Interview: Ensuring a Credible Election

POV: The UN International Electoral Assistance Team was charged with providing technical and administrative support to the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq. Yet you were strictly prohibited from "observing" the Iraqi elections. Can you explain this distinction to us?

United Nations Elections Support official, Carlos Valenzuela United Nations Elections Support official, Carlos Valenzuela

Carlos Valenzuela: In electoral terms, observation implies systematic and comprehensive gathering of information about a process in order to be able to come up with a qualified judgment. For the UN to observe an election (and to "judge" that election) a specific mandate has to be there, approved by the General Assembly. We certainly did not have that mandate in Iraq. Additionally, if the UN is involved in a process in any way, such as providing technical assistance, as we did in Iraq, then the organization cannot "observe" the elections, as we would be part and judge of the process. In the three elections in East Timor before independence (1999, 2001 and 2002), the UN organized the elections, so obviously we couldn't observe the processes. We did, however, invite national and international observers to come and be witnesses and present their conclusions.

POV: Tell us about your assessment of the Iraqi elections. Were they legitimate? Did the UN accomplish its mission successfully?

Valenzuela: You are asking two different things there. First, I would not be the one to state whether the elections were legitimate or not -- neither would the UN. Did they meet international standards? Yes. Were they credible elections? Yes. The success of an election lies ultimately in the acceptance of the results, and there was no rejection of results of the election. So we, both at the UN and within the Iraqi Electoral Commission, were satisfied with the results. Did the UN accomplish its mission successfully? Again, we think so. We were there to support the Iraqis in organizing and conducting a credible process, and we certainly did that.

POV: On August 19, 2003 a truck bomb exploded outside the UN offices in Baghdad, killing many UN personnel including Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN Special Representative appointed by Kofi Annan. Can you say something about your relationship with de Mello and how your life change after that bombing?

Valenzuela: I had worked with Sergio very closely during the East Timor elections, when he was the Special Representative of the Secretary General and the Transitional Administrator of East Timor. He was somebody a large number of us at the UN looked at with respect, admiration and affection. He had been asking that I join him in Baghdad but I had refused, and had finally reluctantly accepted just a few days before the explosion. The bombing had a deep effect on all of us who worked in the UN and particularly those of us who had had the privilege of working with Sergio. The UN changed after that day and it is still trying to reinvent itself. We were all shocked at Sergio's death; I even felt guilty not having been there. Eventually I took up the job in Baghdad because of Sergio. I thought it was important to continue doing what he had started.

POV: Can you discuss why you took the position to oversee the elections in Iraq, what was your biggest concern, and what was the most difficult part of the job?

Valenzuela: I had initially refused to go to Iraq because I had been strongly against the war. I had been working in Palestine for the year and a half before the war and felt it was a serious mistake. After the bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad I felt that, even though the UN had not wanted the war, the war had happened and it was important to try to do as much as possible to support Iraq in its transitions -- from war to peace, from occupation to independence, etc. The "mess" belonged not to the coalition, but to the world. And while the transitional path that included the elections was far from perfect, there were no other plans on the table. So I believed that elections were a good way forward. The biggest concern is always to support an election that is credible. In a transitional situation, the conditions are not conducive to an electoral process, yet that is where they can have a major impact. Security was always on our minds -- security for the voters, the candidates and the electoral officers. But having worked in post-conflict elections often, I have seen that if people believe in the process, they will participate and make it theirs, and then you have a credible and successful election. Personally, the hardest part of the job was to be so cut off from the country, as we were very much shielded in the Green Zone because of the security. And we worried about all the Iraqi electoral officers, completely at risk.

POV: In the Iraqi election, the withdrawal of the Sunni party was rife with implications, and yet you were very plain in your assessment of why they can't withdraw -- the ballots were already printed. You're forced to deal with these situations as a pragmatist. Have you ever felt yourself getting involved or invested in the political aspects or outcomes of an election?

Valenzuela: As an electoral administrator, you always have to be a pragmatist. People forget that an election is not just a political and social affair; it is also a major administrative and logistical exercise. In an election, all technical and administrative decisions have political effects, and all political decisions have administrative and logistical implications. This is why you have to establish clear rules of the game, and follow rules and regulations. Deadlines are a major part of it. Retiring from the race always has a cut-off limit because of logistical reasons, and that's what happened in that case. But you don't get involved in the political outcome of the process, although your mission is political. You guarantee a process whose results are credible and accepted.

POV: Where were you and what did you do on election day in Iraq?

Valenzuela: I was at the headquarters of the Electoral Commission in Baghdad, following the information on the operations center, reviewing progress with the other commissioners, reporting to New York and answering a lot of questions from the press! Unfortunately I couldn't go outside and witness the polling in the streets, and it was the first election where I did not spend polling day with the voters.

POV: Your first UN election work was back in 1993 in Cambodia, which had never held free and fair elections and also had a very weakened infrastructure -- motifs that are probably repeated in many of the elections you've been involved with. What have you come to expect when you first arrive at an election site? Is each situation different?

Valenzuela: My line of work is supporting elections in post-conflict or difficult situations. Generally you do find some recurring themes -- difficult social and political conditions, weak infrastructure, new electoral institutions and practices, political actors playing a new field under new rules, and generalized mistrust. There's also a sense of renewal -- of starting over, of rebuilding, of hope. But every situation is unique and every case is different. You might have a profitable wealth of experience to draw from, but it is impossible to come up with a "recipe" to apply. Every time you have to adapt your work to particulars of the place and the context you work under.

POV: Where are you working now?

Valenzuela: I am currently In Sierra Leone, supporting the national electoral commission in organizing national elections scheduled for July 2007. These are the first time that elections in Sierra Leone after the departure of the UN peace-keeping mission and are also the first to be conducted by the national authorities, without massive support from the international community. It is quite a challenge for the country and we are here again to support them in their endeavor.

Related Links
Iraq Electoral Fact Sheet: An at-a-glance summary of the role of the United Nations in the Iraq elections.
Iraq: An Elections Primer: An FAQ from the US State Department's publication, Iraq Elections: Road to Democracy February 2005.

Carlos Valenzuela has worked in post-conflict and transitional elections for the United Nations since 1992, starting in Cambodia (election of 1993), South Africa and Mozambique (1994), Haiti (1995 and 1996), Liberia (1997), Western Sahara (for identification of voters for the referendum that hasn't -- and won't -- take place, in 1997-8), Central African Republic (1998), Nigeria (1999), East Timor (popular consultation 1999), Mexico and Chiapas (2000), East Timor (2001,2002 elections), Palestine and Iraq (2003-2005), Mexico (2006) and now Sierra Leone (2006). Born in Colombia, Valenzuela studied in the United States and France and received doctorate from the Sorbonne in Economic and Social studies.