Democracy’s jet-lagged volunteers stumble out of Simon Bolivar international airport into the full glare of the Venezuelan sun. The two security men, locals employed by the mission, hurry us onto the waiting buses, eyes raking the space like Bren guns. We pile on, bemused by the urgency. Our security guy, whose features radiate an expression of permanent concern, welcomes us and begins handing out photocopied sheets.

“Keep the curtains shut, please, he says in a solemn tone, spotting a flicker of sunlight as someone attempts to take a look outside. I turn to the briefing – it consists of an aerial photograph of our hotel encircled by a dotted line showing the limits of our safe movement, and a sheet of security instructions informing us that there have been 1,416 homicides this year in the capital. It seems that Caracas is up there with Johannesburg and Lagos in the global murder league.

The faces of my fellow Europeans on the bus register shock, suspicion, blankness and mirth. “Keep your heads down, voices low and be ready to die, I half expect our protector to say. Instead he tells us that we should be at the hotel in a couple of hours. Two hours to travel 16 miles – clearly petrol’s too cheap in this country.

We are observers for the European Union, here to witness the 2006 presidential election involving one of the world’s most divisive figures, President Hugo Chavez. Venezuela is a Petri dish of political change: depending on your political persuasion, either a miracle society where the poor inherit the nation’s oil wealth thanks to Chavez’s 21st-century socialist revolution, or a land headed for Mugabe-style ruin.

Gore Vidal once remarked: “Democracy is supposed to give you the feeling of choice, like the painkiller X and painkiller Y. But they’re both just aspirin. It doesn’t ring true here, where an ideological chasm separates opposition candidate Manuel Rosales from the incumbent. Somehow the EU’s 150 election staff are going to have to steer a middle course in what is one of the most polarised societies on Earth.

Our ageing coach groans up the twisting dual carriageway towards Caracas until we hit the Saturday-evening traffic. The clogged motorway, tracing Caracas’s serpentine form through the narrow valley, is unable to cope with the results of 5p-a-gallon petrol. Outside, the lights of the poor barrios twinkle, a reminder of the mass of humanity living in poverty.

Our destination is rather different: the Caracas Palace, an ugly icon of upmarket Altamira, the suburb where many of the wealthy elite live. The hotel is described in my Lonely Planet guide as being “set to provide some of the ultimate luxuries Altamira has to offer – at a price. To be precise, $160 a night. This isn’t what I was expecting. Democratic assistance, it seems, needs capacious hotel suites, deep carpets, an endless supply of Danish pastries, espresso machines, fridge-like air-con, white bathrobes, club sandwiches, saunas, hot tubs and swimming pools.

According to one theory, election observation began as early as 1857 with a joint mission of the great powers to oversee a plebiscite in Moldavia and Wallachia. What is more certain is that it took off as a discipline after the second world war and became established as part of the “new world order following the fall of communism and apartheid. Today it is de rigueur for countries emerging from dictatorship, war or civil strife, and commonplace for strategic developing nations like Nigeria or Ukraine.

The EU ran its first observation in Russia in 1993. Last year, its observers went to Mauritania, Aceh, East Timor, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Guatemala, Ecuador, Togo and Kenya. The practical rationale is that the EU spends billions on aid and sees democracy as “the determining factor in building sustainable human development and lasting peace. My motivation to join up came from being in Zimbabwe during the fraudulent election of 2002. Seeing women with babies standing vainly for 12 hours in queues across Harare was a heartbreaking endorsement of what the election meant.

After the poll, a number of African observer teams congratulated President Mugabe on a free and fair election in a shameful display of “African solidarity. The EU mission’s experience was more telling. Three weeks before the election, Pierre Schori, the leader of the mission, was summoned to a police station, where his visa was crossed out and he was told to take the first flight out of the country. The regime’s determination to steal the election was no surprise, but Schori’s expulsion, and the EU’s decision to pull out, were an official acknowledgment of the democratic deficit in Zimbabwe.

