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U.S. scrambled to find Pakistani vote observers

With Pakistan's critical parliamentary election fast approaching, Bush administration officials began scrambling late last month to find a U.S. monitoring group willing to travel to Pakistan and observe the Feb. 18 vote.
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With Pakistan's critical parliamentary election fast approaching, Bush administration officials began scrambling late last month to find a U.S. monitoring group willing to travel to Pakistan and observe the Feb. 18 vote.

They called the Carter Center. They called the National Democratic Institute. They called the Asia Foundation. But those well-established nongovernmental groups turned down the State Department, just as the International Republican Institute did unexpectedly on Jan. 30, saying that security concerns make it impossible to monitor the nationwide vote or properly evaluate the outcome.

The U.S. Agency for International Development then reached out to the last name on its list: Democracy International, a small, Bethesda-based consulting firm that does 90 percent of its business with the U.S. government.

Finally, someone said yes. The State Department and Democracy International signed the contract, worth nearly $1 million, on Feb. 8, only 10 days before the vote. The agreement came at "close to the eleventh hour," Mark S. Ward, USAID's acting assistant administrator for Asia and the Near East, said in an interview.

The frantic effort to mobilize Americans to observe Pakistan's election -- a vote that will determine the political fate of a nuclear-armed power on the front line of the fight against terrorism and Islamic extremism -- underscores the Bush administration's bid to boost President Pervez Musharraf, a longtime ally, by ensuring that the election is seen as credible, analysts said. Concerns are widespread in Pakistan that the president and his supporters will seek to rig Monday's vote in order to avoid a new parliamentary majority that could seek to impeach Musharraf, whose approval rating was 15 percent in a recent poll.

Months of perparation the norm
But the lateness of the U.S. mission to observe the election has also sparked questions about the American effort. "You can't go in two or three days before the election and expect to be able to make a judgment," said Mark L. Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group, who visited Pakistan last fall. "However decent the individual observers are, the concept of throwing an election observation mission together at the last minute flies in the face of all the lessons learned in 25 years of election monitoring."

Observer missions usually take months of preparation, even for experienced monitors. IRI set up shop in Islamabad last August, while the National Democratic Institute conducted two pre-election missions in Pakistan last year. Even USAID's own manual on election assistance warns of last-minute efforts:

"It cannot be stressed enough that one needs to begin developing and implementing elections assistance as early as possible. . . . Complete coverage of the entire electoral process (pre-election campaign, campaign, election, counting and tabulation, and post-election complaint resolution) is always preferable to short-term fly-ins by international monitoring teams."

The ACE Electoral Knowledge Network, which sets the standard for international elections and receives funding from USAID, cautions that one of the most common criticisms leveled at international observer missions is that they are "an opportunity for electoral tourism: observers are sometimes seen as lacking professional experience, and they arrive in a country only a few days before election day."

Until recently, the State Department focused its assistance and financial support on Pakistan's Election Commission, which has come under increasing criticism. Human Rights Watch charged this week that the commission has not checked during the campaign "widespread irregularities" that could skew election results. Opposition candidates and party members have been arrested and harassed, while state resources have been used on behalf of candidates loyal to Musharraf, Human Rights Watch reported.

"The Election Commission has taken virtually no action on the widespread harassment of opposition candidates through registration of police cases against them, police obstruction of opposition rallies, and the removal of lawful opposition banners and billboards," Human Rights Watch said.

The government has also transferred judges or appointed dozens of new ones who will be responsible for aggregating ballots from thousands of polling stations and then adjudicating election complaints. Police officers have been transferred in key districts where the opposition is strong, Human Rights Watch said.

The European Union is sending a 100-member mission to observe the Pakistani vote. Among other duties, observers typically visit polling stations, interview voters and party officials, and confer with media groups to determine the extent and openness of news coverage.

Most of Democracy International's 35-member delegation arrived yesterday for Monday's election. "This is definitely something you'd like more time to organize," said Eric Bjornlund, co-founder of the five-year-old consulting firm and a former staff member at the National Democratic Institute.

Democracy International is not taking on the mission totally green. It has been working since last spring with the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), a new coalition of Pakistani civil society groups created to observe the election, educate voters, advocate reform and publicize government abuses. FAFEN will deploy about 20,000 Pakistani observers on Election Day -- in a country with more than 80 million voters going to 60,000 stations.

Recognized experts
Although Pakistan's vote will be the first Democracy International will monitor as an organization, it has recruited a number of recognized experts on Pakistan and elections to participate, such as C. Christine Fair of the Rand Corp., Xenia Dormandy of Harvard University, Susan Hyde of Yale University and J. Alexander Thier of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

"We were able to find a very capable group on very short notice. A number of people have rearranged schedules to go to Pakistan for more than a week," Bjornlund said.

Former congressman Jim Moody (D-Wis.), who has observed elections in Ukraine and Bulgaria, will lead the delegation. "It's definitely worth doing," he said in an interview. "The world will be watching. It's a tremendously important moment for Pakistan and for the United States."

Other U.S. democracy groups are skeptical. The National Democratic Institute monitored Pakistan's elections in 1988 and 1990, but it turned down the latest State Department request because a nationwide election mission in a country with more than 160 million people requires much more advance work and security preparation. Instability has been a growing problem in Pakistan in recent months, with the assassination in December of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and a spate of suicide bombings.

"Given the time constraints, we came to the conclusion that the alternative was a limited delegation that would not have national coverage, and that wouldn't have provided a national perspective of the election. So we declined," said NDI President Kenneth Wollack.