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Elections Against Democracy?

The despicable, yet expected unfolding of the presidential and legislative elections in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) should not only spark international dismay, but should also call into question the very relevance of supporting elections, considered a criteria for democratization at any price.

Western standards have encouraged the view that elections are an objective sign of progress. Over half of the African continent has or will hold elections in 2011 and 2012. Not a single one of them has or will happen without at best tensions and at worst deadly violence and resumption of conflict, even most recently in relatively stable Liberia, where the opposition boycotted the runoff.

Because elections are usually the right step forward, it is too often assumed that the more polls are held, the stronger democracy becomes. But in many cases, they aim at consolidating a political system – democracy – that does not even remotely exist, and the vote is a sham.

Instead of pursuing an “election agenda" regardless of specific national situations, the international community should ask: Is this really what is best for the country at a given moment? The ongoing crisis in DRC points out that the lack of basic infrastructure, such as roads and public transportation, is a major factor that prevents elections from going smoothly.

Rushing underdeveloped countries toward elections when they are technically and practically not ready is counter-productive. Focusing international attention and resources to build the necessary infrastructure – roads, public transportation, a reliable electoral commission, and observers – that will allow elections to be held at a later stage is an alternative worth examining.

The DRC case is compelling: On top of the dramatic insecurity and the sporadic violence that erupted during the electoral campaign and the vote, undelivered or pre-marked ballot papers, ballot box stuffing, and closed polling stations were common. In a country that is two-thirds the size of Western and Central Europe, with 67 million inhabitants and decades of bad governance, election rigging is impossible to prevent. Observers expected that the November 28 historic elections would stir tensions and be non-democratic; yet advocating postponing them was not an option.

Many cases have shown that elections in non-democratic countries can be used by dictators to tighten their grip on power rather than making headway toward democracy and can sometimes revive underlying tensions. The recent elections in Cameroon were merely a means for the 30-year dictator, Paul Biya, to legitimize his power for another seven years.

In Kenya, the 2007-2008 contested election results triggered a revival of ethnic violence in what constituted the worst crisis since independence. In the Ivory Coast, months of political showdown and 3,000 deaths were necessary to allow the true winner, Alassane Ouattara, to take power in April 2011 from his rival Laurent Gbagbo, who will now face trial at the International Criminal Court.

Elections are a significant test for the evolution of a fragile country toward democracy, but sometimes it is simply not ready. It is worth thinking through the idea of minimal stability standards as a requirement to organize elections, or support them in cases where the international community does not have a say. Deep rethinking of democracy promotion is necessary to nuance the idea that an election is always the right step forward, when it is sometimes a way for the international community to clear its conscience.

Determining whether it will be possible to hold elections that will meet basic democratic standards – however politically incorrect this may sound – is where the real challenge lies.

Photo Credit: Pan-Africa News

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