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To vote or not to vote

Nicholas van Praag's picture

A vote too soon?    Photo © Corbis

The wisdom of elections in fragile places is questioned by those who fear they will exacerbate tensions and provoke the kind of violence we saw in Côte d’Ivoire and Haiti last week.  This poses a big question: whether to plough ahead regardless or to hold-off on elections until conditions are propitious.

While some conflict experts argue it would be better to wait, many citizens are keen to vote. It’s humbling to see the determination of people in fragile countries who put up with threats to their safety and long lines at polling booths, as well as fraud and intimidation.

Is this another example of hope triumphing over experience?  Perhaps, but it also demonstrates people’s desire to have their voices heard and to influence the course of their lives. So we need to think hard before postponing plebiscites.

Electoral politics are always polarizing, no matter where.  I remember watching CNN night after night in my hotel room in Almaty, Kazakhstan during the hanging chad saga that followed the US presidential elections in November 2000.  Even at a distance of 10,000 kilometers, the negative energy was palpable.  After weeks of wrangling, it took US citizens a while to unwind and accept the outcome.

Despite the track record of elections in stirring things up, many people, especially in the longer-established democracies, see the ballot box not just as central to democracy in their own countries but as a benchmark of progress in the aftermath of violent conflict elsewhere.

The cognoscenti of conflict-affected states shake their heads at what they consider the short-sighted focus on elections as a panacea for putting things right.  Better, they say, to adapt institutional models that do the representational trickfrom constituent assemblies to power sharing pactswithout triggering the negative passions of electoral politics in places not yet ready for them.

“We need to ensure that new democratic processes reinforce rather than undermine fragile peace agreements and promote institutional legitimacy and accountability,” says Lahdar Brahimi, a former Special Representative of the Secretary General to Iraq and Afghanistan and a member of the WDR’s Advisory Council.

A strong message from the WDR consultations is that while elections are a central part of a functioning democracy, resorting to elections before basic security and dispute-settlement mechanisms are in place can be a recipe for further violence. In other words, it is not a ‘box’ to be ticked mechanically in a society still lacking the institutions to provide the necessary checks and balances.

Does this mean the ballot is the privilege of people living in stable places?  Should elections be delayed because of the likelihood of negative reactions?  Or are the post-electoral consequences we have seen these past weeks in Côte D’Ivoire and Haiti a rite of passagepart of the institutional transformation process on the road to state resilience?

Whatever your response to these questions, there is clearly huge demand world-wide for more inclusive and responsive governance.  Elections are an important way to provide this.  Timing, however, is all important and rushing into elections before conditions are right ignores the complexity of transforming societies for the better and may backfire on the very people keen to see progress.


Submitted by Anonymous on
The history of a country has to be led by the country's citizens and elites, and the donor community should only come in as a supporting force to provide knowledge tools for people to create their democracy. If the process is not fully created or adopted by the people and leaders themselves, how could it ever be sustainable?

Submitted by Nick van Praag on
You are right. Systems of representation must be owned in some tangible way by the people of the countries concerned. We must avoid -- and not just for elections -- imposing first world institutional models. The key here is to focus on the underlying functional objectives -- in this instance of particpation in governance -- rather than internationaly accepted 'forms' that may not work.

Submitted by Nick van Praag on
Ireland has the kind of solid institutions that allow societies to weather even the roughest passages -- institutions that provide the resilience to withstand the pressures that bear down on all states. So whatever its current economic travails, the conditions are certainly right for free, fair and non-violent elections.

Submitted by Mike Graham on
Not holding the elections when due,even in unstable situations, can prove to be as disruptive and violent as having them in these same situations. When things are bad people are always looking for a way out, whether correct or not, they often see a change of political leadership as a major factor in bringing about the required improvements.

Submitted by Nick van Praag on
As you say, elections are a way of letting off public steam -- and a very important one. The problem arises when the checks and balances are not in place to allow that steam to be let off safely -- and violence ensues. But who is to judge when things are safe? There lies a rub.

Submitted by Ayissi Ngah on
Perhaps the problem may not be "elections" as such, but that kind of peculiar process we call "presidential elction". In terms of governance, institutions and participation, local and legislative elections are, democratically speaking, more important for the "ordinary citizen" than the presidential one; but local and legislative elections rarely generate the sort of of massive passion, tension and violence we have been witnessing the last few months in Kenya, Zimabwe, Cote d'Ivoire or Haiti.

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