Democracy, which seemed so unassailable in the years after the Berlin wall came down, is now looking in need of protection again. China powers ahead with its authoritarian brand of capitalism, the Middle East is a mess of dynastic autocracy and extreme Islamism, while Burma, North Korea and lesser-known hellholes

like Equatorial Guinea show the enduring power of savage repression. Meanwhile Vladimir Putin’s government placed restrictions on the number of observers the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe could send to Russia’s parliamentary poll in December, while General Musharraf appears to be undermining planned elections in Pakistan.

It’s a surprise when Lorenzo starts haggling with the stallholder. A group of us are in downtown Caracas, defying the EU security restrictions. It is our second day in Venezuela and we are in the midst of the final rally in the capital for Chavez. Up to now we’ve been wandering through the revolutionary ferment, unnoticed apart from by stallholders selling Sprite and Coca-Cola and Chavez T-shirts, flags and caps.

We’re not in uniform, but still I’m uneasy. This isn’t a holiday, I think. As Lorenzo, a dapper journalist from Italy, settles on a price, holding up a Chavez cap and some other odds and ends, I decide to split. However ironic his interest, it seems a particularly insensitive thing for an election observer to be buying.

Back at the hotel that night our welcome drinks are preceded by a security announcement. Manuel Mena, the boyish-looking security chief, is incandescent. Some of us ignored his warnings and as a result there have been two casualties: Blenka, a Slovakian girl who was mugged by a motorcyclist and is in hospital with facial injuries; and Lionel, who was with us at the rally, and was held up by two men and lost his wallet.

From now on we will stay in the safe area. It seems we will be getting to know the sauna, the business centre and the satellite-TV channels over the coming days. The refrain is always the same: X number of people were robbed, shot or raped over the weekend. But never is there an attempt to separate out the different Caracases of poor barrios, chaotic downtown and rich suburbs. Instead, the whole city is off limits.

Usually one hears about election observers arriving in some trouble spot, followed later by their verdict and the affirmative or negative use of “free and fair. But what happens in between is a strange mixture of geography field trip, Brussels conference and backpacking adventure, with long hotel scenes from Lost in Translation – without Scarlett Johansson – thrown in.

Once in a while the idealism of universal suffrage breaks through, but only fleetingly.

It’s a weird, hierarchical world. At the apex is the chief observer, a European parliamentarian who acts as the mission’s mouthpiece. Beneath sit the core team, made up of experts in areas such as security, election law and politics. In the middle, deployed across the country a month before election day, are a scattering of social anthropologists, NGO veterans and ageing hippies known as long-term observers (LTOs). At the bottom is an army of politically naive worker ants, the short-term observers (STOs).

I am one of the ants. My fellow STOs come from a mixture of backgrounds, but heavily represented are recent graduates, NGO workers, academics, public administrators and, for some reason, Danish spinsters – meaning that there is a definite leftward lean to the whole affair. People are friendly and politely overlook national stereotypes and oddities. There is Alexander, from one of the ex Soviet states, permanently dressed in clubbing gear and Marcel, a doddery retired central European who looks like Father Christmas. (Some of this section has had to be erased or changed to prevent legal action.)

And this is part of the problem. Selection is haphazard. Each country nominates an agreed number of observers who are then rubber-stamped by the election unit at the European Commission. In Britain, the Foreign Office farms out selection to the consultancy Electoral Reform International Services (Eris). I was turned down for a few missions before hearing about a one-day introductory course in election observation which, I was told, would improve my chances. Peaceworkers, the NGO running it, had a close relationship with Eris, and soon after doing the training I was selected for Venezuela.

Once you get on your first mission, it is easy to get onto others. After four or five one can graduate to LTO, where the pay is better and the missions longer: typically two months or so. It’s well known that some LTOs do three missions a year and live off the proceeds for the rest of the time. In Britain, there is no rigour in choosing people. At no point does Eris interview me or check to see that I can speak Spanish, understand the notion of impartiality or handle myself in a poor country. Judging by the other STOs, the rest of Europe seems to be the same.

