Patience, diplomacy, a cool head: What you need to become an election observer

Dominic Howell was one of the WFD election observers seconded to the EU Election Observation Mission in October 2015 for Tanzania’s presidential, parliamentary and council elections. He’s written to us about his experiences there and what drives him to work as an election observer:

Until last year, when I moved to work full-time on democracy promotion, I had an unusual motivation for my election observation work. I was the Head of Politics and a teacher of History at Merchant Taylors’ School just outside London. My election observation trips to far-flung (usually ex-Soviet) places allowed my students to mislead themselves into thinking that I was a part-time spy, providing the side-benefit of making it much easier for me to keep order in the classroom!

That was of course not the main reason I became an observer. As part of my studies for a Masters in International Relations at Cambridge, I wrote my dissertation on foreign democracy support. This gave academic confirmation of my intuitive sense that like many other human rights, democracy doesn’t just happen organically in our modern world. It needs nurturing, which sometimes requires external support, encouragement and constructive criticism. I am delighted to play a small part in that process through OSCE and EU Election Observation Missions (EOMs) around the world.

I would heartily recommend being an observer; it is an excellent and worthwhile way of seeing parts of the world in ways that you wouldn’t otherwise experience, and more importantly, playing a role in the maintenance and extension of democracy. It does, though, require a great deal of patience and diplomacy, and can be in some fairly tough environments. It is certainly not a holiday, and you never know where in the country you will be sent. You need to be adaptable to different and sometimes fast-changing situations and keep a cool head.

As an admittedly extreme example, my most challenging mission (so far) was my first one, in 2001 to Kosovo, in which unusually I was an election supervisor rather than observer. At the time, Kosovo was administered by the international community, and the elections were organised by the OSCE to whom I was seconded, in order to elect a National Assembly for the first time. I had a couple of days being trained in landmine awareness and hostage survival strategies, which failed to set our minds at rest about going to an area that had recently been in conflict. The polling centre I was in charge of was itself observed by the EU EOM, so I do have sympathy for those polling officials I now find myself observing.

Two memorable events stick in my mind – and had me hooked as an observer. Because it was the first election of an independent Kosovo, there was a huge amount of enthusiasm for the election, which was demonstrated by the entire village carrying a centenarian on his bed from his house to the polling station to cast the first free vote of his life. I don’t mind admitting that there was not a dry eye amongst us. A different kind of enthusiasm for politics was shown later in the day when after a somewhat long and mostly liquid lunch, two armed factions comprised of former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army started a fight outside my polling station. There was nothing for it but for me to break it up – using only an official tone and a UN flag. It was this that gave me the confidence to become a teacher shortly afterwards, knowing that if I could deal with that kind of situation, I could break up any potential playground fight (although thankfully I never had to do so!).

That same flag later hung in my classroom. It reminds me that I can cope with the most unruly of Year 9 classes even for last period on a Friday…

In Tanzania I was delighted to serve in the Maasai majority region of Longido in the far North West of the country, between the cosmopolitan city of Arusha and the Kenyan border. This was by far the most rural area of operations I have ever been sent to. The majority of the voters in this part of the country are nomadic without regular access to electricity, running water, schooling and healthcare. Despite this, or upon closer examination, because of it, the elections were highly contested in my constituency. The natural resources upon which the people depend are coming under increasing pressure due to climate change, so land use is a critical local issue. Additionally, not only were the main opposition parties unified for the first time around a single candidate for the presidency, making it the most competitive election since the restoration of multi-party democracy in 1992; but their candidate, Edward Lowassa, is also partly Maasai, which added to the local interest in Longido constituency.

The days in the run-up to the election were tense with opposition parties expressing little confidence in the presidentially-appointed National Election Commission and in the police. However, thankfully on ‘E-Day’ itself, tensions evaporated with a high turnout in both urban and rural polling stations. Voting, (as I experienced it) was orderly, despite the inevitable complications and good-natured queues. These were particularly long in my constituency due to a higher than average level of illiteracy – in part because the Maasai use their own language in preference to the national language of Kiswahili spoken in the rest of the country.

Many of the rural polling stations we visited were temporary tarpaulins slung between acacia trees in the bush. As observers a cardinal rule is that we are not supposed to change the outcome or to provide assistance to the electoral process, but only to highlight shortcomings for the national authorities to rectify if needed in future elections through our reports to the core team. However, (with permission from the Long Term Observers overseeing us), we made an exception by turning our 4×4’s headlights on to the tables under a tree which had been the polling station when night fell so the polling officers could count the votes. Although it was almost a full moon, this was clearly not providing enough light for them to do their job. Four hours later, with the votes counted, the favour was returned when the whole village came out to bump-start our vehicle as a result of the ensuing flat battery.

To paraphrase Joseph Stalin (and Tom Stoppard), ‘it’s not the voting that counts, but the counting’. The least glamorous – but most important – part of the election observation often takes place at the tabulation centre, where the results from the individual polling stations are reconciled into constituency and regional results. These can then be passed on to the National Election Commission. This is an area of observation that has rightly risen as a priority in the 15 years that I have been observing. I cannot pretend though that any observer looks forward to that part of the mission. Having worked sometimes 20 hours non-stop on observing the voting and then the counting in the polling stations, the prospect of watching the tabulation for perhaps (at worse) another 36 hours (at least in shifts with other Short Term Observers) is not at all appealing. But it is vital. In Tanzania, (as in other countries), this is the area in which the people express the least trust, and yet is also the least observed aspect of the process by local NGOs and political parties.

I am afraid that I can’t really talk about what I saw in my local area tabulation centre in detail, since the final report of the EU EOM which will collate all of the observers’ experiences as they relate to tabulation has yet to be released at the time of writing. Any observations that I might have on the conduct of the tabulation (which in my case, took 40 hours from the closing of the polls to the announcement of the constituency result), might not be reflective of the body of observations across the country as a whole. However, I think that I wouldn’t be going too far out on a limb to say that I anticipate that the final report will have a number of recommendations for adoption in order to enhance public confidence in the tabulation process. It took four days for the national results to be announced, by which time we were queuing at the departure gate for our flights out of Dar Es Salaam. The separate results of the Zanzibar Presidency and Assembly elections were annulled mid-way through the tabulation process to the concern of the international election observers, including the EU. My overall observations of the process as a whole though certainly tally with the interim report’s verdict that the elections were significantly improved over the ones that preceded it, with high levels of preparation by the authorities, albeit within the context of it being an election being reported on by a biased media. Other shortcomings identified in the interim report were also more as a result of the observations of the core team and the Long Term Observers – (on both of which there was also British representation), such as the prohibition on independent presidential candidates, and the lack of an appeals procedure for the results of the presidential election.

It was a real privilege to play a small role in the most competitive election in Tanzania’s history, and I pay tribute to all the candidates, polling officers, local observers and voters who braved hours of queues – and in the bush often hours of walking as well – in order to shape their country’s future.

Opinions expressed here are Dominic’s alone, based on his personal experiences, rather than as an official EU summary of the election as a whole across the country. The EU EOM interim report is available on their website.

In addition to taking part in EOMs, Dominic runs a company providing political literacy and international relations talks to schools and universities.

Dominic can be contacted at

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