The EU has had to withdraw its election observers from Darfur before the upcoming Sudanese election. No surprise there: Darfur remains a dangerous place. But what why did the EU get involved in this controversial poll in the first place?

This week, the head of the European Union's election observation mission in Sudan pulled her staff out of Darfur, citing "terrible violence" across much of the region.  While this was probably the right choice - and there were only six EU observers in the region anyway - it raised troubling questions.  What sort of situation did the Europeans expect to find in Darfur?  Why did they think that election monitors would do any good there?

The violence in Darfur is well below the levels of five to six years ago, but it is still a dangerous place to be.  Sixty UN peacekeepers were recently trapped and disarmed by bandits.  Aid workers report that the UN contingents, often operating alongside Sudanese forces, have little choice but to turn a blind eye to the notorious janjaweed militias.

None of this is secret.  The UN may struggle in the region, but its presence allows a steady stream of journalists to report on the situation.  Even if it went unreported (and Darfur has started to disappear from the headlines) European intelligence agencies, which have a significant presence in Sudan and neighbouring Chad, surely know all about it.

So the fact that Darfur is in chaos - and that this weekend's Sudanese elections might well exacerbate the chaos - should have been obvious.  The flaws in those elections, which almost all major opposition parties are boycotting on the grounds that they won't be either free or fair, were also entirely predictable.  The International Crisis Group argued in February that the EU was wrong to send observers to these "sham elections".

In case anyone had missed the point, Sudan's President Bashir noted that if the election observers caused any trouble, he'd "cut off their fingers and crush them under our shoes."

So why does the EU have observers there at all?  There are two arguments for having them there: political pragmatism and the fact that, well, it's just what the EU does.

The pragmatic argument goes like this.  Sudan is on verge of splitting apart.  Next January, the will be referendum in the south of the country on whether to secede.  Analysts are increasingly concerned (and in some cases entirely confident) that this will lead to very large-scale violence indeed.  It may be horrible in Darfur, but it's pretty bad in the south as well.  Over four hundred people have been killed there this year alone.  There was a slaughter in one village after a local boy refused to give a soldier any milk.

In this context, there's a Hobbesian argument that says: anything is better than anarchy, and if we can sustain the Sudanese government for now, we may find a way out of this mess before next January.  It's therefore necessary to show we take the government seriously, even if that means getting involved in an electoral process that is flawed.

That's an ugly argument, and it may well be wrong (the dynamics of violence in Sudan aren't that simple).  At least it has a certain grim, Kissinger-ian logic to it.  Scott Gration, President Obama's top man on Sudan, has said that he "has confidence" that the elections "will be as free and fair as possible".  Why should the EU follow a different strategy?

But the EU often seems to send election monitors to troubled states without really thinking through the strategic logic at all.  The Commission currently sends out roughly ten Election Observer Missions a year.  The observers are sometimes frank about errors and fraud when they find them, as they did in Kenya in 2007 and Afghanistan last year.

The idea, of course, is that these displays of European displeasure will deter parties from fraud.  In the 1990s, election observers across the former Communist bloc played an important role in setting and monitoring the standards for liberal democracy.  The high-point of this era was probably the 2004 Ukrainian elections, when negative reports by election observers paved the way for the Orange Revolution and a re-run of the polls.

But there has been an increasing push-back against this sort of monitoring (although, ironically, the U.S. allows OSCE election monitors to probe its own elections).

This push-back has come from leaders ranging from Vladimir Putin (who blocked the OSCE from monitoring Russian polls) to Hamid Karzai, who is still locked in a battle with the US, UN and EU over whether he was freely and fairly elected last year.  The problem is that the West has little choice to stick by Karzai however he got into power.

Similarly, President Bashir probably assumes that he can run a rigged election and weather whatever flurry of negative observers' reports follows.  The EU can look principled but ineffectual by condemning all the flaws they find, or craven by giving these elections a "pass" grade.  We should be thankful that there are European observers prepared to go to places like Darfur at all - the head of mission in Darfur, Veronique de Keyser had powerful things to say about the basic impossibility of a clean election amid Darfur's violence, which was praiseworthy.  But it is a mistake to send them to places where their presence will be abused.    

Click here to listen to Richard explain why the elections matter to the EU


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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.