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The Risk And Reward Of Monitoring Elections In The Middle East

Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.

Iraq is suffering the worst spate of violence in many years — some say the worst since the height of the U.S. war in 2008. On Friday, dozens of people were killed at an election rally in Baghdad. This Wednesday, Iraqis will go to the polls in the first parliamentary election since the U.S. pulled combat troops out in 2011.

Les Campbell works as an election monitor at the National Democratic Institute. As the head of Middle East programs, he has observed countless democratic elections around the region.


"Unfortunately in the Middle East, especially these days, these are long-term issues; nothing gets resolved. What happens after the election is just as important as what happens on Election Day," Campbell says.

Campbell could be talking about Iraq, or he could be talking about many other countries throughout the region. His job means he's witnessed plenty of violence, of course, but it also makes him a witness to hope.

NPR's Rachel Martin talked with Campbell about what exactly an election monitor does.

"They tend to look at the campaign itself, the atmosphere, the fairness of the rules [and] they look at the election administration and how independent that is," Campbell says.

A larger group keeps track of things on the day of the election, and then a report is issued that tries to give an overall impression of whether or not the process met common election processes from around the world.


Campbell is currently in Turkey to help nearby Syria plan to hold elections. Unfortunately, he doesn't think an election is on the horizon for the embattled nation.

"[The people] are sad," he says. "They're waiting on a miracle, but they're more and more afraid that miracle is not going to arrive."

Campbell helped monitor elections in Iraq in 2005. He says it was a risky time and he was nervous. He recalls going to the first polling station on Election Day wearing a flak jacket and with a security detail. As they walked down the street, people in the streets and on balconies were staring. This didn't make him feel any better, but then something else happened.

"We started to notice that they were cheering and clapping," he says. "They were thrilled that the international community was interested. And when we got to the polling place, there were dozens and dozens of people there."

It's dangerous work, Campbell says. He recently lost a colleague in an attack in Afghanistan. But it's not just the international observers who are at risk, but also the locals who risk their lives to help throughout each country because they know the democratic process is important.

"Elections don't equal democracy, but in every democratic country in the world they're seen as an important step," he says. "It's a calculated risk that sometimes has to be taken to provide support to that process."

Despite that risk, and the difficulties in measuring success in his line of work, Campbell says he does it because he can't think of any other involvement in the world that's more important.

"There's nothing more important than the choices you make about who leads you and the policies that those leaders have," he says. "So we work away as hard as we can, and we try to minimize risk, but we think that we're doing something that has to be done and that people benefit from our help."

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