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Diplomacy in Action

Review of the Midterm Elections by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly

FPC Briefing
R. Spencer Oliver
Secretary General, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly
Joao Soares, President Emeritus Parliament Member, Portugal
Foreign Press
Washington, DC
November 3, 2010

Date: 11/03/2010 Location: Washington D.C. Description: R. Spencer Oliver (at podium), Secretary General, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA); and Joao Soares, President Emeritus Parliament Member, Portugal, brief on the their observations of the U.S. mid-term elections. - State Dept Image

2:00 P.M. EDT

MODERATOR:  Good afternoon and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. Today we will have a review by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly of their observations on the U.S. midterm elections. First, they’ll be introduced by Neil Simon; he’s the Communications Director for the U.S. Helsinki Commission. And then the speakers will be R. Spencer Oliver, Secretary General for OSCE PA, and then President Joao Soares, the President Emeritus, Parliament Member from Portugal. At that time, they will take your questions. Thank you.

MR. SIMON: Thank you very much for being here. The United States Helsinki Commission has been very active in promoting election transparency, and we are very pleased to have had this robust delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE here in Washington and throughout the various states of the U.S. to observe this important election. And at this time, I’d like to turn it over to the Secretary General of the Parliamentary Assembly, R. Spencer Oliver.

SECRETARY GENERAL OLIVER: Thank you very much, Neil. As an American and as the Secretary General of this organization, I’m here not to observe the elections but to help facilitate the observation by parliamentarians from 21 countries of the 55 countries that make up – 55 parliaments that make up the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE.

One of its main purposes, one of its main occupations, one of its main responsibilities, is to facilitate the development of democratic parliamentary practices in all of the 55 parliaments. And one of the ways that they do that and we do that is to observe each other’s elections. It’s part of the obligation of the participating states to invite each other to observe their elections. And the United States Government has invited the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly to observe this election, just as we did in 2008 and in 2004.

We have had parliamentarians in Washington for thorough briefings and discussions on Friday and Saturday and Sunday. On Sunday, they were deployed, or many of them were deployed to Illinois, to Chicago, to Colorado, and to Philadelphia, where they observed the various campaigns, particularly the close races for the Senate. And in each of these places, their briefings continued. They met with politicians, with election officials, with journalists, with political activists, with NGOs, and have gotten, I believe, a extraordinarily thorough view of how these elections have been conducted and how elections are conducted in the United States.

So we were very pleased to have the opportunity to arrange this observation, and we are very pleased to have with us today the former president of the Parliamentary Assembly, Joao Soares of Portugal, who is an experienced parliamentarian. He’s the former mayor of Lisbon. He’s a former member of the European Parliament. He served as president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly for two years and is now its president emeritus and one of our most experienced leaders. So I’m very happy to turn the floor over to President Emeritus Joao Soares. Joao, the floor is yours.

MR. SOARES: Thank you, Secretary General. My first words are to thank the American authorities for this invitation. I wanted to underline the importance that we give as parliamentarians to follow and observe the American elections, so we are very glad to thank the American authorities for this invitation. I’m also very glad to warmly thank the Helsinki Commission for their support and the IFES in the name of Bill Sweeney, who is here. They gave us strong support.

As our Secretary General said, we have here parliamentarians from 21 of the 56 countries that belong to the OSCE, and we were deployed in several states. We were here in Washington, D.C., we were in Virginia, we were in Maryland, we were in Chicago, we were in Philadelphia. We had very experienced parliamentarians almost everywhere. And we were, of course, connected and in contact with the responsibles for the governmental side of the OSCE.

We wanted to make clear in our statement that yesterday’s elections, midterm elections, demonstrated again the United States commitment to democracy, according to the OSCE rules. In general, the vote reflected the will of the people, although some problems were observed by international parliamentarians of serving the polling in several key states.

On Election Day, polling proceeded in a calm and well-organized manner, and that is something that we have remarked everywhere where we had observers and, according with the contacts we had with other observers from other international instituted. Mainly, those were invited by the IFES to be here, also observing the American elections.

The polling proceeded in a calm and well-organized manner. The ability of voters to vote early and encouragements of such early voting clearly eased any capacity problems that might have occurred, and that we have noticed some of us have been here two years ago in the presidential elections that elected President Barack Obama, and we noticed these kind of small problems that didn’t occur in these elections.

Our observers witnessed the opening of polling stations, voting, and the closing process, including the vote count. Local election officials and poll workers appeared well trained, and it was encouraging to see the important role played by the thousands of volunteers, and I wanted to greet them in the name of all our parliamentarians from all our 56 countries.

There were technical difficulties with machines that were generally solved quickly and did not seem to influence the integrity of the vote. Observers also note what they thought to be a lack of voter secrecy, according to European rules. We understand clearly, and that is something that we talked with the officials of the polling stations, that people here don’t give the same importance that we give in most of European countries to these kind of small problems. Voting booths and electronic voting machines were often placed too closely to each other, enabling clear insight as to how a voter marked the ballot.

In January 2010, the Supreme Court wrote that private cooperation should enjoy the same rights as individuals regarding campaign spending, tying this to the right of freedom of speech in U.S. Constitution. The decision created expanded possibilities for interest groups, including private corporations to get involved and provide funds for political commercials on television and radio. This likely helped to determine the outcome in a number of races. And that’s our main concern as far as these elections are in subjects.

