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My experience as an election observer for the European Union

Updated: Oct 23, 2018

by Tihomir Tsenkulovski (EU International Relations and Diplomacy)

Upon reading the message my heart started pounding. “Dear proposed observer, we would like to thank you for your availability to participate in the EU Election Observation Mission to Peru. We would like to inform you that your Member State has proposed you as a Short Term Observer. We have now finalized our selection process, and we are glad to inform you that you have been selected.” Excited though I was, I could not accept the offer due to a conflicting commitment. Yet I found consolation in conjuring up memories from another mission, in Bolivia, that I had participated in. It had proved to be one of the greatest adventures in my life.

I was about to finish an internship at the United Nations in New York City and had seen an announcement for a mission in Bolivia on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, my home country. I signed up to a database of potential observers, happily indicating that I had a good command of Spanish. My availability during the required dates – the mission was planned to take place just after the end of my internship – and the willingness of the Ministry to nominate me were part of a fortuitous combination of factors that eventually led to an invitation. To say that I was over the moon would be an understatement. By the next morning, I had made up my mind and confirmed my commitment. Two weeks later I was on my way from New York City to Madrid for the pre-deployment security training.

The training took place in the Spanish countryside. After several talks about the possible security risks we could face in the field and how to approach them, we participated in a simulation of risks that could arise while driving. These included being confronted with a protest and being kidnapped. I couldn’t help but ask myself what could be in store for us on this mission. Statistical accounts said that there had been virtually no instances of violence against election observers for the European Union. That was reassuring, but the word “virtually” still left open the possibility. Never mind: I was ready, come what may. It helped that the other observers were so supportive and welcoming. It was to be my very first mission and, as some of them were quite experienced, they plucked up my courage. I was the youngest in a motley crew of European citizens from different generations, countries and walks of life.

To add to the challenge, our flight from Madrid to Buenos Aires was cancelled so we stayed an extra night at a hotel by the airport. The next day, as we were waiting to enter the airplane, I couldn’t help but feel the trepidation. The flight was long and bumpy. I whiled away the time by chatting to another observer-to-be from the Czech Republic sat next to me, reading some short stories by Borges and occasionally casting glances at the small screen indicating our itinerary. Despite the turbulence, my spirits were kept high by the idea that I would be visiting South America for the very first time.

We arrived in Buenos Aires with a significant delay and finally made the onward journey to La Paz, the highest-altitude administrative capital in the world. Some of us soon experienced what the locals call soroche – altitude sickness. One observer was taken to hospital with acute symptoms. The best remedy was maté de coca – a herbal tea infusion made using the leaves of the coca plant – so we were invited to help ourselves to a cup at the airport. I went on to drink plenty of it at the hotel until I could adjust to the new environment. My dizziness had as much to do with the soroche as with the intensity of all the experiences I had had since leaving New York City just three days ago.

Following a preparatory meeting with the Chief Observer in La Paz, a video conference with officials from Brussels, several more sobering talks on possible risks, and some additional vaccines, we were notified which part of the country we would to be dispatched to. Together with a young woman from Portugal, I was assigned to work in Chiquitania, a region of tropical savannas in the Santa Cruz department in Eastern Bolivia, near the Brazilian border. We flew to Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the region’s capital, and a local driver picked us up. We would get to our base in the city of San Ignacio de Velasco in about ten hours. A long ride on a dirt road lay ahead, as did the rainy season – the clouds in the sky looked ominous. Nonetheless, the conversations with our garrulous driver made the trip enjoyable. He even made several stops for us to take a rest and marvel at the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the eighteenth-century Jesuit Missions of Chiquitos, scattered throughout the region. The scenery was lush and rich, like something out of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.

No sooner had we arrived at our paradise-like final destination than we had to contact and interview local people and the party leaders: there had been some instances of tension between some “European” Bolivians and indigenous people. The commotion seemed to have subsided by the time we had arrived and just before election day. The sun was shining. We had to wear vests with the European Flag printed on them at all times; the Union was truly present during the Bolivian presidential elections. It was then that I understood the full meaning of the official purpose of election observation: “a highly visible demonstration of commitment to supporting democracy and promoting respect for human rights around the world”.

As we were driving from one village to another, I was touched to see so many people walking for miles to exercise their right to vote. I realised the honour of being able to witness this special day and of helping to make sure that voting procedures were being upheld. Later on, we were also present during the ballot-counting at several polling stations. Once we had completed our mission, we returned to La Paz and each of our teams reported on their respective region. The Chief Observer prepared a joint report and presented the findings to the media.

I think fondly of my time as an election observer in Bolivia and the chance to experience South America for the first time in this capacity. I had originally agreed with the requirement that “observers should be willing to accept harsh living conditions, including lack of power supply, water restrictions and poor road conditions in certain areas” that was explicitly stated in the requirements. In reality, I ended up working in a region of divine natural beauty. Despite some ordeals on the way and the complex logistics, the intensity of the experience and the sense of having played a role in the promotion of democracy on behalf of Europe make my memories both vivid and dear.

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On October 10 and 11, 2018, the European External Action Service and the European Parliament co-hosted an international conference on the future of electoral observation, key challenges and opportunities. The high-level event brought together election observers, electoral stakeholders, donors, civil society and the conflict-prevention community. They discussed new challenges in this arena, such as the increasing use of social media and big data for electoral campaigning, the growing use of ICT for voting, transmitting and counting results and issues surrounding electoral violence.

Antonio Tajani, President of the European Parliament, emphasised: “Since the end of the Cold War, electoral observation has become an integral part of European foreign policy, as one of most effective and transparent instruments for promoting core values and strengthening democracy around the world.”

High Representative Federica Mogherini added: “Electoral Observation is a crucial part of our engagement in the field of democracy and Human Rights and a key instrument in our engagement with our partners. This conference will be an occasion for us to reflect on today’s challenges and opportunities, together with institutional actors and partners from the civil society that contribute to the success of the missions.”

New Beginnings - Issue n. 1, 22 October 2018


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