EU seminar in Beirut for free and fair elections in Lebanon

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On Friday the embassies of the European Union member states to Lebanon and the delegation of the European Commission in Lebanon and in collaboration with the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections organised a seminar "Exchange of Experience on European Standards regarding Election Observation" in Beirut .

I was one of the speakers.

The seminar's goals were to exchange experiences on European Union standards regarding electoral observation.

The EU wants to offer cooperation to support the democratic process. If the Lebanese wishes to invite the EU as observers of the upcoming legislative elections, the EU is ready in line with the partnership agreements to support this democratization process.

Ambassador Gerard Van Epen, EU presidency member and ambassador of the Netherlands in Lebanon said: "Our cooperation in this seminar demonstrates the European involvement and interest in the democratic development in Lebanon."

Epen added democratic, transparent and fair elections will strengthen the rule of law and will extend the credibility to the Lebanese democratic institutions and is the essence of democracy. "Therefore the EU is willing to provide the support to ensure a fair electoral process, if so desired by Lebanese parties.

"Democratic elections alone will not bring an instant solution to the problem of Lebanon but would reinstall citizens' confidence in the democratic institutions of the state," he said.

Epen added: "I hope the recent developments in Lebanon would mark the beginning of a new readiness by all parties to work together towards the development of the rule of law."

Dutch Ans Zwerver, an election administration and observation expert said for the Parliamentary Commission to send an elections observers' team to Lebanon, the Lebanese government had to issue the EU Parliament with an invitation.

Article in the Daily Star: "Exchange of Experience on European Standards regarding Election Observation" in Beirut .


Below you can read my speech.

Speech Seminar Beirut 18 March 2005 by Ans Zwerver

“Defining EU standards for electoral observation”

Last Monday a million people in Lebanon took the streets. Opposition groups in Lebanon demand a “neutral” government to prepare for the parliamentary elections scheduled in May. On top of that they want a clear time table for the withdrawal of the Syrian troops and an international investigation into Mr. Hariri’s death.

Not only the opposition took the streets, also Hezbollah movement held massive demonstrations in Beirut.

One can say that things are moving in Lebanon.
People are asking for transparency in the election field. People want to have confidence in the whole process.
Dialogue is needed.
Ballots instead of bullets.

Today I will speak of these fundamental principles of elections, namely public confidence, transparency and accountability. These principles are pillars of democracy. I would add that these pillars do not stand alone. They are complemented by the willingness of other organizations to maintain these standards. EU election observation missions take up that role.

In the past Lebanon never invited international election observers to the country. Today a well-known Lebanese government advisor believes the international community should help the reconciliation, not the inflammation of the situation within Lebanon.
And it is exactly here where an international observation mission can make a difference, can be of some help.

Democracy, respect for Human Rights, the Rule of Law and fundamental freedoms are fundamental values and the guiding principles for the EU.
The promotion of genuine democracy and respect for human rights is therefore not only a moral imperative: it is also the determining factor in building sustainable human development and lasting peace.
Actions in support of democratisation and respect for human rights, including the right to participate in the establishment of governments through free and fair elections, can make a major contribution to peace, security and the prevention of conflicts.

You may wonder why it is me who speaks to you today. I’ll tell you why I think I was asked to address you. I have quiet some experience with elections. For 8 years I was an elected member of the Dutch Senate. Election campaigns are not strange to me. I did them. In democracies political parties can win and loose elections, so also my party. The outcome of an election is not always the outcome one prefers, but … it is a fact of life and has to be accepted by everybody involved. There is always a next time with new chances.

In my time as Senator and as member of the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe I did a lot of short term election observations. Human Rights, democracy and the rule of law are valuable for me.
After my party lost the elections and I my seat in the Senate I moved on in the election observation and election administration field. First as member of the EU democracy and election support mission in Afghanistan and in the beginning of this year as Head of Field office in Qom, Iran for the out of country voting in Iraq. I can tell you, I really loved that job. It was a great experience.

