Heaton councillor Doreen Huddart talks about life as an international election monitor

From land mines to intimidation, the North East councillor talks about life in the world's trouble spots as an international election monitor

Newcastle Lib Dem councillor Doreen Huddart
Newcastle Lib Dem councillor Doreen Huddart

There's not many people who volunteer to go on a busman’s holiday to Albania, but Doreen Huddart is one such person.

The combative Newcastle Lib Dem councillor spends part of her spare time doing crucial work mainly in the trouble spots around the globe overseeing elections.

It is something she has done for a number of years now which has seen her swap her North Heaton ward for the likes of Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and, memorably, the Ukraine and the call can come at any time.

The latest came, ironically, after an oversight in which she had failed to put her name down again to carry out the voluntary unpaid work through the Electoral Reform International Services (ERIS) organisation.

“I went to the meeting and looked at the agenda on which was mentioned the selection of election monitors. I hadn’t realised you had to re-apply,” said Doreen.

She apologised to the group who voted to accept her belated application.

“They then said, glad to have you back on board. Do you want to go to Albania?”

Doreen with two Armenian policeman
Doreen with two Armenian policeman

Thanks a bunch, many people would have thought, but Doreen being Doreen said yes and is due out there next month for six days to oversee the elections.

Her recollection of her past experiences are tempered by a matter-of-factness that belies the perilous positions she and her colleagues have found themselves in.

Election monitors operate in the UK too and this country faced some criticism from them in 2010 because of congestion and chaos at polling stations around the country, including Newcastle, which saw a number of people failing to register their vote.

While it should not have happened, there are countries which would have considered such a problem, in the grand scheme of things, as pretty innocuous.

Intimidation at polling stations by gangs is rife as is electoral corruption all of which have to be met up front by Doreen and her colleagues.

Late night checks at remote locations often found at the end of dirt tracks or on ill lit - if lit at all - streets where sign posts are an occasional luxury, all adds to the danger.

Doreen in Bosnia
Doreen in Bosnia

Then there were the elections in Ukraine last year which precipitated a vicious conflict between the country and Russia. The polling took place in the wake of the Ukrainian revolution of February 2014 that resulted in the ousting of the pro Russian President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych.

The event was the culmination of years of instability caused by corruption, mismanagement and a lack of economic growth which saw Ukraine, much to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ire, try to forge closer links with the European Union.

This included an association agreement with the EU which would provide Ukraine with funds, dependant on political reforms.

Yanukovych ultimately refused to sign the agreement at the urging of Russia and instead signed a treaty and multi-billion dollar loan with Russia instead, which sparked civil unrest in Kiev, the focal point of them being Maidan Square, that ultimately led to violent clashes as law enforcement troops cracked down on protesters. As tensions rose, Yanukovych fled the country to Russia while the crisis led to Russian military intervention in the country.

“I was asked to go to Ukraine to replace a man who said he couldn’t go because his wife thought it would be too dangerous,” said Doreen.

It was not the first time she had been to Ukraine, having overseen elections when Yanukoych was still in power there.

Doreen Huddart at Newcastle Civic Centre
Doreen Huddart at Newcastle Civic Centre

“When we first went to Ukraine the turn out was low and there were very poor regulations controlling the conduct of the elections. It was heavy handed, we found many people who had been standing had been locked up, or disallowed to stand a few days before the elections.

“We sent in our report afterwards and made recommendations which were ignored.

“When we went back last year the atmosphere was totally different.”

There she met former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, there as an observer too.

Doreen said: “She said there were a lot of Americans there who had given a lot of help running these elections and the difference was palpable. People had started queuing from 8am when the polls opened to 8pm when they closed.

“The polls were staffed by women dressed in Ukrainian national costumes, they had braided their hair in the Ukrainian colours - blue and yellow - they had even draped Ukrainian flags over the voting booths. There was a very different atmosphere as people wanted change.”

