Syndicate content

Hurling Elections at Complexity

Sina Odugbemi's picture

It keeps happening, this pell-mell rush to elections. A country is struggling to come out of conflict we insist on elections straightaway. A country has just survived decades of colonial or authoritarian rule, we insist on elections immediately. The elections happen in some often ramshackle, rough and ready manner then we claim that a new democracy has been born.  And we pile on all the expectations of ‘democratic governance’.

And who is the ‘we’ above? That strange creature known as the international community, that’s what.

That this business of hurling ‘elections’ at complexity often ends in tears has not deterred the international community, has not led to a reconsideration of the formula. Each time the effort breaks down in a particular country what is the new cry? Fresh elections of course, as soon as possible!

There are enormous problems bedeviling this approach. The main one is that it resolutely ignores the fact that you cannot build a stable constitutional democracy (more about the formal features in a moment) unless certain structural factors are in place. For instance, one of the things that I find upsetting is how people fail to realize that if you simply rush to elections in a country run until that point as a well-developed authoritarian state, especially if these are winners-take-all elections, what the victors inherit is not a democratic state. What they inherit is an authoritarian state. What do you think the victors are going to do? They are going to use the powers, tools and habits of the authoritarian state to serve their own interests and crush their opponents.  And they will claim to be able to do so in the name of something called democracy. That is what happened in post-colonial states in places like Africa and eventually led to all manner of civil wars.

Second, these transitions to democracy are fiendishly complex because you need a rough balance of contending internal social and political forces for constitutional rule to be stable. If a group – ethnic, sectarian, whatever – feels able to ignore the other forces with impunity, and it has inherited an inherently authoritarian state, it will do so. The so-called democratic constitution will not be worth the paper it is written on.  You need an internal balance of forces. You need a situation where  contending forces feel that to get what they want they need to build coalitions; that no veto is possible; and that it is better to talk than to fight. The problem is that getting to this point is a question of fact in each case. There is no prescribable, universally applicable formula for getting there.

The third structural factor, in my view, is the habit of compromise. Here is something of a general rule. Beware a situation where a dictator or a foreign power has sat on a country for a long time and suddenly leaves, then you have elections immediately. The problem in most cases is that the leaders of the different contending forces in that political community have not built up the habit of negotiating, of arguing with a view to an eventual bargain, of live and let live. Yet that habit of talking and bargaining is what ultimately makes the country governable and helps it to settle down.  If leaders are insisting on maximum positions, if they are winding up their followers rather than sitting down with other leaders to work things out, it does not matter how many elections you hold. The situation will remain turbulent.

There is a fourth structural factor: separating church/mosque/synagogue/temple from the state is at the very core of liberal constitutional democracy, as crucial as the key set of institutional devices( separation of powers, limited government, protection of fundamental liberties, checks and balances, and legalism/rule of law). The exhausting and destructive Wars of Religion in Europe (Catholics and Protestants slaughtering one another from roughly 1524 to 1648) finally persuaded people that you cannot insist on building a political community on the basis of a deep consensus about how life ought to be lived.  If you insist on that you will have perpetual conflict; for, even within the same religion views differ sharply.  Your best best is an operative consensus, a framework set of rules for sharing the political space, contesting elections, protecting the interests of everybody no matter who wins an election and so on.  In societies where this is still not the accepted view, elections alone will not bring peace and stability, let alone liberal constitutional democracy.

The international community cannot keep hurling elections alone at complexity.

Photo Courtesy: chayathonwong2000 / freedigitalphotos
Follow PublicSphereWB on Twitter


Submitted by Steven Livingston on

These are cogent observations. Elections are sometimes held prematurely, leading to a less than brilliant outcome. This in turn undermines public support for democratic solutions of all types. I wonder if even Amarty Sen would agree that democratic accountability -- mechanisms for oversight, transparency, and accountability -- today come in greater variety. Elections certainly are one form. But the digital age is creating new sources of transparency that supplement traditional sources of accountability. Sen may have once famously said that he knew of no country with a free press and elections that experienced famine. Today, we might add that various forms of transparency created by the modern digital information ecology do the same thing.

I agree. Thanks. In fact, amazingly you anticipated my next move. The relationship between elections and accountability is the next topic I hope to tackle because of recent events in places like Brazil and Turkey.

Once again, many thanks for the comment.

Submitted by Søren on

Excellent piece. I'd go further, however, I think we should hurling words like *transition* at these processes.

Submitted by Jim Robinson on

I wonder also if you could comment on the potential 'trend' towards power-sharing which seems to be something of a compromise facilitated/enabled/enforced/endorsed by the 'we' - the international community - as an attempt to resolve oft violent conflict around transition/elections that you describe.

Power-sharing arrangements are useful if they genuinely prevent a winners-take-all outcome, and if they help with building habits of negotiation and compromise amongst elite factions. All those are big ifs of course. My sense is that these arrangements are real only where the guarantor is not a foreign power with an army in place; for when that army leaves the arrangement is likely to collapse. I suspect that power sharing that reflects an underlying balance of power will have a better chance of surviving.
Many thanks for the comment!

Submitted by Anonymous on

Sina, great blog. One of the aspects journalists and pundits leave out of their coverage is that transitions from authoritarian to democractic governments often take a generation or longer. In Brazil, it took us about 15 years to transition to a stable electoral system, but as the recent protests demonstrate, the transition to a more equitable democratic system continues. The lesson seems to be that elections are indispensable, but not enough in themselves. Other related reforms are needed.

Add new comment