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Assessing the elections and building confidence: Four days in Iraq with EU EOM Chief Observer Viola von Cramon

25/09/2021 - 02:56
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Viola von Cramon arrived in the Baghdad International Zone a little past midnight after a long trip from Europe. A few hours and an early morning briefing later, she is already in the car for the first meeting. It is the beginning of four intense days with back-to-back meetings and briefings in Baghdad and Erbil as well as two press conferences. The German member of the European Parliament visited Iraq not as a politician but as the Chief Observer of the European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM), currently deployed in Iraq to observe the 10 October parliamentary elections.

4 days in Iraq with Chief Observer Viola von Cramon

Arriving at the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) compound, for a meeting with the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Political Affairs and Electoral Assistance, von Cramon rather takes the stairs than the elevator. It’s obvious she’s a doer and not a procrastinator. She meets the UN first as they are the main technical assistance provider to the Independent High Electoral Commission of Iraq (IHEC). 

It is key for the Chief Observer to explicitly explain the key messages of the mission: independence, impartiality, non-interference and neutrality of EU observers. This is the EU EOM’s foundation for delivering a credible, comprehensive analysis of the elections. 

In the meeting with the IHEC Chairman of the Board of Commissioners a couple of hours later she not only explains mandate and methodology of the EU EOM, she stresses also the importance of the elections: “These elections in Iraq could be seen as historic for us, both in the EU and in Iraq”, says Viola von Cramon. “It is the first time that the European Union has an observation mission in this country. The decision to deploy EU observers is a strong sign of Europe’s commitment to further strengthening of the democratic institutions of Iraq. I’m very proud to lead this mission”, highlights the Chief Observer.

Whether von Cramon meets with the IHEC, the Iraqi President, politicians, candidates, activists, civil society representatives or officials, they all highly welcome the presence of the EU observers and hope their presence will make a difference. 

“Hearing the positive feedback everywhere shows it was the right decision to deploy an election observation mission for these important elections”, says von Cramon and adds: “It is however imperative to stress that these are the elections of the Iraqi people. We are here to observe and to analyse. EU observers do not interfere, nor do they take sides and they are independent from any EU or Iraqi institution.“ It’s a mantra she repeats over and over; whether it is in meetings, in her two press conferences or in numerous television interviews.

And she explains why this is critical: “Arabic has two words for observers. One for supervisors, who correct mistakes or even police the elections; and one for observers who are explicitly only watching”, she explains. The EU EOM falls in the category of the latter. “The difference is not just in the words”, says von Cramon. Misperceptions can have far reaching consequences. “People must be able to trust the EU EOM. If there is no trust in us, we can’t contribute to building the confidence of voters in the electoral process. The more people come out to vote, the better the will of the people is reflected in the results”, says the Chief Observer.   

A second topic she has repeated over and over, is that the mission came to Iraq based upon an invitation. “The EU was invited by the Independent High Electoral Commission, IHEC. High Representative and Vice President Josep Borrell assessed the invitation and it was concluded that the general conditions for democratic elections were in place”, explains the Chief Observer. 

To which extend the process really meets the criteria for democratic elections is now being assessed by the EU observers. “Our mandate is to analyse all aspects of the electoral process and to assess the extent to which the elections comply with international and regional commitments for elections, as well as with Iraqi law. None of these criteria are imposed by the European Union. These standards are reflected in the international commitments for democratic elections to which Iraq has subscribed”, says von Cramon.  

During this first visit it is key for the Chief Observer to get these messages out as often and as broadly as possible. Even in her final meeting in Erbil, a working dinner with the Vice President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, she tirelessly explains mandate and methodology and inquires about the electoral process. By then she had met with the Iraqi President, the IHEC Chair, Head of Election Supreme Security Committee, the UN Deputy Special Representative, representatives of minority communities, diplomats, the Prime Minister and the Deputy Speaker of Parliament of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, journalists, civil society representatives and activists.

It was again well after midnight when Viola von Cramon boarded flight TK 317 from Erbil to Istanbul. She would arrive later in the day back in Germany. Only to get right back into elections: This time it was the German parliamentary elections where she had committed herself to support door-to-door campaigning of her party and its local candidates. Despite her other obligations she’s in regular communication with the mission and follows closely all developments. 

The Chief Observer will return to Iraq in about two weeks’ time for more meetings, briefings and media interviews. She also plans to observe herself the voting on election day. Two days after the polls, on 12 October, she will present in a press conference the mission’s preliminary findings and conclusions on the parliamentary elections. A final report with recommendations will be published about two months later. 

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