An eminent British academic who has been on EU missions sums it up: “They like to have young people from different countries and form a fellowship between them. I did feel there was something funny going on, that this was less to do with the election than with a sense of creating Europeanness. It’s like a holiday camp to create loyalty to EU institutions.

Four of us Pokies fly from Caracas to Ciudad Bolivar where we are met by a convoy of chauffeur-driven 4x4s. Deployment comes as a huge relief after the air-conditioned monotony of the briefings. Sweating by the banks of the muddy Orinoco in the tropical state of Bolivar, where caymans prowl, drinking rum with a squeeze of lime in our ramshackle hotel – this is what it means to be an election observer. And it is out in the field that the real work is done, too.

My STO partner, Véronique, is blonde, French and at first rather superior. Our professional relationship is complicated by the arrival on the second day of Gabriel, a very important EU functionary. He’s one of those unprepossessing middle-aged men who nevertheless radiates power. He is charming – but with a flinty edge.

Of all the STO teams in the country, he has chosen to visit mine – or, rather, Véronique’s. It turns out that they are already acquainted with one another. The first day he asks her to travel in his chauffeured 4×4. Later in the week, we all travel together in our vehicle, and they argue in French. They speak too quickly for me to understand the detail, but it appears they are discussing matters of the heart.

Three days before the election, eight hours before the campaign is legally required to end, the president arrives in Ciudad Bolivar. Only a small strip of road is kept clear by the police in anticipation of Chavez’s cortege. Gabriel leads Véronique, me and the other STO team, Erika and Mauro, a Slovakian and a Swiss, through the gap. They are all taking pictures, not in the spirit of record-keeping but as tourists, despite the fact we are wearing the dark-blue-with-gold stars of the EU. The crowd are calling out, wanting to talk, touch us, high-five. It is hard not to shake people’s proffered hands but Gabriel’s animation and excitement seem to get the better of him.

Then he does something really strange. He picks up a Chavez banner and poses with it, while one of us takes a photo. “Don’t go showing that to anyone, he nervously laughs afterwards. A joke it may be, but there seems to be a complete lack of understanding about how to behave. For Lorenzo it was perhaps naivety, but from Gabriel it’s arrogant, complacent and betrays contempt for the opposition.

The day before the election Gabriel takes a flight back to the capital. Before leaving, he asks me to take care of Véronique. She’s a very stubborn woman – I must be the moderating influence, he says. Véronique and I head off to the mean streets of San Felix, a barrio of Ciudad Guayano said to have the highest murder rate in the country – hence Gabriel’s concern. With our driver we scout the polling stations, trying to remember how we get from one to the next without stopping to ask directions too much.

The next morning we are up by five and drive through the darkened streets to get to our first polling station for the assembly of the electronic voting machines. There’s already a queue of voters when we arrive at the school. Everything seems to be going to plan, with the boxes being unpacked, the election workers setting up the machines and testing that they work. We open the dreaded formularios – a thick book of forms to fill in throughout the day. There are separate examples for observing the opening of the polls, voting, closing of the polls and counting, and each one numbers two or three pages.

We make our first report of what is to be a long day. Then we move on, spending only 20 or 30 minutes at each polling station. At various intervals we must phone our LTO team and read out, question by question, our results. The tick-box approach is evidence of the EU’s lack of trust in our judgment. We are data collectors, not observers. It speaks of a bureaucracy keen on statistics that it can brandish scientifically. The trouble is that it is quasi-scientific: a lot of the data we have to take on trust, such as opening times – and the polling staff are rarely going to admit to tardiness.

By dusk we’re safely installed in the final polling station to monitor the count. The machine begins spurting out bits of paper, while the polling staff begin totting up the number of signatures in the register where electors have to sign before they vote. I start looking at the various numbers and realise there’s a problem – there are 20 more votes in the machines than voters’ signatures. It might not sound a lot but with a total of 500 voters, this is a significant margin of error. The polling official tries several times using different excuses to explain it away, but none adds up. A little later, as I’m taking some time out in the corridor, my mobile phone rings and a voice I don’t recognise warns me to stop interfering in things that do not concern me.

