Dangerous votes

Dangerous votes

It’s a big primary election day today here in the United States, but bear with me. Because I’m going to take you to another country with upcoming elections: Going to the polls is a tricky matter for a young democracy.

Let’s take a trip to Guinea, a small country in West Africa that happens to be the world’s largest bauxite exporter. The country’s long-time strongman president died in 2008, and a coup followed. There was a somewhat miraculous transition to a civilian-led government, and now presidential elections are in the works. But Guinea had a serious bad-luck streak this week. On September 10, the country’s courts jailed two top officials from the electoral commission for misconduct in the first round of polls in June. Violence broke out on the streets, leading the police to break up riots with tear gas. And now, one of the convicted officials has died. Nearly everyone suspects that this second round ballot is bound to be delayed.

But the political hooplah really isn’t the only, or even the most important, reason that the vote will likely be delayed. It’s because Guinea is utterly unprepared. There are no voter cards or ballots across much of the country. It’s rainy season, and the country’s dilapidated infrastructure has further thwarted efforts to get the supplies out. As AP nicely summed up: 

"even if the trucks carrying voting materials were to leave Guinea’s capital first thing Tuesday, they most likely will not reach the rain-soaked interior of the country in time for Sunday’s vote, where major towns are several days by road and some remote polling stations can only be reached on foot."

But here’s the thing: There’s really nothing unexpected or disgraceful about this. It’s really really hard to hold elections. And it’s a lot harder when you’ve never done it as a democracy. Ever. Rainy season is also nothing to scoff at in West Africa; good luck driving election materials over the pothole-laden roads on any sort of timeline. Even the best planning would have suffered setbacks. 

More broadly, what Guinea demonstrates is that democratic elections, however beneficial, are also risky for a volatile country just emerging from a long history of repressive politics. They open a lot of wounds. The two top candidates in Guinea, for example, are from historically clashing ethnic groups. Under the strongman rule of the former president, elections were always rigged; why should Guineans believe they won’t be this time? And in a country (and region) where political power is wielded through patronage, most everyone believes the stakes are high. If their guy loses, it could mean a presidential term of poverty. This is not easy to stomach for a society that is divided and still recovering from conflict. Have elections too soon, and they risk doing as much harm as good. 

That’s not to say that Guinea’s vote, or any other, should not go forward. They should. There is something incredible about democracy that saw a 64 percent voter turnout at the polls on the first round. But this is a perfect example of how elections don’t fix volatility; they often exacerbate it. The real solutions will have to come from whoever Guinea elects.