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Electoral Insight – International Electoral Co-operation

Electoral Insight – March 2006

International Electoral Co-operation: A View from Mexico

Manuel Carrillo
Chief of Staff for International Affairs at Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute

This article maps out the concept of international electoral co-operation and its evolution from north-to-south assistance to the two-way processes of bilateral and multilateral co-operation. It then provides a comprehensive historical overview of the many institutions involved in this growing field, and discusses regional and international electoral co-operation organizations. The article gives a detailed case study of the international electoral co-operation work of the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) – Mexico's independent electoral management body, founded in the early 1990s. IFE's reputation – and that of its sister organization, the Federal Electoral Tribunal – has profoundly transformed Mexican elections and increased citizen confidence in the electoral system. At the same time, IFE has become a world leader in international electoral co-operation. The author concludes by putting forth four major lessons learned by IFE from participation in countless international projects and missions. Footnote 1

What is international co-operation?

When we speak of international co-operation, we automatically think of an action of aid or assistance beyond the borders of a single country, but the concept also applies when two or more entities work together to achieve a common goal that benefits their mutual interests.

The concept of international co-operation acquired a double meaning because of its evolution. In its preliminary stages, during the 1950s and 1960s, it would be called assistance, implying the transfer of resources from the developed world to developing countries.

The appearance of this kind of international co-operation has often been associated with the policy adopted by the European Economic Community, now called the European Union, in which the more developed members helped less developed members, and subsequently assisted countries in other regions or continents. Consequently, at that time international co-operation represented actions of assistance performed by developed countries, working alone or together with international organizations to foster the economic and social development of a less developed country.

Electoral co-operation, as we understand it now, is activities carried out by national electoral management bodies or governments, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, regional associations of electoral authorities, as well as academic or research institutions, with the purpose of strengthening democracy, elections and all the related institutions and procedures.

This is a recent phenomenon, originating at the end of the Cold War, in tandem with the resulting revaluation of democracy both on the national and international levels. At that moment in world history, the already existing crisis of legitimacy among authoritarian governments in different regions of the world crested and gave way to the idea of democracy as the most convenient form of government. Convenient, because democracy is the system that can best guarantee a direct correspondence between government and the governed, and at the same time guarantee respect for human rights and human dignity.

A large number of countries evolved to democratic forms of government, most of them right after the Cold War, since the new international rules were no longer based on international security but on democratic governance. In the 1970s, Mediterranean Europe was the protagonist of a transition known as the “Third Wave,” a term conceived in 1991 by Samuel Huntington. Footnote 2

This "democratic boom" caused the international community to modify its agenda. Understanding that a larger number of countries embracing democracy as their form of government would necessarily have a positive impact on international stability, the international community substituted the issues of the bipolar conflict with the expressed desire and need to co-operate on a global and regional scale to strengthen democracies.

International co-operation as we understand it today incorporates the following traits:

  • based on joint actions aiming at a common goal
  • looks for mutual benefit for two or more states or institutions
  • results in a superior level of institutional development
  • favours the optimization of both bilateral and multilateral relations
  • incorporates a space of solidarity and the creation of a network of relations looking for common well-being in the international sphere

The most important stages in the development of international co-operation on electoral matters are consequently linked to the processes of democratization. We might point out the following stages as the benchmarks for this process.

The decolonization period as a precedent for international electoral co-operation (IEC)

The participation of the international community in electoral processes had its most relevant precedent in the decolonization period (1950 to 1960), when the United Nations and various regional bodies started working to observe the referendums that were taking place as part of the independence process of former colonies. Footnote 3

International activities in this period established the basis for the development of “first generation co-operation, which was centred in the passive observation of voting processes such as referendums, plebiscites and general elections.

Electoral Democracies 1986–2004

Data are from Freedom House, a non-profit, non-partisan organization. Compiled results of its annual Freedom in the World surveys of the nearly 200 countries in the world are available at Freedom House defines an electoral democracy as a state that has a competitive multi-party system, universal adult suffrage, regular elections with ballot secrecy and the absence of massive voter fraud, and open campaigning and media access by political parties.

