IRI Long-term Observers, August – December 2014
The International Republic Institute (IRI) announced last week its involvement in the 26 October parliamentary elections for which delegates will be «deployed throughout the country where they will observe polling stations and identify and evaluate strengths and weaknesses in Tunisia’s election system, including campaign regulations, the balloting process, vote tabulation and reporting.» According to a previous IRI press release, a delegation of long-term observers participated in «briefings and meetings with election stakeholders around Tunis from August 29-31» before spreading throughout all of Tunisia’s 24 governorates where they shall remain throughout the legislative and presidential elections in October and November, and until the end of the year in the case of a presidential runoff. Observation Mission Coordinator Lauren Seaman of the United States heads a team of ten observers from seven different countries, including: Djeri Akpo (Togo), Mohammed Allahham (Jordan), Younes Alhammadi (Morocco), Jamal Boubouch (Morocco), Serena Alborghetti (Italy), Fernanda Damaso (Portugal), Ludivine Estienne (France), Indiana Falaise (France), Marguerite Garcia (France), Sameh Ibrahim (Egypt).

International Republican Institute (IRI)
As noted in the most recent press release, the IRI «has monitored 199 elections in 56 countries» since its establishment in 1983 after President Reagan’s call to «support aspiring democrats worldwide.» The institution attributes the success of its work abroad to «a pragmatic, consistent philosophy» of which the first point is that it «works in countries important to U.S. interests, where we can make a difference.»

IRI receives its funding through grants from the U.S. State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, the National Endowment for Democracy, a number of European foundations and aid agencies and other Western countries, and the United Nations. Less than one percent of IRI’s funding comes from private donations. IRI does not receive any money from the Republican Party. From “Frequently Asked Questions,” IRI website

A nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, the IRI is clear that its financial backing is not party-based. Interestingly, Wikipedia notes that the organization «plays no part in domestic U.S. politics. However, the majority of its board, staff and consultants are drawn from the Republican Party. Its sister organization, the National Democratic Institute* for International Affairs, draws mainly from the Democratic Party.»

National Democratic Institute (NDI) 26 September 2011 – Present Elections (Short-term Observers)

Whereas the IRI clearly states that it is «not affiliated with any political party,» the National Democratic Institute (NDI), also created in response to Reagan’s 1982 speech before British Parliament, explains that it was «founded as a political party institute» and «maintains a loose affiliation with the U.S. Democratic Party but takes no position on U.S. elections or political issues.» In its nonprofit, nonpartisan status and international experience in elections work (over 100 election observation missions in 74 countries, according to the website), the organization parallels its Republican counterpart. A notable difference is that the NDI has been in Tunisia since the 2011 parliamentary elections, for which it deployed «47 observers to regions across Tunisia to observe voting and counting» and produced several assessment reports comparable to those that the IRI has produced (links below) for the current electoral period. Its Tunisia page on the official website offers a considerable amount of information on “NDI Programs,” “Stories,” “News,” and “Publications” pertaining to government, politics, and elections in Tunisia.

Considering NDI’s work in Tunisia’s 2011 elections, Nawaat has contacted the organization in the hopes of understanding why or how it was decided that its sister organization should take the lead1 in observation work in this year’s elections. In the context of American politics from which these two institutions issue, the IRI and the NDI might engage in sufficiently distinct projects and activities, but in Tunisia, their similar expertise and functions in elections work appear fairly redundant until the reasons for their coordinated efforts are clarified or unless it is a simple question of numbers (presumably more observers equals better-monitored elections?). For now the most apparent distinction is IRI’s deployment of long-term observers and NDI’s “deployment of short-term observers on election day.”

Controversy surrounding several IRI projects abroad stem from accusations that the organization participated in the Haitian coup d’état in 2004 and the Honduran coup d’état in 20092. Its participation in the revolts of Arab Spring countries might have been a lesser source of criticism in Western media, as indicated in International New York Times in 20113«United States’ democracy-building campaigns played a bigger role in fomenting protests than was previously known, with key leaders of the movements having been trained by the Americans in campaigning, organizing through new media tools and monitoring elections,» whereas, the same article reported, «The work of these groups [IRI, NDI, Freedom House] often provoked tensions between the United States and many Middle Eastern leaders, who frequently complained that their leadership was being undermined, according to the [American diplomatic] cables [via Wikileaks].»

