It is a foregone conclusion that the elections in Afghanistan will be declared to be 'free and fair'. But the fact that they will be declared as such bears little resemblance to whether the elections meet any sort of reasonable standard.
Well to start with, the term 'free and fair' is meaningless. There is no single benchmark that decides these things. Free is meant to indicate that the people are able to vote for their preferred candidate without hindrance and with the full understanding of what that candidate stands for. Fair is meant to indicate that the polling process worked properly, that the electoral law is just and robust, that the media is unbiased and that the results declared accurately reflect the votes that went into the ballot boxes.
If you think that any election in the world meets all these standards at 100%, then think again.
And so we are talking about degrees of freedom and fairness.
International election observers understand this and so they compose their reports without resorting to shoddy terms like free and fair. I have been an international election observer on behalf of the UK on many occasions and I led the UK mission to several elections. Here is a brief idea of how it works.
Election monitoring is split into two streams. There are the long term observers (LTOs) and there are the short term observers (STOs). The LTOs look at the electoral law and whether it is just and equal; they look at the media coverage and see whether all candidates and parties have equal access and whether reports are biased in favour of one party or another; they look at the voter registration process to see if that is comprehensive and equal and they look at the plans for polling day to see that access to voting is sufficient.
(Incidentally, do you remember the pictures of the first South African elections post-apartheid and all the queues of voters waiting to cast their ballot. Western politicians hailed this as an embrace for democracy after years of oppression. It was certainly a magnificent step to freedom, but the queues were caused by bad planning rather than a sudden love of democracy).
For STOs the job is simpler. You go in a few days in advance and receive comprehensive training in the laws and processes of the country. You are being trained in what SHOULD be happening. A number of former colleagues (curiously, all American) seem to struggle to accept this and think that if is not being done the American way then it is wrong. But our job is to accept the law as it exists in the country we are in.
You are then allocated a partner (almost always from a different country), a driver and an interpreter. The latter is vital. Relying on your bad spoken Russian if you are observing in Ukraine does not win you many friends.
Each team is sent to a particular patch. There might be as many as 100 polling stations in the patch and your job is to visit as many as possible - starting from when they open and finishing when they close. It is a long day and you need to keep your wits about you the whole time, because your job is to observe everything that is going on. Specifically, your job is not to intervene - ever. If you see something happening wrongly, then you need to note that on your form. You can ask questions, but you cannot make suggestions. Each polling station visit will last between 30 and 40 minutes. Anything less and you might miss something. Longer, and you will not reach as many stations as you need to.
Depending on the distances involved and polling hours, you will visit between 15 and 30 polling stations in a day and at each you will consider many questions and talk to many officials.
And at the end of the day, you will reach a station as it closes and observe the count (almost all countries except the UK count the vote in the polling station). This can be very long and drawn out as there are always forms to be filled in in triplicate and someone always goes missing at the wrong time. But you cannot leave until all is done as someone wanting to corrupt the process will know they cannot do so as long as you are there.
When the count is finished, you follow the result form and ballot papers being taken to a regional centre. You may need to follow them further than this. At any time, the transposition of a few figures can disrupt the whole process.
A final rule is that you should never tell anyone how you think the process is going. Your words can ruin the whole mission. I recall one visiting VIP telling a camera crew at 11am that he thought there were no problems at all - despite having no clue about local laws and procedures and only having visited one specially selected polling station for 5 minutes. For the rest of the day, state media broadcast that this person had declared the whole electoral process free and fair. We might as well have given up and gone home straightaway.
The observation mission HQ will analyse all the individual reports (many thousands of them) and compile statistics based on the number of occasions on which certain problems are encountered. They will then issue a report which details the successes and failings of the system overall before coming to a conclusion. An interim report might be delivered within a few days, but the final report will take weeks.
(On one occasion the election had gone so badly that the report was delivered in a news conference at the airport with the engines running).
So if the news reports tomorrow carry UK or US spokespeople declaring that all has gone well and that the elections were free and fair, ask yourself this. How can they possibly know? Have they analysed the reports of independent observers at a significant number of polling stations? Have they had a sound and evidence based analysis of the emdia campaign, registration and electoral law procedures?
Or are they just spinning like crazy on behalf of their Government's self-interest?