1974: Establishment of “first generation” IEC

The decade of the 1970s witnessed the “third wave” of democratization, which extended up to the 1990s. In 1974, there were only 39 electoral democracies in the world, and in 1990 there were already 76 democracies. Footnote 4 (See table above.) The third wave embraced countries of Latin America, Central and Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia, Footnote 5 which were able to evolve toward electoral democracies. This period generated an important demand for assistance from the international community on the part of these recently democratized countries, mainly because they needed to legitimize their electoral results. We must remember these were nations emerging from authoritarian regimes, which were transforming themselves into democratic regimes. Accordingly, the participation of the international community was limited to certifying that no electoral fraud was committed; in this way, it contributed to legitimizing or not legitimizing the electoral process.

1990: Emergence and consolidation of “second generation” IEC

The development of IEC has always been a response to the demand stemming from each wave of democratization, but there were two factors that eliminated obstacles to its rapid development: namely, the end of the Cold War and the inclusion of human rights on the international agenda. Footnote 6

Observation of elections became widely accepted and common by the mid-1990s. This activity helped to define universal standards and eliminate the ambiguity of the term “free and fair elections.” Among the indispensable requirements for elections to be qualified as free and fair was the existence of pluralism in politics and equal opportunities for political players entering an electoral contest. Footnote 7 It was the end of this decade when the “second generation” of IEC started. At that point, in addition to monitoring preparedness for an election (impartiality of the electoral authority organizing the election; efficiency and security in the instruments used to conduct the election), election day itself and the post-election period, Footnote 8 other qualitative issues were incorporated into the picture, such as the degree of real competition and the significance of the electoral contest.

Present-day IEC

The international community's participation in strengthening democracy around the world has evolved as a result of two factors: the internal demand of countries in the process of democratization, and the external offer of the international organizations working to promote democracy around the world. Footnote 9

International co-operation on electoral matters, just like other types of international co-operation, has been the result of a demand generated by countries that have established electoral democracies. Many countries in the process of democratization have asked the international community for help in organizing their electoral processes. Footnote 10 This means that democracy itself has been the main promoter of international co-operation on electoral matters. Footnote 11 This idea is reinforced by the fact that most assistance has been provided to countries recently democratized, as well as countries that are currently living a process of democratic consolidation, and semi-authoritarian countries undergoing a process of liberalization, whereas assistance to authoritarian regimes has been rather scant. Footnote 12

In the 1990s, other countries became interested in learning about Mexico's new electoral process as the country's political environment evolved to a true multi-party system.

On the side of the “offer,” following the initial impulse from the United Nations, different players have responded and participated. In fact, some authors speak of the existence of a global network currently working to strengthen democracy in general, and electoral processes in particular. Footnote 13 This network is very wide and has expanded rapidly in terms of its participants and types of activities. In some cases, support for the development of electoral democracy has been included in a wider scope of foreign policy related to human rights. In other cases, support for electoral processes has been linked with issues of regional security, because some countries consider the development of democracy as an element of stability in particular areas. Footnote 14

Later on, in the 1990s, there was a significant change in how democratic processes were understood. It was previously believed that economic support was the best way to foster democracies, and consequently only organizations with vast resources, such as the United Nations, the World Bank or some prosperous countries were able to support this process. However, new studies demonstrated that the strength and efficiency of political institutions, as well as the performance of political players, were fundamental traits in the development of democracy. Footnote 15 Consequently, international assistance ceased to be a matter of mere economic support and became a true capacity-building exercise for institutions and political players. More organizations were gradually able to join the international network, because of their ability to provide technical assistance by using their experience and knowhow to help other countries undergoing similar processes or facing similar challenges.

