Robert Mugabe's expulsion of European Union election observers from Zimbabwe was widely reported in horror-struck tones worthy of an attempted rape on Mother Teresa. But I have watched more than 70 elections since 1990, and I think that a little scepticism is in order.
Determining the legitimacy of elections is not just an arithmetical exercise in checking that the returns match the declared result. It is a powerful weapon in global politics. I have seen blatantly rigged polls endorsed by official observers, and I have seen honestly conducted elections discredited. This has led me to the conclusion that - to paraphrase Stalin - it doesn't matter who votes, it matters who observes the voting. The international observers' reports form the basis of a new government's acceptability to international organisations; they also determine access to aid and investment from western taxpayers through the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and so on. A popular mandate is good, but a majority among the observers is better.
Immediately after the collapse of communism, when election observing boomed, it could be argued that the motley teams of MPs, local government officers and concerned busybodies (such as myself) who criss-crossed post-Soviet Europe were too uncritical. The received approach was to celebrate the "new democracies", regardless of the flaws.
When a vote was cast in my name in Azerbaijan in October 1993, by local election officials insisting that "the whole world wants Heidar Aliev to win", it became clear that my naive protestations of ineligibility were wrong and their assessment of western diplomacy was right. The umbrella body that organises international observers, the 56-member Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which is mainly funded by the US and EU states, announced to the press that the election represented "the will of the voters".
Yet all observers saw numerous cases of multiple voting, with individuals getting up to a dozen ballots for what they claimed were members of their families. The OSCE justified its indulgence of this "traditional practice" - which some might call open fraud - on the grounds that democracy was in its infancy in Azerbaijan. (The same argument was used with equal condescension across half of Eurasia.) However, the truth was that the winning candidate (for whom I had the unexpected privilege of voting) had come to power through a coup in an oil-rich country, and Britain and the US in particular were happy to see his predecessor gone.
The 1993 election in Azerbaijan coincided with Boris Yeltsin's bombardment of his own parliament in Moscow. The observer caravan rolled on into Russia to endorse unequivocally the conduct of the December 1993 referendum on Yeltsin's self-tailored constitution. Within six months, the Russians themselves confirmed what had seemed obvious on polling day - millions fewer than the required 50 per cent of registered voters had turned out to rubber-stamp Yeltsin's draft. But no western government queried the rigged result, which remains in force to this day.
Big or small, election fraud was OK immediately after the end of communism because it cemented our new friends' hold on power.
For all the pious indignation in recent weeks about violence in the run-up to the Zimbabwean elections (which may well affect the results), western governments have repeatedly turned a blind eye to intimidation and manipulation of the media when it has suited them. And it has suited them a lot.
Georgia, Azerbaijan's neighbour on the pipeline route west, has witnessed a succession of deeply flawed polls since its long-time Communist Party boss, Eduard Shevardnadze, restored himself to power as the only candidate in 1992. Visiting one of Shevardnadze's prisons the day after polling, I met a man so badly tortured that he couldn't remember his wife's name or his address; he could only recall that he had received his injuries in an accident while attempting to escape.
Western aid to Georgia has not reformed police practices there; it has just cemented the regime's grip on power. Back in 1995, documentary evidence of fraud in Shevardnadze's first re-election was dismissed as a freak by the official OSCE team. Shevardnadze was the foreign minister who opened the Berlin Wall in 1989, so there was no need to inquire further into his domestic democratic credentials. In 2000, US-supplied attack helicopters hovered over the voters in Georgia to remind them to elect him a third time.
After the mid-1990s, the OSCE's observer missions moved on from complacently confirming the west's new friends in power to an activist role in undermining those who got above themselves and forgot their debt of gratitude for the international community's role in preventing the wrong candidate from winning a "legitimate" victory.
Particularly in the former communist countries, where the dream of "returning to Europe" is so strong, the threat of condemnation by the OSCE became a serious factor in domestic politics. Voters who chose an unacceptable candidate might rule themselves out of EU or Nato accession.
Already, Slovaks have been told in no uncertain terms not to consider re-electing their mercurial ex-premier, Vladimir Meciar. He was much denounced in Brussels, even though he left office in 1998 after losing an election - thus proving that he has better democratic credentials than the west's favoured potentates who have clung to power regardless of the will of the people.
Even the OSCE's monitors cannot control everything. In Montenegro in 1997, the west was confident that its favoured candidate would win because he controlled the police and the media. It sent out an early-1990s style team to observe the coronation. But the wrong man came first and a bigwig from OSCE headquarters telephoned the naive mission leader who had failed to see the flaws in the polls which led to this result. After putting down the receiver, he told his colleagues: "He says we have got to intensify our observations!"
But with Slobodan Milosevic still in power in Belgrade, the west was determined to get its man into power in Montenegro, by hook or by crook. There was a second round of voting. This time, no mistakes were made, and a higher-powered OSCE team managed not to notice the stepped-up police intimidation or the blanket television coverage of only one candidate.
Since the mid-1990s, the OSCE has added organising elections to its mission. In Bosnia in 1996, it enabled a full 107 per cent of the possible voting-age population listed in the 1991 census to vote - as if no one had died of natural causes, let alone violent ones, since then.
In Kosovo in 2000, just ten days after the fall of Milosevic, the OSCE stage-managed a chaotic poll in which its gaggle of international supervisors put up instructions in English rather than Albanian, or even Serbian. The supervisors also devised a registration process so complex that a distinguished British academic, acting as a local poll supervisor, adopted the simple if condescending approach of allowing anyone who came to his polling station to vote, though in many cases he had surreptitiously marked their ballots to render them invalid. He justified this as helping the natives to get used to civic procedures.
Mugabe had a point when he said that Africans don't come to observe UK or US elections - in fact, neither Britain nor America allows foreign observers at all. Florida's shenanigans have already gone down the memory hole. In this country, too, the growth of electoral irregularities, such as in the Welsh referendum in 1997, goes largely unreported by a patriotically complacent press.
Landslide results in 1997 and 2001 shouldn't disguise the need for vigilance in Britain, too. Many of the worst features used to boost turnout and disguise voter apathy or hostility in former communist countries are filtering westwards. The low turnout in our 2001 general election has led to many of the checks on fraud being eased, in an effort to encourage more people to register. For example, local election officials have, in effect, arbitrary powers to add names to the register right up to polling day. Postal and proxy votes were floating around at last year's general election in unprecedented numbers. The head of our own brand-new electoral commission, Sam Younger, admitted last year: "The whole of our electoral system frankly is based on trust really and there is capacity for fraud in all these areas. I think there is a greater possibility of postal vote fraud this time because it is simply easier to get postal votes and there are more and more postal forms floating about." He wants to have a "balance between the encouragement to participation . . . and the dangers of any increase in fraud".
Trust is good, said Lenin, but control is better. There is no reason why honesty should outweigh fraud just because we're British. As so many features of flawed post-Soviet elections are added to our own system, perhaps all that is needed to show that our democracy is really in danger is for Whitehall to invite in foreign observers next time.
Alternative reports on many post-communist elections can be found at www.bhhrg.org
Mark Almond is lecturer in modern history at Oriel College, Oxford