In examining the Multinational Observer Group (MOG), an organization that certified Fiji’s 2014 and 2018 elections as “free and fair,” it is apparent that while international election monitoring has become a norm, regimes have also found ways to circumvent this requirement; the MOG’s reports appear to mimic a signal of democratic commitment in order to reap the benefits associated with democracy.
International Election Monitoring: Who, What, and Why
“Free and fair” elections are considered a hallmark of democracy, where international actors can check a box off a list titled “Steps to Democracy” and feel decent about their economic and political ties with autocratic or pseudo-democratic regimes once an election is certified. But who actually certifies elections? They are often official delegations of foreigners, part of autonomous groups such as non-governmental organizations (as they supposedly operate independently of any government) or organizations from other states that observe elections and publish reports about the integrity of the ballot along with other features of elections.
Political scientists Susan Hyde and Judith G. Kelley explain there has been an increase in and acceptance of these groups as international election monitoring has become a norm where refusing to invite foreign observers is seen as a signal that a regime has something to hide. The importance of election monitoring is almost universally accepted in policy and media realms, and world leaders know this. This is particularly due to the fact democracy advocates started to acknowledge and reward positive reports, and punish negative reports. Unfavorable reports have been linked to reductions in foreign aid, sanctions, electoral revolutions, domestic rebellions, and exclusion from international forums.
Leaders are thus incentivized to signal their commitment to democracy because there are “democracy-contingent benefits” like a respectable international reputation, increase in funding/aid, and general inclusion in group commitments. And, election surveillance signals this key information about a government’s commitment to democracy, alongside the broader international understanding and acceptance all legitimate democrats request election monitors. But, as Hyde explains, the acceptance of election monitoring should “increase the use of strategic election manipulation.” One example of this manipulation is state actors can invite “low-quality” or “friendly” observers to guarantee at least one observer group endorses elections as democratic.
It is important to examine who exactly is publishing these reports. One interesting case study is Fiji and its relationship to the MOG, because Fiji is a known autocracy that has almost miraculously recovered its international reputation largely due to its “free and fair” certified democratic elections in 2014 (Fiji’s first democratic election) and 2018.
Fiji is an archipelago of more than 300 islands in the South Pacific Ocean, with 87% of the population living in its two major islands. Since gaining independence from the British in 1970, it has experienced four coups and four constitutions. Frank Bainimarama, Fiji’s current Prime Minister, has been proudly lauded for successfully implementing Fiji’s transition to democracy, despite his controversial rise to power and authoritarian tendencies. In 2000, as Commodore, he assumed executive power during a military coup, and, in 2006, as the Commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces, orchestrated a military takeover against the very same prime minister he established in the 2000 coup.
Interestingly, every source that mentions international observers in some capacity either did not provide a group name or cited the MOG.
To get more information, I went to their website. To my surprise, I was greeted with: “this website may be impersonating www.mog.org.fj. to steal your personal or financial information. You should go back to the previous page.”
Additionally, there is a Facebook page called “Multinational Observer Group Fiji 2018” and an Instagram page with the handle “Mogfiji18” that greets you with smiling faces of supposed election monitors in blue vests, upholding the perception of Fiji as a vibrant, prosperous country remarkably and steadily moving toward democracy. The pages provide links that do not work and have very few friends/followers and posts. The Facebook groups “Critically Thinking Fijians” and “Fijian Elections Office” repost the same nonfunctional links from the original Facebook page. There are other suspicious signs, like the Australian government’s website providing a defunct link for its media release of Fiji’s 2018 election.
While all of this is highly dubious, there are indications the group exists in some capacity. First, the MOG monitored the 2014 election, and its report is accessible. Additionally, some articles go into more detail than just claiming international observer groups certified the elections as “free and fair.” Finally, Sitiveni Rabuka, the leader of one of Fiji’s main opposition party, the Social Democratic Liberal Party of Fiji, issued a scathing statement, calling the report “superficial, shallow and generic in nature with nothing substantial,” stating the MOG “fails miserably in addressing pertinent issue[s] on free, fair and credible election,” further indicating the 2018 group/report exists somewhere, and, perhaps the election was not as “free and fair” as one might be lead to believe.
It appears the MOG was created by the Fijian government, who invited Australia, India, and Indonesia to co-lead the group because it wanted “democracy-contingent benefits.” After Fiji repeatedly failed to host democratic elections, Australia and New Zealand, Fiji’s important regional allies, labelled Bainimarama a dictator and imposed sanctions, while the Commonwealth and Pacific Islands Forum suspended Fiji’s membership. Thus, Bainimarama decided to implement and certify “democratic” elections to eliminate the negative consequences associated with a military dictatorship. The MOG breaks away from traditional norms of monitoring, as only one group observed the election. Also, it seems highly unlikely the organization is non-partisan, without hidden motivation since it was created by and exists solely for Fiji.