International players and modes of co-operation

Players who have been involved in the promotion of democracy include democratic governments and their agencies or institutions, for instance, independent electoral management bodies, multilateral institutions, international financial institutions, multilateral donors, and non-governmental organizations with global programs, regional non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and philanthropic organizations.

Such players form a network to promote democracy that has developed both in the vertical and horizontal dimensions. Footnote 16 The horizontal dimension refers to the collaboration and mutual learning among several organizations in the same level, for instance, between the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the European Union in Bosnia. The vertical dimension can be established when a global organization, such as the Electoral Assistance Division of the United Nations, provides assistance to an independent electoral commission to organize an election. Thus, the process includes the links among players on the same level, as well as co-operation among institutions on multiple levels.

Three different stages or generations can be distinguished in the evolution of this process.

First generation: 1970–1990

This political period was marked by the beginning of the democratization wave. Priority areas were the strengthening of electoral democracy to guarantee free and fair elections, the efficiency of the electoral roll, measures to avoid electoral fraud, and electoral observation to guarantee protection of basic political rights; in short, all the required elements of good management when organizing elections.

Second generation: 1990–2000

This period can be considered as a transitional phase toward consolidation among electoral management bodies in different regions of the world. Priority areas were the consolidation of electoral justice, the improvement of access and equity in the electoral contest (campaign financing and access to the media), capacity building in electoral management bodies, civic education, consolidation of political parties, re-engineering of electoral systems, and new mechanisms, such as special prosecutors, to detect and sanction electoral offenses.

Third generation: 2000–2005

This period has been marked by true consolidation among independent electoral management bodies. Priority areas now include the use of technology in elections, transparency and accountability mechanisms, access to the media, resolution of electoral controversies, voting abroad, establishment of a career civil service in the electoral field, and greater efficiency in electoral management to reduce the cost of elections and improve the performance of electoral management bodies.

The constant improvement of democratic institutions, as well as the efficient organization of legitimate and credible elections, is a goal both for new and old democracies, which are working to continue modernizing their electoral processes. Several countries in the world are presently holding multi-party elections for the first time, or reforming their already existing electoral democracies. Footnote 17

The international electoral network

Several organizations have been promoting democracy and international co-operation around the world, namely:

Supporters of opposition presidential candidate Vicente Fox gathered at the Angel of Independence monument in Mexico City, on July 2, 2000, to celebrate his victory, which ended over seven decades of one party's hold on the presidency.

  • Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), created in 1973
  • National Endowment for Democracy (NED), created in 1983
  • Center for Electoral Promotion and Assessment of the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights (IIDH-CAPEL), created in 1983
  • IFES, created in 1987
  • Unit for the Promotion of Democracy of the Organization of American States (OAS-UPD), created in 1990
  • Electoral Assistance Division of the Department of Political Affairs of the United Nations (UNEAD), created in 1992
  • International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), created in 1995

All the above-mentioned organizations or specialized bodies are agencies managing the largest projects of electoral assistance in the world. Gradually they have come to use the help of electoral management bodies whose experience can be of use for other countries undergoing similar challenges.

At the end of the 20th century, an international network of electoral organizations began to appear as a structured effort to group electoral bodies in various regions. The first experiments took place on the American continent. First came the creation of the Tikal Protocol in 1985, grouping the electoral agencies of Central American countries. The Quito Protocol followed in 1989, linking the electoral agencies of South American countries. These regional bodies created the synergies that in turn favoured the creation of a larger regional association for the whole continent: the Inter-American Union of Electoral Organizations (UNIORE), created in 1991. Later on, in 1997, a specialized organization joined Caribbean agencies in the Association of Caribbean Electoral Organizations (ACEO), notwithstanding the continued participation of some of them in UNIORE.

Similar exercises took place in other regions of the world. The Association of Central and Eastern European Election Officials (ACEEEO) was created in 1991, the Association of African Election Authorities (AAEA) came in 1994, the Association of Asian Electoral Authorities (AAEA) was founded in 1997, and the Pacific Islands, Australia and New Zealand Electoral Administrators Network (PIANZEA) also in 1997.