Election observation and election assistance are two types of activities who go hand in hand. The first is not as effective if it goes with the second. Over the years the EU developed a coherent strategy
Election observation and the professional management of elections

Based on my experience, I would argue that democratisation never occurs suddenly. It proceeds through evolutionary phases. In light of the distance travelled over the last 15 years in the development of many democracies, it thus appears appropriate that election observation missions have evolved. Election observation has become a valuable support mechanism in the growth of democracy and capacity building. Elections are a process and observation cannot be limited to election day. Domestic and international election observers require access to all aspects of the election process, including all documentation and proceedings of election authorities. Domestic election monitors must be allowed to conduct their activities free of unnecessary or burdensome restrictions,

In this context, election observation should encompass a pre-electoral assessment, the election itself, and a post-electoral assessment. Election observation should be considered an opportunity to offer cooperation and to share expertise and ideas rather than to simply serve as a witness or spectator.

To maximize the effectiveness of electoral observation missions some criteria must be met. For instance, it is necessary from the beginning to establish relations with various actors: electoral agencies, members of parliament, political parties, international bodies, non-governmental organizations as well as other national and international observers. It is also important to know the electoral system of the country well – its principles and procedures, the actors in place and their roles. It is also necessary to know how to detect problems and what is at stake for the country. Finally, it is most important to assess whether these elements meet the standards of fairness, equality and transparency.

Of course, democratic participation is not limited to voting in elections. In a healthy democracy, citizens are engaged in a variety of ways. But at the same time, we must not forget that a fair and free election is the essential starting point of any democratic process. It is the fundamental means by which the will of the people is expressed. Democracy is secured by many elements, including elections, which must meet a minimum set of tests. Broader considerations, such as political climate, media freedoms, and the rule of law, must be taken into account to secure the public’s confidence in a free and fair democratic process.

One of the most important tests that elections should meet is to ensure that there is an independent electoral management body. There is no one model. Different approaches include the central or national election commission model, where the commission is the principal organization responsible for the election. In other instances, a judicial body or electoral tribune administers the election. In every case, the electoral management body must perform its duties in a transparent, non-partisan and professional manner. Election officials should go through an appointment process based on criteria that will ensure that they are well-trained and qualified. In addition, these bodies should be permanent.

The adequate funding and staffing of the election management body is therefore important to the organizational capacity and the degree of success that it will have in fulfilling its mandate. It is also important that these bodies have broad support among the public and election contestants to ensure confidence in the election process. It can even be of some help to have internationals appointed to that body. It can give the body extra credibility among the population. See the case of Afghanistan.

Transparency of the election processes is fundamental to democratic elections. It provides a critical basis for establishing public confidence, including confidence of all the actors involved.

The right to vote and the intrinsic value of each person
We hold democracy to be the best form of government because it is the only one based on the recognition of the intrinsic value and equality of each person. It is the only system that gives each individual the right to have a say in determining, through the election of representatives, the laws and decisions we agree to abide by in order to live together.

If we care about the health of democracy, we must also care about citizen engagement in the election process. Democratic participation is necessary so that the popular will can be expressed for and enhance the common good.

There is little dispute that in every society money talks. And in the political arena it resonates loud and clear. A healthy democratic system must recognize the important role money plays in politics and ensure that it is subject to full public knowledge. At the same time, it must ensure that the admission price for participating in political debate is not so high that only the privileged few may gain entry. In short, it will recognize that money is not a synonym for free speech.
The fact remains: money may enter the political system in a variety of ways. The danger is that, if the system does not control money, then money may take over and control the system. The measures to control the effects of money in the democratic system gain legitimacy when they reflect the values of fairness, equity, transparency and participation.
Others will speak of the role of the media in the elections. I will not dwell on that.

I sum up.
The EU is guided by clear objectives and the principle of partnership between the EU and the country were elections take place. Elections should be based upon democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The election campaign, the registration, polling and counting process have to been seen in their own political and long term context, including the human rights situation.

Election observations cannot stand on their own. A follow up is needed and should be given when asked for. These longer-term programmes must be integrated in the EU’s normal development agenda.

EU is and should always be seen as an impartial partner in the whole process.
Parliamentarians are experts in electoral matters. They have themselves experienced elections from the inside. They are also politicians. They bring increased authority and visibility to election observation missions. In the follow-up, they should be used, in particular, when we are dealing with political issues and problems.

Last but not lease.
I wish you all a lot of courage and wisdom in the coming times. It will be very exciting. I hope that Lebanon may very soon hold truly free elections and that you will get a government which genuinely reflects the will and diversity of the Lebanese people and a shared determination to win real independence.

Thank you for your attention.

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