The Commonwealth’s approach to election observation is rooted in the Guidelines for the Establishment of Commonwealth Groups to Observe Elections in Member Countries, which was adopted at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Harare in 1991.
We were one of the original signatories to the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation, agreed at the United Nations in 2005, which is followed by election observers all around the world.
Today we work alongside citizen observer groups and other international organisations who also now observe elections, including the African Union, the Southern African Development Community, the Pacific Islands Forum, the Caribbean Community, the National Democratic Institute and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.
Commonwealth electoral observation missions are composed of eminent persons from a range of fields, including electoral commissioners and parliamentarians, and legal, gender and human rights and media experts.
Larger observer teams, known as Commonwealth Observer Groups, range from between 10 to 25 members. Usually headed by a former Head of Government or senior political figure as Chair, our observer groups are independent and autonomous, with members drawn from all regions of the Commonwealth.
Smaller observer groups, known as Commonwealth Observer Missions or Expert Teams, may only include two to four independent observers. All teams are supported by a small team from the Commonwealth Secretariat.
Commonwealth election observers are given a mandate to observe and consider the factors affecting the credibility of the electoral process as a whole.
Observers will judge whether the elections have been conducted according to the standards for democratic elections to which the country has committed, including national legislation and relevant regional, Commonwealth and international commitments.
Before deploying an observer team, the Commonwealth Secretary-General will receive an invitation from a member government or electoral commission.
The observers visit the country ahead of polling day and meet with a broad range of stakeholders, including the electoral commission, major political parties, the media and civil society groups.
After being deployed across the country, Commonwealth observers will assess the pre-election environment, voting, counting and results processes. The observers will then issue an interim assessment after election day, and issue a final report which is shared with the government and opposition parties before is made public.
In circumstances where a governing party does not accept a credible election result, sometimes the Chair of a Commonwealth Observer Group may be asked to exercise a ‘good offices’ role by the Commonwealth Secretary-General, to help ensure a peaceful transition.
“In working closely with the Chair of the Commonwealth Observer Group, or ‘COG’, I sometimes had to use my good offices to encourage a President or Prime Minister to accept a manifestly fair result and agree to relinquish power; and to persuade others, in their moment of electoral triumph, to behave with magnanimity and decency.”
- Former Secretary General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku (1989-1999), The Round Table 2011.
Sierra Leone, 2012
In November 2012, Sierra Leone went to the polls and witnessed another peaceful election, further consolidating the political, social and economic stability built after many years of conflict. It was the sixth time the Commonwealth had observed the country’s elections. The Chair of the Commonwealth Observer Group helped support local efforts to broker a meeting between opposition parties who eventually accepted the outcome of the elections.
The Commonwealth Observer Group to Pakistan’s 2013 General Elections concluded that enormous progress had been made in its journey to democracy. The elections represented the first time in Pakistan that power was peacefully transferred from one elected civilian government, after completing its full term, to another. However, the elections were marred by violence, intimidation and bloodshed carried out by militant groups. Despite this, the Commonwealth Observer Group noted several highlights such as the overall voter turn-out and a significant number of first-time voters. This was, in part, due to an improved electoral register and the use of technology to disseminate information to voters.
Africa has seen significant democratic gains in recent years. Nigeria’s elections in 2015 ushered in the country’s first peaceful transition of political power between two political parties, and in the continent’s largest democracy. In the months leading up to the March 2015 presidential poll, Africa observers predicted violence as the likely outcome of the election. However, Nigeria held a closely contested election, which peacefully transferred power.
Solomon Islands, 2014
The people of the Solomon Islands participated peacefully in the 2014 national election. The Commonwealth Observer Group reported that messages by community leaders encouraging voters to participate peacefully went a long way to ensuring that both the vote and the count proceeded in a peaceful and calm environment. Electoral commissions across the Pacific are supported by international bodies including Commonwealth Electoral Network, the Pacific Islands, Australia and New Zealand Electoral Administrators (PIANZEA) Network.
St Vincent and the Grenadines, 2015
The Commonwealth Electoral Observer Team for the 2015 election in St Vincent and the Grenadines comprised two electoral experts: Mr Paulo Cuinica, Commissioner of the Mozambique Electoral Commission and Ms Myrtle Palacio, former Chief Elections Officer of Belize. The team expressed their "congratulations to the people of St Vincent and the Grenadines for the positive and peaceful manner in which they engaged in the democratic process."
The Commonwealth Observer Group noted that this general election followed wide scale destruction from Tropical Cyclone Pam as well as a challenging political environment in 2015. The Group congratulated the people of Vanuatu for turning out to vote on 22 January. The process was conducted in a peaceful and orderly environment. The voters were able to cast their votes freely without fear and intimidation.
Commonwealth independent observers put forward recommendations to Uganda’s Government and Electoral Commission to address concerns about the 2016 presidential and parliamentary elections in a report. Fromer President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo writes that the recommendations, which are offered in a “constructive spirit”, reflect similar concerns to those of Commonwealth groups observing previous elections.
The Bahamas, 2017
The Commonwealth Observer Group’s overall conclusion was that the elections were peaceful and credible and the will of the people was decisively expressed with a high voter turnout. The Group strongly recommended the establishment of an independent election management body with a modern voting and counting system.
Papua New Guinea, 2017
The 2017 National Election faced significant challenges, notably with a large number of names missing from the electoral roll. However, it is noteworthy that voters who were able to participate were generally free to exercise their democratic right, and the Group was pleased to observe that in most provinces, women, the elderly and young people appeared unhindered in their participation in the process.
Kenya’s 2017 General Elections were conducted against a background of legislative amendments, as well as intense and protracted litigation. The Commonwealth Observer Group lauded the people of Kenya for the peaceful and orderly manner in which they exercised their right to vote on 8 August 2017. The Group noted that voters were able to cast their ballots freely. The elections were competitive, with freedom of association and participation rights respected and provided for.
The Commonwealth Observer Group praised the voting process, which took place across the Kingdom on 16 November. The efficiency of the country’s Electoral Commission was commended, given that Tonga went to the polls a year earlier than scheduled, after King Tupou VI dissolved the country’s parliament in September. The Group congratulated the Kingdom of Tonga for participating peacefully and in numbers in their national election to decide their leaders in the next Parliament.
Sierra Leone, 2018
Commonwealth observers reported that the elections were inclusive. We witnessed the participation of the elderly and disabled voters, and were encouraged by the presence of women and youth as voters and officials. The electoral environment on Election Day was conducive to the free exercise of the people’s franchise and basic freedoms were respected. However, the Group note the decline and low representation of women contesting for high office.