Mexico's participation in the international electoral network

The Mexican electoral authorities are the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) and the Federal Electoral Tribunal of the Judicial Branch (TEPJF). Both officially entered the international network in 1993, and rapidly began exchanges with the electoral authorities of the continent, and later on with other regions of the world.

Third conference of the Inter-American Union of Electoral Organizations (UNIORE), held in Mexico City, in July 1996. Created in 1991, the Union sprang from a desire by Central American and Caribbean countries to link themselves with electoral authorities in South America.

The transition of the political system in Mexico from a dominant party rule to a true multi-party system after the controversial elections of 1988, and the resulting electoral system, which had to find a way to become fraud-proof, actually became an asset to Mexico in the international sphere. Other countries gradually became interested in learning about the Mexican experience and the complexity of its new electoral system, which was tested in the federal elections of 1994, 1997, 2000 and 2003. For the first time in Mexican history, elections became a fertile ground for the confidence of society, which appreciated the advantage of creating solid electoral institutions that worked on all fronts to guarantee not only free and fair elections, but also the true possibility of alternation in power.

Since 1993, when the presence of Mexico in the international electoral world began to be felt, IFE has received visits from 174 delegations from 34 countries, and 54 delegations of diplomatic officers from 82 countries, who have come to its headquarters to learn about the electoral system and the technical aspects of electoral processes in Mexico. IFE has also participated in 223 international conferences, workshops and seminars, 94 of them as co-organizer, and 129 as a participant. Mexico has been invited as international observer for 57 missions in 21 countries, and has participated in 52 missions of technical assistance in 26 countries. Furthermore, IFE has signed 17 agreements of international electoral co-operation, with international organizations such as the United Nations and International IDEA, international NGOs such as IFES, and national electoral agencies from countries such as Canada, Spain, Colombia, Panama and India, among others.

Participants at the International Workshop on Electoral Administration for the Provisional Electoral Council of Haiti, held in Mexico City in November 2004.

Among the main international initiatives during these 12 years, the most relevant have been the three trilateral conferences (Mexico-United States-Canada), the entry of Mexico to UNIORE in 1996, the signing of the Letter of Intent for the Partnership for Electoral and Democratic Development (PEDD) in 1999, Footnote 18 and the hosting of the second Conference of the Global Electoral Organization (GEO) Network, following the lead of Canada, which hosted the first GEO Conference in Ottawa in 1999.

The most important recent experiences of Mexico in electoral training and electoral assistance promoted by the UN are East Timor in 1997, Iraq in 2004, and Haiti in 2004–2005. The added value of those experiences was the ability to shape a project of assistance that would respect the national sovereignty of countries undergoing difficult and violent transitions toward democracy.

Lessons learned

After these 12 years, Mexico has learned several important lessons, which can be summarized as follows:

  • Democracy cannot be exported; it must be locally defined. There are no recipes or universal formulas applicable to all countries. The exchange of know-how can only be effective if it takes into account the cultural, social, political and historical context of each country. The comparative perspective can be useful to see how other countries have solved certain technical problems. It helps in looking for available options for feasible solutions. But a mere transplant of formulas without taking into account the national context is never the way to go.
  • There is a need to professionalize the international observation of elections and electoral technical assistance. The passive observation of elections is no longer a useful tool for international co-operation. Elections are a laboratory where the international experts of "electoral science" can discover new solutions and exchange ideas on best practices with their colleagues, which can be of great use in their country of origin. Watching over the cleanliness of an election is an important role of the international observers, but learning from the experience allows them to go a step forward in questioning their established ideas and comparing experiences and challenges.
  • International exchanges on electoral matters must be two-sided; they are mutually enriching experiences for all participants. Respect for the other is essential at this point. An impartial attitude is very necessary for international electoral players, who must always remember they are witnessing a crucial moment for the political evolution of any country, no matter how developed or underdeveloped it is.

