To make governments truly accountable to their citizens, by far the best basis is to have credible elections. When citizens can actually throw out governments they no longer approve of then you have a fundamental framework for transforming accountability relationships. This is true even when you concede that elections are not perfect instruments of accountability. More needs to be done in the period between elections; citizen vigilance must not wane. But free and fair elections are incredible accountability devices.
That is why for new or young democracies, the first time a sitting government concedes defeat in an election is a milestone. It does not follow that the new democracy is going to make it but you know immediately that the basis is being created for constitutional democracy. Hopes begin to rise that maybe, just maybe, another new democracy is becoming viable. So, while staying out of the intricacies of the politics of Georgia and its passions, please join me in saluting the fact that President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia conceded that his party lost the recent elections in that country and promised to work with the new government for the remainder of his own term. That singular act of statesmanship has now set the stage, as CNN reports, ‘for the nation’s first peaceful, democratic transition through election since the breakup of the Soviet Union’. And as the political scientist Joshua Tucker, writing in The Monkey Cage, points out, ‘this is a further step of the incremental growth of Georgian pluralism. But it is not a final step.’ Here’s hoping Georgia continues to take these steps to pluralism.
What the Saaskashvili example does (and there have been others --like Jerry Rawlings of Ghana) is remind us of the limits of development interventions in the area of good governance and accountability. You cannot design projects that will bring about successful democratic transitions, not even in those areas of development concerned with democracy promotion. Political communities are fiendishly complex things. In each one, there is such a bewildering interplay of factors that there is no single button you can push and you will get to a successful transition in a predictable way. While reflecting on the topic, for instance, I read two pieces from the political science literature that I found very useful:
- ‘Democratic Progress and Regress: the Effect of Parties on the Transitions of States to and Away from Democracy’ Brian Lai and Ruth Melkonian-Hoover, Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 58 No. 4 (December 2005): pp. 551-564.
- ‘The Nested Game of Democratization by Elections’ by Andreas Schedler, International Political Science Review (2002), Vol 23, No. 1, 103-122.
My sense is that even those development agencies engaged in democracy promotion do the next best thing: they work to strengthen the set of institutions that might produce a good transition somewhere along the line: free and fair elections, civil society strengthening, building independent media, supporting the entrenchment of the rule of law and so on, all in the hope that at some point the system will ‘bite’ and settle down. Powerful governments also bring their influences to bear where they can to nudge leaders and countries to do the ‘right thing’.
And the development agencies that do not or cannot engage in democracy promotion and still want to secure the accountability of governments to their citizens? Well, it’s small bore territory: tiny, puny accountability ‘mechanisms’ bolted on to projects here and there.
Photo: Waiting in line to vote in Nyamirambo, Rwanda, by kigaliwire