The mystery is never solved. Chavez is well ahead but the incident leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It’s gone 10.30 when we drive away, with fireworks and horns sounding Chavez’s victory.

Back at the hotel I don’t feel like sleeping. State TV is running a profile of Chavez to coincide with his victory. The great man is reminiscing about the humble pueblo where he grew up, the grandmother whose knee he used to sit on, and his baseball coach. His voice, like a rich chocolate mousse, intones the same nostalgic themes over and over – lulling the viewer into a magical-realist wonderland.

The next day we are debriefed by the LTOs back in Ciudad Bolivar. We watch the EU press conference live on television. Monica Frassoni, the Italian MEP who heads up the mission, praises the elections for their professionalism but notes that state institutions have been mobilised as propaganda tools for Chavez. In the afternoon it’s time for some R&R as we head off to a creek an hour’s drive away. We bathe in the river, drink beer and rum, then head back.

J W Marriott Hotel, Quito, Ecuador, October 4, 2007. My second EU mission. The elections have been a farce, with voters having to choose between 624 candidates from 26 parties on a ballot paper the size of an Ordnance Survey map.

It’s something the EU mission statement comments on but fails to properly condemn, for it looks to have been a strategy on the part of President Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s Chavez-lite, to bamboozle the population. My STO partner Anna, a tie-dye-wearing Hungarian, spends a week flirting with the driver only to express surprise when he sends her a text after her departure saying: “You are the most beautiful gringo I’ve ever seen.

There have been many similarities with the previous mission: uninspiring leadership, paranoid security arrangements, an extravagant hotel, meaningless form-filling, and a motley crew of observers. Once again we have been treated like children, told not to go out after 6pm, and this time even ordered to travel with a police escort on election day. All this in one of South America’s safer countries. And during the briefing, the rainbow coalition feels like a wacky student exchange rather than a serious diplomatic operation. There are STOs here from 21 nations, represented in a seemingly random way. For instance, tiny Luxembourg boasts three observers, the same as Germany. Hungary and Sweden both have similar populations but the former has four observers, the latter none. Another problem is that the pay for the fortnight – around €140 a day – is not particularly generous for western European professionals after expenses, while for someone from Hungary or Poland it amounts to several months’ salary. No wonder people from the East are queuing up to make their fortunes.

The end-of-mission fiesta is when the truth comes out. It was at the party in Venezuela that I heard how Monica, our head of mission, had summed up her meeting with Chavez: “He’s super-sexy. It was also there that we saw Gabriel’s penchant for chatting up young females on the dance floor.

Here in the generic luxury of the Marriott, I’m comparing notes on Ecuador with Erika when Gabriel appears. “D’you remember this woman? I say, pointing to Erika. He shakes his head jokingly. “Véronique is the one I remember. Erika asks if he has any news of her. He tells us that she’s in Togo, heading up the core team’s press office. “She is very, very impressive, he says, shaking his head to himself.

The last I see of him, an hour or so later, he’s closing in on Fanny, a pretty, dark-haired French girl in her early twenties. She blushes at his request to dance, but is clearly flattered by his attention and is soon being led onto the dance floor.

A mound of luggage is piled up by the bus taking us to the airport. Lorenzo is carrying a panama hat. Others are weighed down by woven bags and garish striped “ethnic clothing. People are busily gossiping about the party, swapping e-mail addresses and ignoring their hangovers. In a few hours we will be in the air over the Atlantic Ocean and the warm but fragile sense of camaraderie will begin to fade away.

The mission is over. It will be my last. Policing democracy is a necessary and noble endeavour, but you have to employ the right people, trust them to do their jobs, and avoid the temptation to collect useless data. The Ecuador mission has cost about €2.5m. It has been a missed opportunity from the point of observing the country’s election but a godsend for Europeans who like to travel and don’t mind a bit of form-filling. In 2006 the EU ran 14 such missions, at an estimated cost of €35m. What it amounts to is an exotic and wasteful box-ticking exercise.

Some of the names have been changed

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