‘How can we trust you?’
In Tunisia, public opinion has often questioned the authenticity of foreign initiatives to facilitate the country’s transition to democracy, based largely on skepticism of, for instance, the US’ silence/complicity in (a lack of truly democratic) political processes that kept Ben Ali in power for over two decades. Shortly after the President fled the country in January 2011, questions posed during a press conference at the US Embassy in Tunis on 21 February expressed as much; one Tunisian journalist explicitly asked, «How can we trust you?» and another elaborated,

…how will you practically and morally contribute to assisting Tunisia in the organization of transparent elections, as you mentioned, while America was previously absent, practically and morally, in elections that were not transparent, and which you supported in spite of positive results more than once for the ousted president [Ben Ali]? [He won] 99% of the vote, while he dismissed the opposition and prevented all forms of transparency in these elections? Hana Soltani, Radio Mosaique FM quoted in the transcript of 21 February 2011 press conference, US Embassy, Tunis

John McCain, Chairman of IRI

Senator John McCain

The questions were addressed to visiting US Senators Joseph Lieberman and John McCain, the latter of whom has been Chairman of the IRI since its inception three decades ago. Senator McCain has displayed no small amount of interest in Tunisia since the revolution (although, as he shared with Tunisian journalists, he has visited the country several times since his initial trip and encounter with President Bourguiba in 1979), issuing congratulatory statements on his official website at landmark moments of the country’s transition period, (namely the commencement of the country’s National Dialogue and adoption of the new Constitution) and was the subject of much surprise in Tunisian media for his warm encounter with Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali on the occasion of a conference «intended to bolster the Syrian opposition.”

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ivdGDj3LyE&w=640&h=480]

In response to the question asked of him during the 2011 press conference, McCain anticipated the work of IRI and NDI in the elections:

We have a number of institutions in the United States and in Europe that have long experience in helping nations transition to democracy. After the fall of the Soviet Union, they played a very big role in helping those countries make that transition, most of which were successful. So, these institutions, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute and other organizations will, I believe, come here and help with candidate recruitment, training, media relations, all of those things that go towards conducting a successful political campaign.
They have proven that they can do it in other countries, and I’m sure that they will be very helpful here. I want to emphasize they don’t run elections; they assist in their conduct, in making sure the elections are as free and fair and transparent as possible. Senator John McCain quoted in the transcript of 21 February 2011 press conference, US Embassy, Tunis

Three years later, IRI and the NDI have thus far fulfilled McCain’s expectations in preparation for the coming elections. As per the 7 October press release, IRI has produced two assessment reports, Tunisia Elections Dispatch No. 1: Voter Registration and Tunisia Elections Dispatch No. 2: Voter Registration, and the Joint Statement of the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute Pre-Election Delegation to Tunisia, available in English, French, and Arabic, has been issued on both the IRI and NDI webpages.

It is important to note about the work of IRI and NDI what is mentioned in this Joint Statement that «The delegation conducted its activities in accordance with the laws of Tunisia and international standards outlined in the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation.» The Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation and the Code of Conduct for International Election Observers was adopted at the United Nations in New York on 27 October 2005. Elaboration of this «consensus document» was initated by the NDI in collaboration with the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division (UNEAD) in 2001 and subsequently involved the participation of The Carter Center and the European Commission. At the time of its commemoration in October 2005, some twenty organizations—among them the African Union, The Carter Center, European Commission, International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), IRI, NDI, UN Secretariat—had endorsed the document.

The ensemble of reports and literature available through IRI and NDI present a relatively nuanced, thorough overview of voter registration and the political climate in Tunisia leading into this year’s electoral period. Nawaat has contacted both the IRI and the NDI concerning several points that are comparatively vague and certainly pertinent and hope that the delegations or affiliated observers might soon respond to our questions.

Questions for IRI/NDI Observers in Tunisia

From Tunisia Elections Dispatch No. 1:

1 «In an environment of heightened security concerns, enhanced cyber security to protect confidential voter information could prevent future efforts to gain unauthorized access.»