Putin is not a popular guy there, as illustrated by a trip to Maidan Square for Doreen when she took a photograph of an image of Putin which was being used for a bit of local entertainment.

Maidan Square, Kiev
Maidan Square, Kiev

“A Hitler moustache had been drawn on his face and a man was selling rotten eggs to throw at it. It was proving quite popular.”

Doreen had previous experience of that area of the world, particularly the Balkans, as a nurse and charity worker when she helped out after the vicious break up of the former Yugoslavia. It was the spark that led her back to the region with which she has a close affinity.

She in a member of the Committee of the Regions, an advisory body representing local and regional authorities in the European Union.

Through this she joined ERIS, a non-governmental organisation that provides support to strengthen democratic institutions and election processes around the world.

“I worked in the Balkans many years ago and I’ve been going back and forth. During and after the conflict I was quite aware of those states emerging from what had been the communist system - all from former Yugoslavia which are now six countries - and that there was a great need to establish more democratic procedures. Monitoring elections was one of those.

Doreen Huddart accepting a plaque from Pristina's Mayor Ismit Beqiri
Doreen Huddart accepting a plaque from Pristina's Mayor Ismit Beqiri

“A colleague told me about an opportunity to go back to Kosovo when it was under UN control. It must have been the 1990s. I put my name forward because I knew the country. I did some training with ERIS and the EU and put my name forward through the committee of the regions.”

The work is basically to ensure those conducting elections conform with the rules laid down by the Vienna Convention.

The monitors study the minutiae of the election processes of the country’s they are overseeing, from how candidates are chosen to where counts are held and how they are run by local officials.

They identify possible trouble spots and in teams usually of four - two monitors, a driver and an interpreter - they head out to polling stations, visiting sometimes as many as 20 in a day, keeping an eye out for problems and issues.

In Armenia they noted an awful lot of SUVs with blacked out windows turning up at polling stations and disgorging large groups of people to vote then driving them away again.

A picture taken by Doreen in Bosnia
A picture taken by Doreen in Bosnia

“There were also large groups of men hanging around outside polling stations. Not a problem in theory but a lot of people were being intimidated. So I said to my colleague let’s go talk to them.”

The men feigned innocence saying they were waiting for a family member to come and they were to help them to vote. Doreen told her colleague to start taking pictures of them.

“They instantly turned their backs. They didn’t want to be photographed and walked away and we knew they were trying to nobble people.”

One of the most worrying moments she had was in the Republic of Srpska, a small state bordering Bosnia and Herzegovina.

On their travels Doreen and her colleague Michael, a lawyer from Lithuania, came across a bombed out village and got out to take pictures, a big error in a remote formally war torn part of the country where anti personnel mines proliferate.

“I didn’t think until after I stepped onto the grass and thought s**t,” said Doreen who stood stock still. “The driver called his mother and father would you believe and they reassured him the area had been cleared of mines.”

Perhaps it was unsurprising when locals turned up soon after and offered them a drink of the local heady brew Doreen decided “it was too impolite to refuse”.

Doreen at Armenian polling station
Doreen at Armenian polling station

“It was like brandy, very strong. Michael feel asleep in the car on the way back.”

Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe, made quite an impression. “Poor infrastructure, poor sanitation, in one city called Comrat there were wells in the street where they got water from and holes in the ground for toilets.”

Accommodation can be basic. “We checked into one hotel and my colleague said it was like a brothel. It was the nearest thing to a bordello I’ve ever seen.”

She obviously loves the role but asked of her motivation in doing it she at first shrugged noncommittally.

Then, later in the interview, she recalled a conversation with her family at an aunt’s funeral.

“We went out for a meal and we talked about what I did and they said well you always wanted to change the world, Doreen. I said ‘Did I?’ It took me by surprise and I’d never thought of it that way. But they said it. Perhaps being an electoral monitor is my way of making that change.”

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