COMING SOON: IFES Guide on Key Principles for Effective Complaints Adjudication

While electoral complaints adjudication does not often garner as much attention as the casting of ballots, it is a crucial a part of the elections process. After all, the legitimacy of an election, and by extension public confidence in democratic institutions, depends in part on the way countries resolve election disputes and complaints. One of the ongoing challenges for emerging and established democracies is to ensure that valid disputes or complaints are resolved in a timely, fair and effective manner. 

To that end, IFES has identified seven principles that are crucial components to any complaints adjudication system. These standards, which stem from the widely recognized fundamental right to participate in government and can be applied to any electoral system, are outlined in the forthcoming IFES publication Guidelines to Understanding, Adjudicating, and Resolving Disputes in Elections (GUARDE).

Chad Vickery, IFES Regional Director for Europe and Asia and GUARDE’s editor, answers some questions on the publication, which will be available in May, and the importance of complaints adjudication.

How did this publication come about?

CV: Credible elections provide the foundation for legitimate governance. When election results are questioned, there must be a genuine, effective and fair process to review, contest and remedy electoral outcomes. However, in many of the countries that IFES works, this process is often underdeveloped or does not exist. The result is that electoral grievances are not effectively resolved and the legitimacy of the entire electoral process is questioned by the public, which undermines the goal of building stable and response government structures.

Keeping this mind, IFES and several other organizations have worked to strengthen electoral complaint adjudication process for years, yet there was not a single publication that discussed, in depth, both the normative justification and practical tools practitioners need to design, justify, and implement effective electoral justice programs.

This publication was developed and written with this goal in mind.  I also believe that this book will positively contribute to the debate surrounding the standards that apply to electoral complaint adjudication systems and will help practitioners further develop and implement effective and sustainable electoral justice programs.

IFES President & CEO Bill Sweeney said it well in his letter to GUARDE readers:

“As the global community has become increasingly interconnected, and election events from Florida to Afghanistan and from Minnesota to the Ivory Coast have captured the attention of the general public, there is an increased need to ensure that elections are free, fair, and credibly administered. To accomplish this, the complaints adjudication process must be transparent and reliable, and the final outcome must be accepted by all losing parties, the media and, of course, the voters.

Guidelines for Understanding, Adjudicating, and Resolving Disputes in Elections (GUARDE) was conceived and written with that objective in mind. We hope that it will provide election officials and other key stakeholders with information on international standards and best practices in complaints adjudication to ensure that the process is credible and accepted by the public.”

When it comes to dispute resolution, why is it so important to establish the laws before the election takes place?

CV: As we discuss in the introduction to the book, there are some electoral irregularities in every major election. Certainly, not all of these irregularities will threaten the outcome of the election of the stability of a country’s political system.  However, if election flaws rise to a level where the credibility and the legitimacy of the election are at stake, it is absolutely important that measures to remedy these issues are already in place.

An effective complaints adjudication system can lend legitimacy and credibility to an election. It can also act as a peaceful alternative to post-election violence.  A strong mechanism proved indispensible in averting political catastrophe in the 2007 elections in Nigeria, as well as in the 2009 elections in Afghanistan.

Despite the importance of having a legal structure in place to deal with election complaints, the origination of these systems can vary immensely from country to country. Some countries, such as Ethiopia, have responded with ad hoc efforts to maintain electoral integrity after unexpected conflict arises.  The 2005 Ethiopian elections were mired with alleged irregularities, and the election authority responded by creating committees to review complaints and investigate allegations.  A near-disaster in the 1994 Dominican Republican elections resulted in the quick implementation of an electoral complaints system that created a more stable election in 1996.  Other democracies, such as Uruguay and Brazil, have taken a longer-term approach, recognizing concerns of electoral corruption in their early democratic history and using the opportunity of reform periods to codify more long-term electoral complaints mechanisms. We discuss these examples, and others, throughout the GUARDE book.  

Can you give us examples of where an election complaints system has worked well? 

