The Risk And Reward Of Monitoring Elections In The Middle East
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Iraq is suffering the worst spate of violence in many years — some say the worst since the height of the U.S. war in 2008. On Friday, dozens of people were killed at an election rally in Baghdad. This Wednesday, Iraqis will go to the polls in the first parliamentary election since the U.S. pulled combat troops out in 2011.
Les Campbell works as an election monitor at the National Democratic Institute. As the head of Middle East programs, he has observed countless democratic elections around the region.
"Unfortunately in the Middle East, especially these days, these are long-term issues; nothing gets resolved. What happens after the election is just as important as what happens on Election Day," Campbell says.
Campbell could be talking about Iraq, or he could be talking about many other countries throughout the region. His job means he's witnessed plenty of violence, of course, but it also makes him a witness to hope.
NPR's Rachel Martin talked with Campbell about what exactly an election monitor does.
"They tend to look at the campaign itself, the atmosphere, the fairness of the rules [and] they look at the election administration and how independent that is," Campbell says.
A larger group keeps track of things on the day of the election, and then a report is issued that tries to give an overall impression of whether or not the process met common election processes from around the world.
Campbell is currently in Turkey to help nearby Syria plan to hold elections. Unfortunately, he doesn't think an election is on the horizon for the embattled nation.
"[The people] are sad," he says. "They're waiting on a miracle, but they're more and more afraid that miracle is not going to arrive."
Campbell helped monitor elections in Iraq in 2005. He says it was a risky time and he was nervous. He recalls going to the first polling station on Election Day wearing a flak jacket and with a security detail. As they walked down the street, people in the streets and on balconies were staring. This didn't make him feel any better, but then something else happened.
"We started to notice that they were cheering and clapping," he says. "They were thrilled that the international community was interested. And when we got to the polling place, there were dozens and dozens of people there."
It's dangerous work, Campbell says. He recently lost a colleague in an attack in Afghanistan. But it's not just the international observers who are at risk, but also the locals who risk their lives to help throughout each country because they know the democratic process is important.
"Elections don't equal democracy, but in every democratic country in the world they're seen as an important step," he says. "It's a calculated risk that sometimes has to be taken to provide support to that process."
Despite that risk, and the difficulties in measuring success in his line of work, Campbell says he does it because he can't think of any other involvement in the world that's more important.
"There's nothing more important than the choices you make about who leads you and the policies that those leaders have," he says. "So we work away as hard as we can, and we try to minimize risk, but we think that we're doing something that has to be done and that people benefit from our help."
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LES CAMPBELL: Unfortunately, in the Middle East, especially these days, these are long-term issues. Nothing gets resolved. What happens after the election is just as important as what happens on election day.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
That is the voice of Les Campbell. He works as an election monitor at the Washington, D.C.-based National Democratic Institute. He could be talking about Iraq or any one of a number of different countries. Campbell is the head of Middle East programs and has observed countless democratic elections around the region.
That means he has witnessed plenty of violence, of course, but he has also witnessed a universal kind of hope from people looking for a voice. We began our conversation talking about the specifics of what an election monitor does. And Les Campbell is our Sunday conversation.
CAMPBELL: They tend to look at the campaign itself, the atmosphere, the fairness of the rules. They look at the election administration and how independent that is. And then finally, near election day, usually a larger group of people come in, they spread out over the country, and they watch what happens on election day.
Then they usually issue some type of report trying to give an overall impression of whether or not the process met common practices from around the world.
MARTIN: I understand you're in Turkey now trying to help Syrians plan to eventually hold elections. How realistic does that seem at this point?
CAMPBELL: Well, I don't think elections are on the horizon. The Syrian activists that we work with, they are just normal citizens. We're working with them on the idea that eventually they'll become leaders and that they'll get involved in things like elections.
But right now, they're discouraged. They're depressed. They're - sad is probably the only way I can describe it. They're waiting for a miracle, but they're more and more afraid that that miracle's not going to arrive.
MARTIN: You helped monitor elections in Iraq in 2005, which was a big fighting year. What was it like? What were some of the frustrations? What were some of the risks?
CAMPBELL: It was extremely risky at the time. We knew that a large, international delegation was not very feasible, but we did bring internationals in. I was one of them. On election day, we had a plan, but of course, we were worried about security. In the morning, when we went out to the first polling place, I was nervous. I didn't know what to expect. I was wearing a flak jacket, a bulletproof vest. I had a little security detail.
And as we walked down the street, we saw people staring from balconies. And you know, people were watching from side streets and so on, which didn't make us feel any better. But then we started to notice that they were cheering and clapping and realized a couple minutes later, at first we were quite surprised - that they were thrilled that the international community was interested.
And when we got to the polling place, there were dozens and dozens of people there. And the turnout as the day went on was very high. And people did take their own destiny into their own hands, and they voted in great numbers that day.
MARTIN: When you're trying to help carry out democratic elections in a war zone, though, I imagine it's inevitable that you're having to recalibrate your expectations.
CAMPBELL: Yes. You know, most recently, in Afghanistan, it was a tragic incident. Election observers were killed in an attack on a hotel with internationals. Obviously extremely difficult for everyone involved. But there weren't just international observers.
There were thousands and thousands of Afghans also out in the countryside risking their lives. They thought it was important. Elections don't equal democracy, but in every democratic country in the world, they're seen as an important step. You know, it's a calculated risk that sometimes has to be taken to provide support to that process.
MARTIN: You mention that attack in Kabul. I understand you lost a colleague in that attack, right?
CAMPBELL: Yes, we lost a friend, someone who had also been involved in the election in Egypt in 2012. So it was a, you know, a very sad day for us. The world has changed a lot. There was a time where humanitarian workers or NGOs or civil society work was not particularly dangerous. But that's changed, whether it's, you know, Sudan or Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, even now Ukraine, there are great risks to this. And we've had to deal in a very personal way with those risks.
MARTIN: Why do you do this work? There's a certain amount of personal risk. You lost a friend and colleague this year. And I imagine it's hard to measure your success in a lot of cases.
CAMPBELL: It is hard to measure success, but we do it because I really can't think of any other involvement in the world that's more important. There's nothing more important than the choices you make about who leads you and the policies that those leaders have. So we work away as hard as we can and we try to minimize risk. But we think that we're doing something that has to be done and that people benefit from our help.
MARTIN: If I could end on kind of a big, philosophical question about democracy - as someone who's done this work for a long time, is democracy the right path for every country at every stage, or are there conditions that have to be met before it can hold a democratic vote?
CAMPBELL: I believe strongly that everyone deserves the right to make the decisions or the choices about the decisions that affect their lives, that most people, everyone, in fact, wants the same thing - security, jobs, a good future. And elections and democracy are part of that. And even now at our organization, NDI, we do we do a lot of polling. And in Libya, in Egypt, in Yemen, the majority of people, in fact approaching 80 percent, continue to say that democracy is the system that they like best.
Having said that, often the international community and the country themselves rush into processes. Egypt is a great example. I think the first election in Egypt after the Mubarak era, after the Arab Spring, was rushed. It was a high-stakes contest. The Muslim Brotherhood won, but the losers weren't prepared to lose. And that has, you know, lead to turmoil.
So time is something that we should use to be on our side. We don't have to rush, but there's no question in my mind that every country, every person would benefit from a system where they get to choose their leaders and then hold them accountable.
MARTIN: Les Campbell is the Director of Middle East Programs for the National Democratic Institute or NDI. He joined us from Istanbul, Turkey. Thanks so much for talking with us, Les.
CAMPBELL: It was a pleasure. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.