We think that the campaign was highly competitive, and that at times, intense and dirty. And money – it’s our point of view, the point of view of the absolute majority of the parliamentarians that were here observing these interim elections in 2010 in the United States, money played a too much significant role creating an uneven playing field between candidates. About three quarters of the total up upwards $4 billion was spent on political campaign ads on television and radio. That’s inundated the airwaves turning many voters off. And that is a feeling that all the parliamentarians had when they observed these elections, and when they were here sometimes four days before the Election Day for the briefings and had the opportunity of seeing your television channels. And that’s our main concern as far as the fairness of these elections is concerned.

Many political hats did not reveal the source of the funding as this is not required by law. However, international parliamentary observers found that the lack of information concerning the sponsorship of the ads undermined transparency and accountability in these elections. The lack of transparency could be linked to the overall negative tone in the campaign with 30-second political ads used to attack opponents by undisclosed sources in the lead. And that is something that seems very strange to almost all of the 55 countries, parliamentarians, the possibility of having negative ads in television paid by sources that don’t identify themselves. U.S., the electoral system, continues to be decentralized and highly diverse with a lack of uniform country-wide standards creating vulnerabilities in the system, particularly with regards to the integrity and complexity of voter registration, voter identification, and electronic voting machines.

OSCE parliamentarian assembly observers encourage further debate to develop more uniform standards within U.S. election system. I wanted to thank you for your attention. It has always been a great pleasure to be here in the United States and to observe American democracy in action. And I would like to thank once again U.S. Government and U.S. authorities for their invitation. And of course, the Secretary General Spencer Oliver and myself are ready to answer your questions. Thank you very much.

MODERATOR: If you can just wait for the microphone and identify your name and media organization and if you’d like to address it to a particular person.

Sure. Right here in the front.

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Heba el Koudsy. I’m from Al Masry Al Youm, Egyptian newspaper. I want to ask you: Is the – is your OSCE parliamentary assembly is concerned to observe elections in the European Union and the States only, or do you cover some other elections in some other countries? And you mentioned that this response of lack of secrecy and the role of money in this election, do you think it’s playing a negative role in the American election? Is it some kind of deterioration as America is seen as a castle of freedom and freedom of speech and democracy?

Thank you.

SECRETARY GENERAL OLIVER: Let me just take – let me take the first part and then you take the second part. The 55 – 56 countries – the 56th country is the Holy See and we don’t observe the elections there. But they don’t have a parliament. But we observe the elections in all the other 55 states; they’re all obligated to invite us. There are also, within the OSCE, they call “partner states.” Egypt is one of those partner states, as is Israel and Morocco and Algeria and it – we have observed elections when invited to these countries. We have observed elections, for instance, in Algeria. And when we are invited to observe these elections, we certainly consider that, and if the parliamentarians are interested and the timing is practical, we certainly are willing to do so.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up? Thank you. Do you apply for observation to the elections in Egypt, for instance? Or do you – I mean, do you request that observation or you ask to be – to participate and to observe? And to have Egypt asked –

SECRETARY GENERAL OLIVER: All of the participating states and the observer states are encouraged to invite each other to observe their election. So we don’t solicit the invitation, but if it comes, we consider it and we can, we do it.

QUESTION: Thank you.


MR. SOARES: The Secretary General answered the first part of your question. We, personally, the Secretary General and myself and many of the parliamentarians that were here observing these interim United States legislative elections have been observing elections in Central Asia, in the Caucasus, in the Balkans, and also in Western European countries like the United Kingdom. The last elections, the last legislative elections that made a political change in the United Kingdom were observed by our team. And I had the pleasure of being there with the Secretary General and we deployed a lot of parliamentarians all over the United Kingdom to observe these elections.

We don’t have double standards, and that is very important. We don’t observe only elections east of Vienna; we observe east and west of Vienna. And of course, Egypt and the other countries that the Secretary General mentioned are not members of the OSCE, are partners of the OSCE. They have ambassadors in Vienna. They participate as observers in the Vienna Permanent Council where every member country has his own ambassador and all the partners have also ambassadors in Vienna. And sometimes they invite us and we encourage them to invite us as parliamentarians and also the governmental side to observe elections in the partner states. And that’s why, as the Secretary General explained to you, we observed the elections in Morocco and in Algeria and we are ready to observe elections in Egypt if we are invited for it.

And the rule of money – when you talk about a figure like $4 billion spent in one interim election, I can tell you what I read in the eyes of all our members, parliamentarians from several countries, east and west of Vienna that were here when they heard the figure. I think it was our deputy secretary general that, in one of the first briefings, gave the figure. And probably also, Bill Sweeney, that we had the honor to have in one of our briefing. And people were absolutely amazed because $4 billion – it’s something that is more than the foreign debt of several European Union countries. And it played a role.

And the fact that the Supreme Court – and I don’t want to interfere in the democratic rules of one of the most relevant democratic countries in the world as the United States – but the fact that the Supreme Court took the decision of – I don’t have the exact English word – to make at the same level as far as freedom of speech. Citizens and corporations far as – seem something strange that should not be the rule, but it is the rule and that’s why we encourage our colleagues from both parties represented in the Congress and in the Senate to consider the possibility of changing this kind of system that accords to big corporations the opportunity of making ads on television and on radio that are not identified as ads, that are political propaganda.

And not only positive political propaganda, but mainly negative political propaganda; that’s what we called measuring our words – dirty campaign. And that’s what we regret to say about a country that personally, I admire very much, like the United States of America. I don’t know if the question is answered.

MODERATOR: Are there are any other questions? (No response.) Going once, going twice? (Laughter.) All right. Well, then, I thank the speakers for coming today.

MR. SOARES: We were so clear that --

MODERATOR: (Laughter.) No further explanation needed. Thank you all for coming.

SECRETARY GENERAL OLIVER: Thank you very much.

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