A cornerstone of democracy is free and fair elections, which includes respect for human rights and the rule of law. A way for the international community to support a free and fair election process is to conduct election observation missions.
"Learning by doing has always resonated with me, and it was very much confirmed when participating in the election observation mission. Having been part of the DFPD team for about four years and feeling fairly confident in the processes, it was still a huge learning experience to be deployed as an observer on the ground, including the physical and psychological aspects which you do not necessarily realise when coordinating from your desk at the office."
Sofia Jobarteh, NIRAS Project Manager
Since 2008, NIRAS has administered the Deployment Facility for Peace and Democracy (DFPD) on behalf of the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. NIRAS’ role is to identify, train, contract and deploy qualified experts to international missions operated by the EU, UN NATO, OSCE and others. Among these are election observation missions (EOMs), where the DFPD deploys Danish experts as both long and short term observers around the world through the EU and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), among others.
The importance of knowing what goes on in the field
On behalf of the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, NIRAS acts as the election focal point and carries out the recruitment, communication and planning of the observers’ secondments. We also participate in focal point meetings, knowledge-sharing groups and trainings together with the EU, OSCE/ODHIR as well as Nordic partners such as the Swedish Folke Bernadotte Academy, Crisis Management Centre Finland, and the Norwegian Refugee Council.
The EU encourages focal points to participate in missions when possible to ensure they have the full understanding of the missions and better recruit and deploy suitable candidates. In some EU election observation missions, spots are therefore reserved for focal points.
NIRAS project manager Sofia Jobarteh, who has worked on the DFPD since 2019, applied as a focal point to be a short-term observer for the EU’s mission to the Maldives. Her goal was to familiarise herself with an EU EOM in the field and take home important knowledge on guidelines and procedures, as well as meeting collaboration partners from the EU, the core team and service provider.
“Learning by doing has always resonated with me, and it was very much confirmed when participating in the election observation mission. Having been part of the DFPD team for about four years and feeling fairly confident in the processes, it was still a huge learning experience to be deployed as an observer on the ground, including the physical and psychological aspects which you do not necessarily realise when coordinating from your desk at the office,” Sofia says.
“It was a pleasure to meet colleagues from the European External Action Service and the other EU member states’ observers and to be able exchange views and have discussions on the mission set-ups, procedures, challenges and needs. You also become surprisingly close-knit, in those intense weeks!”
A close look at the Maldives presidential election: Two well-organised election rounds
The presidential election was the fourth since the introduction of multi-party democracy and since the first democratic elections in 2008. It took place on 9 September 2023 with a second round at the end of the month, as none of the eight candidates received 50% or more of the votes in the first round, which is required to win an election according to national election legislation.
“The unique geography of the Maldives – consisting of more than 1190 islands on which the 515,122 inhabitants live on 186 administrative islands - made the mission logistically challenging and a first experience for many,” says Sofia.
I find that elections across the world provide an environment of excitement, anxiety, celebrations, promises, statement of values and in certain countries unfortunately also fear. However, If you are interested in a country – I would argue - that during an election you get to know the country and its people in a special way.
Sofia Jobarteh, NIRAS Project Manager
“I was extremely impressed by the orderly, smooth, calm and compliant implementation of electoral procedures - voting and counting - during the election day. The polling stations were generally operated majorly by women and the atmosphere among voters and polling station staff was positive overall.”
The observations of the election environment start about five days prior to election day and, in those days, observers get to experience the feel of the country.
For the first round, Sofia was based in Malé, the capital city. Its narrow streets were draped in flags and colours of the political parties and campaign music was blasting from party representative spaces around the city. Many were eager to discuss the situation – past, present and future and overall, many were excited to vote. Sofia and her EOM partner observed several campaign rallies with dedicated speeches and hopeful participants, often held in beautiful city parks or by the waterfront.
In the second round she observed voting in several islands in the atolls of Baa and Raa, where, the environment was more calm. With only two candidates in the race, both parties invited the public for afternoon gatherings with music, food and chats in the days up to election-day. “The rival parties were campaigning right next to each other in a peaceful manner and all were very welcoming to us as observers,” Sofia recalls.
In Sofia’s experience, being deployed as an observer - and focal point – allowed for a comprehensive understanding of the operation of the mission on the ground. It has influenced her opinion on what skills are important when being an observer and how she and the DFPD team can best support the Danish observers deployed through the Facility as well as the organising institutions (EU, OSCE/ODIHR).
In its preliminary statement on Maldives first election round, the EU reported a well-administered electoral process with a sound legal framework for conducting democratic elections and an inclusive and well-administered candidate registration. It did note the underrepresention of women in political life, as all eight registered candidates were men and only 4.6% of Parliamentary members are women. The Mayor of Malé, Dr. Mohamed Muizzu beat the incumbent in the presidential run-off with more than 53% of the vote.
Read the full preliminary statements on both election rounds here: