Margret Kiener Nellen is a seasoned international election observer and Swiss politician. She says a strong constitutional basis is essential to guarantee fundamental rights for individual citizens and minorities. But she doubts whether Swiss-style direct democracy can be applied in any other country.
“Such a system might work best in a modern society and in a small country,” Kiener Nellen says. “But it comes with a price.”
History has shown that it served Switzerland through good times and bad and helped integrate minorities, be they linguistic, religious or social, she says.
“It certainly took a while to develop direct democracy and the system has to remain flexible enough to cope with new challenges.”
Kiener Nellen, a trained lawyer and translator with years of experience as a politician at a local and national level, has been an election observer for the 57-nation Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), whose mandate includes the promotion of fair elections.
A member of parliament for the leftwing Social Democratic Party, she joined the Swiss observer team three years ago and took part in seven missions, notably to countries in former Soviet states and Turkey. This makes her the most active member of the eight-member delegation.
The 62-year-old politician says it can be difficult to participate in OSCE missions due to a busy schedule, having to fit in professional and parliamentary activities as well as trips abroad.
Her Swiss nationality does not really distinguish her from parliamentarians from other countries.
“Observer missions are not the moment to go round and praise Switzerland as a champion of citizen participation in politics,” she says.
Nonetheless, Switzerland enjoys a good reputation, she adds.
OSCE election observation
International observer missions of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) were launched in 1996.
Every standard election mission has anywhere from 100 to several thousand short-term observers. They usually arrive several days before the vote, are given a briefing about their role and responsibilities. Divided into small teams, they visit up to 20 polling stations a day within an area assigned to them.
In the past 20 years, more than 300 missions have been deployed in the OSCE region, which includes Europe, the former Soviet Union and the US. About 780 parliamentarians from OSCE member states and partner countries took part in 22 operations from 2013-2015, according to the OSCE.
The Swiss parliamentary observer delegation comprises eight members. They participated in ten missions.
“It hasn’t stopped election officials, in Turkey for instance, from asking critical questions about human rights and freedom of speech in Switzerland, notably in the case of Doğu Perinçek.”
The controversial Turkish politician was found guilty of racism by the Swiss courts for denying the massacre of Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. The European Court of Human Rights last year ruled against Switzerland.
In her experience, election officials are often busy enough managing a polling station; the appearance of international observers can be stressful for them.
“Our job as observers is to keep a watchful eye to see whether there are any irregularities and to report these back to headquarters. This is not the moment to try to give lessons in Swiss democracy,” she says.
Apart from Turkey, since 2013 Kiener Nellen has participated in OSCE missions to Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Moldova and Hungary.
Time permitting, she plans to travel to Russia and the United States this year as part of her mandate as parliamentary OSCE observer.
In the longer term, she even hopes to act as coordinator of an OSCE mission, overseeing the procedure.
“I’ve been working in human rights for a long time. A mission is the perfect opportunity to get to know the political system of a country and to find out how the election law is applied in practical terms right up to the polling stations.”
Kiener Nellen has found that the task of an international observer can be tricky, although it can bring pleasant as well as unpleasant surprises.
She remembers the time that guards in Turkey initially wouldn’t allow her access to a polling station in a prison.
And when she got stuck in high snow with an American colleague, a local driver and an interpreter on the way to a village in a mountainous region in Tajikistan.
They had to return to headquarters in Dushanbe without having inspected the highest located polling station in the district, located above 3,000 metres.
Observer in Switzerland
The OSCE is not the only organisation dispatching observers to monitor elections. The Council of Europe, the European Union, the Organization of American States, the African Union as well as rights groups and experts are also active.
As part of a private visit, a senior official of an electoral court in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais travelled to Switzerland last year to gather first-hand information ahead of and during the October parliamentary elections.
Diogo Cruvinel found the Swiss election organisation mirroring the country’s political and social life.
“It is a system based on confidence,” Cruvinel said in an interview with swissinfo.ch’s Portuguese department.
Cruvinel was surprised to see that in some polling stations votes are still counted manually.
The law professor from the Belo Horizonte University also mentioned repeated international criticism of Switzerland’s election financing system and its lack of transparency. He expressed doubts whether the Swiss model of direct democracy could be applied in a huge country like Brazil.
For him, it is not clear whether citizens would have enough knowledge of the issues at stake in a popular vote and whether the media could provide enough and fair information for everyone.