe. There are countries where independent management bodies are independent commissions, and in other countries -- although they are part of a ministry or may be there in a sort of a hybrid situation between an independent agency and a ministry -- the principles of independence, impartiality, and the actual implementation and compliance with electoral law are ensured.

The role of international actors is important in all situations, and not only where elections with integrity is perceived as law but also where elections take place and where is considered an established democracy. Trends may reverse even in countries with high levels of integrity. I would say that is a characteristic of democracy, which is not a static process, and therefore having in place procedures that ensure oversight and public scrutiny of key elements of the electoral process integrity is a very important mechanism. [In turn, that] allows for ensuring more integrity, and [then] a country may learn from what happened in previous electoral cycles and address issues raised by media, independent observers, and political actors in order to improve the process.

This may result in electoral reforms, strengthening capacities, or increasing the independence of institutions of electoral management bodies.

I spoke with an international observer who took part in various missions in Eastern Europe. Why is it important for a country to invite observers? Do you think this should be done only by countries who are paving the way toward democracy?

This is not limited to democracies in transition or new democracies, and it is important for established democracies. It is important because you need independent assessment even when you have established procedures. Observation as such is no guarantee of the assessment.

In other words, you may have observers who may be biased or they themselves have issues of independence. They may be providing observation and also electoral assistance; they may have conflicts of interest providing recommendations that they could themselves be called upon to interpret.

Taking the role of devil’s advocate, this calls for the integrity of observation itself and not only the integrity election process. This means there should be, and there are, international observation benchmarks and standards, and codes of conduct for improving the quality of election observation, both by international and domestic actors.

This has been institutionalized by a declaration of principles adopted around 12 years ago by the main international observation actors. This declaration is also subject to constant review, experience sharing and peer review also among international observer actors in order to see whether these principles are put into practice and the main challenges.

In the case of established democracies, like in transitional or new democracies, observation -- and, in particular, international observation -- is based on invitation by the country undertaking the election. [Sometimes, the] invitation doesn’t come, and we can speculate about the reasons, but what happens is different than what we expect.

In countries that are in sort of a hybrid situation of no democracy or the initial stages of democratization that require international observation, you may have authoritarian regimes trying to get observation as compliance with an emerging international norm about election integrity. But then again the issue of the independence and quality of international observation is very important. Because otherwise an authoritarian regime could require international observation to comply only superficially with these so-called international norms.

There are states like Iran that don’t accept the presence of international observers and don’t extend invitations. In the election with integrity project, Iran was evaluated, and was cited as not addressing its weaknesses. What could be an incentive for regimes like Iran’s to improve conditions?

Like many other countries, Iran may have fears of interference in domestic affairs by international observation. But let’s try to look at the problem from a different perspective. This perspective is the trust and confidence of citizens in the integrity of electoral process. Whether a country allows international observation and domestic monitoring with the guarantee of independence is a contributing factor in increasing the confidence of citizens in the electoral process.

If that is perceived as logical fact and argument, then -- as some international actors have suggested -- in the case of Iran and other countries a legal framework and supporting procedures for the accreditation of independent monitors to observe future electoral processes should be developed.

This was recommended following the last presidential elections in Iran and has not happened yet. There could be an argument of sovereignty, but as a matter of fact the trust and confidence of citizens is important and valuable in building confidence in the process as a whole. Therefore, I think the Iranian authorities may consider that as an element for future reforms of the process.

What are some of the shortcomings or advantages brought up by the project?

I refer to the sub-dimensions of the electoral integrity project defined to build a composite index called the “perceptions of electoral integrity. On a scale that starts at zero and goes above 70, in a aggregated index, Iran is considered a country with moderate perceptions of election with integrity; moderate means between 50 and 59. In the diagram used by this project it is somewhere in the region of above 55. But this doesn’t mean everything is perceived at the same level. In fact, there are perceived weaknesses and perceived strengths. In the experts’ assessments, probably the highest strength is the vote count, which is above 70, the electoral procedures which is about 70, and electoral authorities, which is slightly below 70, although it could be considered a moderate assessment is still very close to 70.

The most interesting part of this analysis is probably the weaknesses. The highest weakness is campaign finance followed by voter registration; electoral laws come third, then the voting process, and the management and communication of results come fifth. Something in between are party/candidate registration, media coverage, and district boundaries.

Voter turnout is relatively high, above 72 percent, which was officially communicated by Iranian authorities, but what we should consider is what happened before the election day. One of the main weaknesses is probably the practice of closed-door vetting of candidates and lack of an appropriate appeals process before campaigns start.

Of course, if you don’t create the conditions for a level playing field or even the possibility of competing, that’s a clear and high obstacle to the integrity of a process as a whole.

When you don’t have an election with integrity, what is the recommendation for citizens wondering why they should take part in the process?

You may have reactions by citizens or policies of boycotting elections by opposition parties. There is no universal recipe. This is about political processes, and one has to know that context matters so much so it is difficult to generalize.

However, I think there are options for gradual change where you have a political spectrum of candidates even when there are obstacles as I previously addressed. [It] may provide more prospects for even cautious and gradual opening then people may have more incentives for participating.

Not voting in elections is an absolutely democratic option that may convey a political message. But when a regime may actually manipulate the results, including those on voter participation or manipulate the voter registration process, it is even possible for a regime to dilute the political message of a massive abstention from the vote.

It’s about identifying opportunities for candidates that may provide gradual, cautious, and steady change or reform. I’m not speaking about any specific country here, but there are instances that other, more radical options may be available for opposition parties or civil society organizations [like] demonstrations or advocacy in the public space, even when public spaces may be reduced.

What we can observe worldwide is a trend by authoritarian or hybrid regimes toward reducing these spaces in the awareness that protest or opposition could occupy those spaces. But the difficulty there is that these spaces are no longer simply physical and are more virtual; in a more globalized and interconnected world it will be increasingly difficult for regimes to reduce such spaces.

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    Hannah Kaviani

    Hannah Kaviani is a Radio Farda staffer based in Prague, since 2008. She followed the nuclear negotiations between Iran and 6 world powers between 2013 and 2015 and covers the aftermath of Iran deal.