International co-operation on elections has been a true opportunity for Mexico to participate in the international community as new challenges arise for democracy everywhere. It has also been a unique chance to join the international discussion on the future of elections. In sharing the Mexican experience, we have received even more than we have tried to give to our counterparts. We are grateful for the opportunity and will continue our modest efforts to contribute to the improvement of democracy and elections in the world.


Footnote 1 This article was written with the assistance of Isabel Morales, Carolina Varela and Lourdes González.

Footnote 2 Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991).

Footnote 3 For further details, see Robin Ludwig, "Letting the People Decide: The Evolution of United Nations Electoral Assistance," International Relations Studies and the United Nations Occasional Papers, No. 3 (2001), pp. 1–2.

Footnote 4 As a percentage of all countries, the 39 democracies existing in 1974 represented 27.5%, whereas the 76 democracies existing in 1990 amounted to 46.1%. After 1990, the number of democracies continued to increase, but at a decreasing rate: from 1991 to 1992, the number of democracies grew to 99 from 91; in 1993 this figure increased to 108, and from 1994 to 1995 the figure increased to 117 from 114. See Larry Diamond, "Is the Third Wave Over?", Journal of Democracy, Vol. 7, No. 3 (July 1996), pp. 20–37. The number and percentage of electoral democracies have risen only slightly since 1995.

Footnote 5 Portugal, Spain, Greece, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, among others.

Footnote 6 See Arne Tostensen, "Election Observation as an Informal Means of Enforcing Political Rights," Nordisk Tidsskrift for Menneskerettigheter, Vol. 22, No. 3 (2004), pp. 330–344; and Jeroen de Zeeuw, "Projects Do Not Create Institutions: The Record of Democracy Assistance in Post-Conflict Societies," paper prepared for the UNU/WIDER Conference on "Making Peace Work," Helsinki (Finland), June 4–5, 2004, p. 3.

Footnote 7 See Vikram K. Chand, "Democratisation from the Outside In: NGO and International Efforts to Promote Open Elections," Third World Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 3 (September 1997), pp. 543–562; Gregory H. Fox, "Election Monitoring: The International Legal Setting," Wisconsin International Law Journal, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Fall 2001), pp. 295–319.

Footnote 8 Horacio Boneo, "La observación (internacional y nacional) de las elecciones," Diccionario electoral (CAPEL/IFE/TEPJF/UNAM, 2003), pp. 885–910.

Footnote 9 See Timothy D. Sisk, "Global Networks for Democracy Promotion: Enhancing Local Governance," Case Study for the UN Vision Project on Global Public Policy Networks (Global Public Policy Institute, 1999), available at

Footnote 10 See Sisk, "Global Networks for Democracy Promotion."

Footnote 11 See Carlos Santiso, "International Co-operation for Democracy and Good Governance: Moving Toward a Second Generation?", European Journal of Development Research, Vol. 13, No. 1 (June 2001), pp. 154–180.

Footnote 12 See International IDEA, "Ten Years of Supporting Democracy Worldwide," 2005, p. 41, available at

Footnote 13 See Sisk, "Global Networks for Democracy Promotion."

Footnote 14 This idea is based upon the classical article written by Michael Doyle in 1983, which according to Chand, "Democratisation from the Outside In," and Sisk, "Global Networks for Democracy Promotion," has significantly influenced the foreign policy of democracies.

Footnote 15 De Zeeuw, "Projects Do Not Create Institutions," p. 3.

Footnote 16 Sisk, "Global Networks for Democracy Promotion."

Footnote 17 See CAPEL's database (in Spanish) on the processes of electoral reform in the Americas at

Footnote 18 For information about this undertaking, see Partnership for Electoral and Democratic Development (PEDD), Program Concept Paper (issued at the launching of the partnership in Ottawa in April 1999). Founding members were Elections Canada, IFES, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute, and United Nations Electoral Assistance Division.


The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.