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Reflections on 100 Elections | Q&A with Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter

Last May in Guyana, The Carter Center celebrated its 100th election observation mission. In this Q&A, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who led the Center’s first election mission to Panama in 1989 and 38 of the 99 that followed, discusses three decades of elections, remembering ones that made history, ones that put his life in danger, and one that brought tears to his eyes.

zambia-1991-elections
On Oct. 31, 1991, Zambians elected a new president and 150-member National Assembly in the nation’s first multiparty elections since 1968. President Carter said watching the elections was emotional. (Photo: The Carter Center)

Q.      Where did our election work begin?

What Are Election Observers?

Election observers play a key role in shaping perceptions about the quality and legitimacy of electoral processes.To ensure a meaningful role, The Carter Center must be invited by a country’s election authorities and welcomed by the major political parties.

Observation missions start long before election day, with long-term observers analyzing election laws, assessing voter education and registration, and evaluating campaigning. On election day, observers assess the casting and counting of ballots. After the election, observers monitor tabulation, electoral dispute resolution, and publication of final results.

Panama. We went at the invitation of the government, but we had doubts about the integrity of the election from the very beginning. During the voting process, we saw that the leaders of Panama [backed by General Manuel Noriega] were going to lose. That night, we had reports of armed militia in civilian clothes going in and confiscating the voting records. So when Noriega’s candidates began to announce the results, I knew that they were false. In my fumbling Spanish, I stood on a table and denounced the election as fraudulent. Afterward, we found that our safety was in danger. On the way to the airport, our car was stoned. But the so-called winners never took office. There was, later, another election that was honest and fair. That was the birth of real democracy in Panama.

Q.     Back then, in 1989, did you ever imagine the Center would one day monitor its 100th election?

No, we didn’t dream of that. In fact, at first we thought we would only have election observations in Latin America, in just a few places like Nicaragua.

Q.     What were some other memorable elections?

We condemned an election in Peru one time; we had to leave the country early for our own safety. We had another election of that kind in Togo, where during the week before the election, we condemned the whole process as fraudulent. My wife and I had to escape into Benin to get away from possible retribution.

One of our most exciting elections was in Zambia, where the man who led the country for 27 years was unexpectedly defeated. They had no process of swearing in an alternate leader. I met privately with the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and they couldn’t even find a copy of the constitution to see what was the procedure for swearing in a new president. We finally found a mimeographed copy of the old constitution.

Perhaps the three most honest and fair elections we’ve ever had occurred in Palestine, because they have an election commission comprising some of the most distinguished people who live in Palestine. There’s never been any allegation of dishonesty or unfairness; there’s never been any violence or refusal by the losers to accept the results.

Nicaragua was another very important and troubled election. The Sandinistas had ostensibly cheated in the first election. They thought they would win the second election, but we saw in the middle of the night that they were losing by 12 percentage points. We met with a whole array of Sandinista leaders and convinced them that they did lose. And Daniel Ortega, who was the incumbent president, finally agreed to go with me to see his successor (Violeta Chamorro). They embraced and agreed that they would accept the results of election.

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In Liberia, President Carter watches ballot counting by lantern light in 2005. (Photo: The Carter Center/ D. Hakes)

Q.     In what country has our presence made the biggest difference?

I would say Indonesia, which was the most important election, perhaps, that we’ve ever done, because they had had 50 years of dictatorship. We were invited to monitor their first democratic election in history. It was a fair election. Five years later, we went back. I would say that election had the most impact on the most people. But the cumulative impact of our human rights policy and our election monitoring system has probably been as important in the totality of South America.

Q.     There are the big moments, like when you met with Daniel Ortega and Violeta Chamorro. Are there smaller moments that stand out?

I think the election in Zambia was one of the most emotional for me. We had an assistant from South Africa. South Africa still had an apartheid government, and the black people had not been permitted to vote for many generations. The assistant who was helping me monitor the election was a very distinguished member of the African National Congress, which was a black part of South Africa’s government. We went into a place, kind of like a basketball arena, and there were a number of voting tables. When we walked in and looked around, he began to weep. I asked him why he was crying. He said he was 54 years old and this was the first time he’d ever seen anybody vote. I got emotional, too.

Related Resources

Video | Jimmy Carter Reflects on 100 Elections

Elections Observed by The Carter Center

Carter Center Celebrates 100 Elections

Posted in Countries, Democracy, Elections, Expert Q&A, Jimmy Carter, Peace

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