“It takes a chaos pilot and social studies geek to enjoy being an election observer”

On 9 February the former Soviet republic Azerbaijan went to the polls. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, was present with an election observation mission headed by the Swedish Ambassador Peter Tejler. The mission comprised 17 Swedish observers. Astrid Nunez was one of them.

FBA is commissioned by the Swedish government to second staff to international election observation missions led by the EU, OSCE, OAS and The Carter Center. This year’s first election observation mission took place in Azerbaijan.

– Last year Sweden participated in 20 missions in 16 countries, says Stina Larserud, senior election specialist at FBA. The agenda for this year is not ready yet, but we estimate that we will be part of missions in between 10 and 20 countries.

As one of OSCE’s 30 long term observers (LTOs) in Azerbaijan, Astrid Nunez started her assignment in the middle of January. She has previously served as LTO in Albania, Ukraine and Zimbabwe and  she is well-experienced as this is her tenth election observation mission.

– All missions are adventures that I am happy to be part of and contribute to. I get to visit many different countries and in a very concrete way be involved in their development, Astrid Nunez says.

All about teamwork

The long term observers are situated in different parts of the country and together with a partner they are assigned responsibility for a geographical area. They have two main tasks; to overlook all election related activities within their district and to prepare for the short term observers’ (STOs) arrival just before the election day. Among other things, the LTOs compile a regional guide, produce lists of polling-stations and introduce the STOs to the mission.

– Sometimes it can be a challenge to cooperate with your partner from another culture and agree on a common working routine, but most of the time these things are resolved, says Astrid Nunez.

In collaboration with her colleague, Astrid carries out interviews with various stakeholders, such as the president of the election committee and representatives of political parties. Each week, they write a report that describes the proceedings of the election campaign, and the administrative work before the election.

During election day, February 9, the LTOs are in charge of regional coordination of the mission in their districts. Then, close to 350 STOs from the OSCE member countries will visit polling stations across the country. They work in teams of two and observe that the election is carried out properly, when people come to vote as well as when the votes are counted and the results are presented.

– Me and my colleague will receive 14 STOs, and eight groups of parliamentarians that also come to observe the election, says Astrid Nunez.

After the election the OSCE issues a report with recommendations, based on the observers’ findings. 

Exciting and enlightening

The work of an election observer is exciting and enlightening. Life in a country is often brought to a head in situations when politicians can be replaced.

– You have to be a combination of a chaos pilot and a social studies geek to enjoy being an election observer. It is also good to be used to travel and to feel comfortable with spending time in the field, says Astrid Nunez.

In addition, language skills, regional knowledge, and knowledge of law or election administration are useful. As Astrid speaks Spanish, she hopes that she will one day be able to work for an international election mission in Latin America.

It is not easy to combine long term assignments with full time employment at home, and many LTOs are either retired or freelancers.

– I feel incredibly privileged to be able to alternate between Sweden and the international field, and experience the development and daily life in a variety of countries, Astrid Nunez says.

Background

The situation in Azerbaijan is challenging, according to the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs country report on human rights, democracy and rule of law, published in 2017.

Free and fair elections are prescribed by law, but so far no election in Azerbaijan has matched the OSCE standards for democratic elections. President Ilham Aliyev’s party Yeni Azerbajdzjan (YAP) has dominated the political scene for the past 20 years and the opposition is marginalized.

The OSCE report from the presidential elections in 2013 mentions constraints in the freedom of speech and media’s possibilities to report freely. There were also allegations of threats against candidates and voters. To observe an election, an invitation from the country in question is required. But when the parliamentary elections took place in 2015, the OSCE chose to cancel its election observation mission due to a very restrictive invitation from Azerbaijan’s authorities.

Read OSCE’s preliminary statement from the 9 February election.

Photo: Astrid Nunez

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