Mariela López-Vargas has more than 25 years of international experience in international development, facilitating complex electoral processes with expertise in strategic communications, program implementation, and monitoring and evaluation. As former International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) Chief of Party in Peru, Egypt, and Lebanon, she has worked closely with key election officials and supported civil society-based programs in Africa, the Americas, and the Middle East. She has significant technical expertise focused on oversight of voter education programs aimed at fostering citizens’ informed participation in electoral and political processes.
What spurred your interest in international election management programs?
When I first came to live in the Washington, D.C. area I was fortunate to find myself in a development environment connected to elections, and voter and civic education. Coming from Costa Rica, a country that begins voter education programs as early as grade school, I was surprised to see the need for programs all over the world that would inform first-time voters, illiterate citizens and other vulnerable groups how to register and vote. More importantly, I was privy to projects conveying why voting is a fundamental political right. It was IFES who gave me my first opportunity to apply my education and experience in 1991 in Angola where we lead a get-out-the-vote campaign. I have being working in this field since then without regret or pause.
As an election expert with more than 25 years of professional experience, what do you consider the greatest challenge(s) for democracy and governance projects?
As I continued my professional development, I have found that the expectation of immediate (sometimes even flash) results, not only seriously hinders the genuine success of projects and programs connected to democracy and governance, but more importantly, this can affect the actual pace of the consolidation of institutional processes. Although one may think that history has shown us that the elements of democratic consolidation require due appropriation of all sectors of society, sometimes funding agencies expect to obtain markers of success in a matter of months. This becomes of particular importance in post-conflict environments where legal frameworks need to be produced or entirely reformed.
In your opinion, what is the key variable for building an open, secure voting process that promotes freedom of political preferences void of intimidation?
In terms of electoral practices, as with so many other processes, simplicity always enhances the possibility of voters understanding the procedures, and thus diminishes null or void votes. Voter information programs are also key to the quality of votes, particularly when even small changes are installed to known procedures. This can instill the necessary confidence that one’s vote will be duly counted.
On the other hand, election authorities must address intimidation practices. Voters should be confident that complaints will be taken seriously and political parties’ members and candidates must expect action if violations are committed.
How do you build a foundation that instills public trust and credibility on behalf of institutions, decision makers and authorities involved in the election process?
This must be done over time. The basic principles of institutionalization of election practices are transparency, professionalism, independence, impartiality, and sustainability. Transparency refers to the sustained effort to provide information about the process before stakeholders of an election even demand it. Professionalism refers to the strengthening of processes and operations inside the election management body (EMB) and the empowerment of election officials to undertake them in a timely and efficient manner. Independence refers to the capacity of the EMB to perform its duties and tasks without the interference of other State institutions or election stakeholders; it is also often also connected to appropriate and guaranteed funding by the State. Impartiality refers to the creation of capacity for decision-making that is neutral to the political forces competing in the election. Sustainability refers to the adoption of procedures and practices in accordance with available resources that satisfy the needs of election officials, voters and other election stakeholders.
Please elaborate on your role in the development and implementation of the first U.S. Agency for International Development-funded project initiative utilizing technical assistance to support electoral and political processes in Egypt.
IFES entrusted me with the task of opening a project office in Egypt in 2005. At the time, the level of government control, particularly as it related to civic participation, was very high. Mere administrative procedures – such as registration of our organization – became challenges that took months or even years to resolve. I returned with the United Nations Election team in 2011 and I was greatly pleased to see that IFES Egypt was operating based on the institutional principles that guided us through the beginning of the project.
Did you feel that your work at IFES helped you grow professionally? Which IFES experience (technical or other) do you value the most?
While working for IFES Egypt, I was privileged to count on the keen understanding of the HQ team that fieldwork depends on the active and proactive support of the home office. Field office work poses many singular challenges, and providing due accountability to donors can add to the tasks at hand. Continued backstopping, technical guidance to senior colleagues, and administrative management in all phases of the projects is instrumental to any field success.