This observation, while certainly true in theory, evokes the controversy surrounding the Technical Telecommunicatios Agency (ATT) and the recently-leaked draft law concerning cybercriminality. Protecting confidential voter information is certainly vital, however, in Tunisia, «enhanced» cyber security has tended to represent the opposite, undermining the very right to privacy it is purportedly intended to uphold.

In view of IRI’s vast experience observing elections in different countries and NDI’s experience in Tunisia, does the Delegation have more specific advice regarding a healthier implementation of «enhanced cyber security»? Perhaps there are policies or initiatives that have been carried out in other countries that might be applied in Tunisia?

2 «For now, there is little interest in a consensus presidential candidate.»

There is a widespread perception that a president-by-consensus is un-democratic to the extent that it defeats the purpose of elections. How does the Delegation gauge the democratic viability of such a candidate?

From the Joint Statement of the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute Pre-Election Delegation to Tunisia:

3 «The HAICA should expand its capacity for vigorous enforcement of the law.»

Again, another valid recommendation in theory, but in practice, what does this mean exactly? The HAICA has been the object of much criticism by audiovisual media professionals and agencies, which has certainly not made its work any easier in the months preceding elections. Presumably, expanding capacity for vigorous law enforcement would be met with even more criticism and resentment. What steps might the HAICA realistically take, how might it reasonably expand its law enforcement capacity, without further fueling negative responses to (and therefore likely rendering more difficult) its work?

4 «The delegation repeatedly heard concern of the corrosive role of money in politics. The improper source and use of campaign funds was widely perceived to be a problem in the 2011 elections, and similar concerns prevail now. While the 2014 election law includes improved provisions in this regard, the ability of the ISIE and the Court of Accounts to effectively monitor campaign financing and spending remains a challenge.»

«Political parties should publically state their committment to abide by campaign finace regulations before and during the campaign period, investigate any reported incidents, and take steps within their campaigns to prohibit future transgressions.»

«Over time, more rigorous limits on campaign contributions and expenditures should be developed. Mechanisms for requiring greater transparency about campaign finances also should be considered.»

Indeed, the concern of finance management remains significant in the present elections. Ennahdha’s agreement with Burson-Marsteller, for example, has aroused suspicion around the party’s funding source(s) for such a contract although it is allegedly not within the scope of election campaigns.

In terms of transparency around funding, this case certainly lacks information regarding the payment sum, currency, and logistical details of how such a transaction will take place if payment is to be in foreign currency. Do delegation members have a position on such an agreement as it pertains to election campaigns? How might a party in this case be encouraged to be more transparent about its financial management? Should the ISIE not address such a case?

From the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation and Code of Conduct for International Election Observers:

5 «International election observation delegations should be prepared to disclose the sources of their funding upon appropriate and reasonable requests.»

Is USAID the sole source of funding for the Delegations’ election observation work in Tunisia?


1. Whereas IRI and NDI formed a joint pre-election assessment delegation (9-12 September 2014) of which the resulting report is available on both institutions’ webpages, and although the NDI provides a wealth of information on Tunisia since 2011, the IRI, based on the articles and publications available on its Tunisia page, appears more active in the current elections. Read, for instance, Scott Mastic’s Tunisia’s Politicians Must Manage Expectations from 7 October 2014.

2. A few hours after this article was published, IRI contacted Nawaat with several pertinent resources to clarify facts about the nature of IRI’s involvement in Haiti and Honduras:

Facts About IRI’s Work in Haiti (Updated July 2008)

IRI’s rebuttal (8 February 2006) to a New York Times article entitled Mixed U.S. Signals Helped Tilt Haiti Toward Chaos, 29 January 2006

Hondurans Turn Out to Polls in Credible Elections, 30 November 2009

Following Generally Peaceful Elections, Honduran Leaders Need to Begin Reconciliation Process, NDI Delegation Says, 2 December 2009

3. Ron Nixon’s U.S. Groups Helped Nurture Arab Uprisings published 14 April 2011 in the International New York Times offers a glimpse into some of the controversy surrounding American initiatives in the MENA region during the so-called Arab Spring. «Even as the United States poured billions of dollars into foreign military programs and anti-terrorism campaigns, a small core of American government-financed organizations were promoting democracy in authoritarian Arab states.» The author specifically cites IRI and NDI as examples of such organizations.