CV: Timor-Leste is a good example of how a transparent and effective election complaints system can be used as a means to avoid electoral violence.  In 2006, poorly addressed grievances within the country’s national defense forces triggered a crisis that severely shook public confidence in Timor-Leste’s young democracy.  Against this backdrop, it was clear that there was a crucial need to address legitimate election grievances in advance of the 2007 presidential and parliamentary elections. IFES helped the national election management body to design and implement an effective complaints processing system.  This effort to strengthen the performance of the complaints process was an important measure to prevent election grievances from becoming a catalyst for violence and disorder in the post-election period. 

Can you give us an example of the negative ramifications that can arise from an inadequate elections complaints system?   

CV: The violence in Kenya following the 2007 presidential elections demonstrated that the country’s electoral complaints adjudication mechanism was insufficient.  The Kenyan constitution and the electoral law on presidential and parliamentary elections provided a process for this, but only after the results were announced.  Additionally, the Kenyan courts had jurisdiction to adjudicate electoral complaints, but delays in ruling, and corruption undermined public trust in the judiciary.  Much of the violence could probably have been avoided if principles and procedures to receive and hear the allegations of irregularities and fraud had been in place.

IFES was involved in dispute resolution during Afghanistan’s most recent elections. Tell us about that process.  

CV: The Election Complaints Commission of Afghanistan (ECC) is an independent body established under election law to adjudicate all challenges and complaints related to the electoral process during the nomination and election phases. The ECC can only hear complaints related to violations of the election law as defined by the law, and it has the authority to impose sanctions if it’s decided that an offense has been committed.

During the 2009 presidential elections and the 2010 parliamentary elections, IFES along with other international partners supported the ECC in its legal mandate to adjudicate complaints related to the electoral process during the nomination and election phases as well as challenges to election results. 

In 2009, in addition to other support, IFES advisors helped with the creation of the comprehensive Guide to Polling and Counting Irregularities, which will serve as a resource in the training of national and provincial election staff. 

For the 2010 election as well, IFES provided technical advisors and experts to the ECC.  IFES supported the ECC in organizing and conducting several multi-day training sessions for Provincial ECC staff and in the post-election ECC lessons-learned event.  The ECC officially closed in January 2011 as required by law.

Who will profit most from GUARDE?

CV: Throughout the planning, researching, and writing stages for this book, we have had a key group in mind: election practitioners. This would include election officials around the world, development professionals who work to create, implement, or otherwise support the election process, and other stakeholders who might be involved in planning for a complaints adjudication system.

We also hope that this book will be useful for a wider-ranging audience – really anyone who is interested in a less talked-about aspect of the global election process. Lawyers, judges, academics, journalists, and casual readers who are curious about elections will all find something of interest. Our writers and editors have tried to make sure that the text is accessible to readers with a range of backgrounds.

How is the publication structured?

CV: Chapter 1 of the book lays out the key standards by which all election complaints adjudication processes should be judged, and Chapters 2 to 6 provide guidelines for reaching these standards, and case studies of countries that have made great strides in this area. We also profile some country examples where the adjudication of complaints and disputes after an election has been less successful, and offer suggestions for improvement.

At the end of Chapters 2 to 6, readers will find a concise checklist that summarizes the chapter. These checklists can really stand on their own, and we hope they will become a key reference material for practitioners who are designing or improving complaints adjudication systems around the world.

Does the book need to be read front to cover or can readers jump straight to the chapters that interest them most?

CV: Even casual readers will be able to learn a lot from this book. Each of the chapters can stand on its own, so a reader with a specific interest can jump straight to the correct chapter. For example, if you are mainly concerned with the training aspects of the complaints adjudication process, you might focus on Chapters 3 and 4. Chapter 3, Complaints Adjudication Training for Election Management Bodies and Political Parties, focuses on the tools needed to implement training programs, while Chapter 4, Case Studies Related to Training of Arbiters in Election Complaints, provides some really useful examples from Mexico and the Philippines.