In August 2017, Rwandan President Paul Kagame won re-election with 98.79 percent of the vote. Underlying this landslide victory was a “pattern of harassment, arrests, and detention of opposition party leaders and supporters, activists, and journalists.” Despite such misconduct, a cohort of international monitors gave the election a clean bill of health. The East African Community, Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, and International Conference of the Great Lakes all declared that the election was free and fair. What explains this flattering, but factually incorrect, assessment?

An important answer is that the poll was not assessed by credible, “professional” election observation groups, but by “shadow” observation groups. This denotes an intergovernmental organization or international non-governmental organization that 1) has a majority of authoritarian regimes as member states; 2) is not a signatory to the Declaration of Principle for International Election Observation and Code of Conduct for International Election Observers; and 3) validates elections judged by independent experts to have low or very low integrity.

The very creation of these shadow observation groups is indicative of how authoritarian regimes have taken advantage of existing international norms—in this case, around external election observation—to advance their own interests. Beyond Rwanda, these shadow groups have been deployed in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Cambodia, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine, Uganda, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. This list is not exhaustive. Beyond the impact in individual countries, this practice contributes to the cumulative corrosion of the international observation norm, weakening its value and credibility as a guarantor of democratic processes.

Please click here to read the full “Casting a shadow of doubt on international election monitoring norms” article published at Power 3.0, National Endowment for Democracy written by Griffith Asia Institute member, Dr Lee Morgenbesser.