During the 2014 election, five opposition parties contested, claiming ballot boxes had been tampered with. There were similar complaints in the 2018 election. In general, Fiji’s strict media laws have allowed Bainimarama to bully journalists and use an anti-corruption agency to strong-arm rivals. His authoritarian tendencies have not diminished, evidenced when he said that he hoped for a parliament devoid of opposition, before the 2018 election; coincidentally enough, his main rival Rabuka was questioned by police the weekend prior to the election. Despite these complaints, news sources cite the MOG’s report to justify Fiji’s elections as “free and fair,” thus indicating a credible transition to democracy.
Is the MOG an example of the “strategic election manipulation” Hyde discusses? If so, what does it mean that multiple reputable sources have accepted the organization as reliable, and state actors have not only believed its report, but used it in justifying policy decisions? Perhaps due to the fact Fiji is a small country, not high enough on most state actors’ national interests list, no one has looked into the legitimacy of MOG/its claims, or no one really cares. This is interesting considering general discourse acknowledges Bainimarama’s authoritarian tendencies (as discussed previously). Academic literature does detail these elections as part of Bainimarama’s democratic window-dressing strategy, as he consolidates power within the current regime through a wide array of strategies associated with democratic erosion.
Because of the
legitimacy and importance that has been conferred onto international election
monitors, MOG’s reports are powerful. Yet,
they appear to mimic real democratic commitment so Fiji can reap “democracy-contingent”
benefits, and it appears to be working.
 Hyde, Susan D. The Pseudo-Democrat’s Dilemma: Why Election Observation Became an International Norm. Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 2011, 34.; Multinational Observer Group. “2014 Fijian Elections: Final Report of the Multinational Observer Group.” 2014. http://www.parliament.gov.fj/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/2014-General-Elections-Final-Report-of-the-Multinational-Observer-Group-1.pdf.
 Hyde, Susan D. and Judith G. Kelley. “The Limits of Election Monitoring: What Independent Observation Can (and Can’t) Do.” Foreign Affairs, June 28, 2011. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2011-06-28/limits-election-monitoring; Hyde, The Pseudo-Democrat’s Dilemma.
 Hyde, The Pseudo-Democrat’s Dilemma, 29.; Hyde, Susan D. “Democracy’s backsliding in the international environment.” Science 369, no. 6508 (2020): 1192.
 Hyde, Susan D. “Catch Us If You Can: Election Monitoring and International Norm Diffusion.” American Journal of Political Science 55, no. 2 (2011): 356, 360. Accessed November 30, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23025056.; Hyde, The Pseudo-Democrat’s Dilemma, 89-91, 178-179.
 Hyde, The Pseudo-Democrat’s Dilemma, 91.
 Hyde, The Pseudo-Democrat’s Dilemma, 91-92.
 Hyde, The Pseudo-Democrat’s Dilemma, 158.
 Hyde, The Pseudo-Democrat’s Dilemma, 159.
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 “Multinational Observers Group (MOG) Report on 2018 General Election is Superficial, lacks depth says Fiji Opposition Leader.” Sodelpa Fiji. February 22, 2019. https://sodelpafiji.blogspot.com/2019/02/multinational-observers-group-mog.html.
 International Foundation for Electoral Systems. “Elections in Fiji: 2018 General Elections Frequently Asked Questions.” International Foundation for Electoral System. October 26, 2018. https://www.ifes.org/sites/default/files/2018_ifes_fiji_general_elections_faqs_final.pdf.
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 “Fiji’s Frank Bainimarama confirmed as election winner with outright majority.” The Guardian. September 22, 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/22/fiji-frank-bainimarama-confirmed-election-winner-outright-majority.
 “Fiji election: Bainimarama returned as PM in slim victory.”
 “Fiji’s coup-makers act democratic.” The Economist. November 17, 2018. https://www.economist.com/asia/2018/11/17/fijis-coup-makers-act-democratic.; Robie, David. “‘Unfree and Unfair’?: Media Intimidation in Fiji’s 2014 Elections.” In The People Have Spoken: The 2014 Elections in Fiji, 83-108. Australia: Australian National University Press, 2016.; “Fiji’s Frank Bainimarama confirmed as election winner with outright majority.”
 “Fiji’s coup-makers act democratic.”; “Fiji’s Frank Bainimarama confirmed as election winner with outright majority.”
 Carnegie, Paul and Sandra Tarte. “The Politics of Transition in Fiji: Is it Charting a Democratic Course?” Australian Journal of Politics and History 64, no. 2 (2018): 277-292. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/ajph.12458?saml_referrer.