It was “disgraceful”, harrumphed David Dimbleby, the grand old man of British television election coverage, as news emerged of voters turned away from polling booths across Britain. “Shameful,” he continued, before finishing with a flourish: “It’s third world.
Only it wasn’t. The most recent election in the “third world” – or the developing world, as we call it these days – was held in Sudan last month. It was the first election in 24 years, illiteracy rates are high and there were 12 separate ballots in Southern Sudan. So the electoral commission scheduled three days of voting to ensure that people had enough time to cast their ballots. When it became clear that there were problems, the commission extended voting for another two days.
Sudan, it seems, can give Britain lessons in how to run an election. It was a point not lost on the election observers from the Commonwealth. A team of 11 poll watchers from countries including Kenya, Sierra Leone and Jamaica had come to the UK to prove that election monitoring is not, as the head of the Royal Commonwealth society put it, “a one-way street”. They were rather surprised to find that a country which has styled itself as the “mother of democracy” had its fair share of problems. Marie Marilyn Jalloh, an MP from Sierra Leone, said: “It was a massive shock when I saw you didn’t need any identification to vote. In Sierra Leone you need an identity card and also to give your fingerprint. Here you need nothing. In this respect, our own system is more secure than yours.”
As if to prove her point up popped Alfie McKenzie, a 14-year-old from Lancashire who had somehow found himself on the electoral register and had turned up at his local polling station to cast his vote. This morning there is talk of legal challenges to some results and the very real threat that many seats will have to be contested all over again.
This is not the first time African countries have barely suppressed their glee at the failings of a western election. Following the “hanging chad” debacle in Florida 10 years ago, Zimbabwe offered to send election monitors to show the United States how to run a proper election.
All very amusing, up to a point. But there is a broader, more serious problem. Next time an election in Africa goes wrong – and my money is on Ethiopia later this month – poll officials will be able to point to the problems in Sheffield, Chester and Hackney and remind international monitors that elections don’t go smoothly in the West either.
It is a line that many African leaders have already perfected when it come to corruption. Britain’s MPs’ expenses scandal did not just damage the reputation of parliament in the UK, it also affected the country’s ability to pressure corrupt politicians around the world. It would be a shame if the failure to allow a few hundred people the vote did a similar thing to Britain’s reputation for free and fair elections.