Terms of Engagement

The Botched Ballot

Why even failed elections are good for democracy.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

One of the enduring legacies of George W. Bush’s magic-realist foreign policy was the discrediting of the word "freedom." The failure of Bush’s "Freedom Agenda" made democracy promotion seem like a particularly inexcusable form of naiveté. Didn’t he understand that elections are not democracy? Candidate Barack Obama seized on this self-evident proposition to belabor Bush. "We do need to stand for democracy," Obama declared in a 2007 speech. "But democracy is about more than a ballot box." FDR, he noted, hadn’t even included voting in his famous 1942 "Four Freedoms" speech.

Well, he should have. The parliamentary elections in Egypt, which, despite widespread expectations, have been almost perfectly peaceful, have put that country’s military rulers on the defensive in a way that the demonstrations in Tahrir Square have not. And, even more remarkably, the elections in Russia, which the ruling party managed to win through transparent fraud, have galvanized the public against their cynical and contemptuous rulers in a way no one could have predicted. Elections matter quite independently of who wins them. Elections don’t make a democracy, but they can make a democratic citizenry.

Why did tens of thousands of people flood the streets of Moscow in the aftermath of Sunday’s election? Because, as Foreign Policy‘s Julia Ioffe has written, they were insulted. The primary insult, as Ioffe notes, may not have been the brazen ballot-stuffing, but the nonchalant announcement six weeks earlier that Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev would be switching jobs, with the former becoming president once again and the latter, prime minister. That announcement provoked disgust, but it was the election — by offering vivid and dramatic proof that Russia’s leaders consider their own people irrelevant — that brought people into the streets.

Elections are not just exercises in determining political majorities. "They’re also a way to gauge how people are treated in society," says Ken Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute. "Every institution in the country — government, parties, the press, the judiciary, the military, police — are working at the same time." That’s why rigged elections can prove to be such electrifying, unifying events.

There’s a very specific history of such events that begins in Nov. 1986, when Ferdinand Marcos, the Filipino kingpin, staged the kind of electoral farce he had long since mastered. Both domestic and American election observers exposed the fraud — a first in the Philippines. Massive public demonstrations forced Marcos from office within four months. More recently, the "Color Revolutions" in Eastern Europe occurred in the aftermath of fraudulent elections. And last year, Laurent Gbagbo, the president of Côte D’Ivoire, provoked a civil war when he cheated his opponent out of office. Now his opponent is president and Gbagbo faces charges of crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court.

The problem for the dictator is that he cannot know — or in any case almost never does know — when a ritualistic or rigged election will provoke fury rather than a resigned shrug. Autocrats depend on a sense of learned futility; as soon as people begin to hope for better, the election becomes a vehicle for those hopes. For decades, Egypt held non-competitive elections that sent government loyalists to parliament; turnout was often under 10 percent. Then semi-free elections in 2005 created a real parliamentary opposition in the form of 88 members of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the next election, late last year, President Hosni Mubarak simply eliminated the problem by ensuring that no member of the Brotherhood — not one — was returned to parliament. The sheer egregiousness of the fraud, the implicit sense that Mubarak felt he could get away with anything, shocked Egyptians, and stoked the fury which exploded just over a month later in Tahrir Square.

You have only to compare that election to the one now underway to see how far Egypt has come in a very short while. The analysis in the United States has focused on the outcome, with Islamists taking over 60 percent of the vote so far. But that may not be what matters most to the Egyptian people themselves, millions of whom have waited patiently for hours to cast the first ballot of their lives that actually matters. One rural voter told the New York Times‘ David Kirkpatrick, "We are saying, ‘Here is the will of the people,’ and the people’s will can stand up to any institution, including the military council." And the council, in fact, has suddenly reversed a policy that would have ensured it a major role in writing a new constitution. The election itself has created a new legitimacy the military government has felt compelled to acknowledge.

But yes, elections aren’t democracy: An openly contested and fairly decided election is only a precondition to democracy. The political scientist Larry Diamond has distinguished between "electoral authoritarian" states, which stage meaningless ballots;  "electoral democracies," which grant power to electoral winners but offer few rights and protections to citizens, and "liberal democracies" like the United States. Despite the current hubbub, Russia may remain in the first category for quite some while, while Egypt will probably pass from the first to the second. And there far worse cases: Rabble-rousing leaders like Slobodan Milosevic have used elections to whip populations into a nationalist frenzy or have simply pocketed the results to legitimate a deeply undemocratic rule.

As it happens, I spoke to Obama right before his 2007 speech, and he told me that he had just read, and deeply admired, Fareed Zakaria’s book, The Future of Freedom, which argues that states must first pass through a phase of liberalism, in which the rule of law takes root, before they can achieve a meaningful form of democracy. Obama had thus concluded that the United States needed to promote the "foundational freedoms" — from "want" and from "fear," in FDR’s words — to then create "space for the kind of democratic regime that we want." And at least until the Arab Spring came along, the Obama administration’s chastened, post-Bush view of democracy promotion was: economic and institutional development first, elections later.

But countries don’t operate according to Hoyle. Sometimes elections — even failed elections — have to come first because they provide the liberatory spark that allows people to free themselves from the autocratic grip. Diamond points out that in the sub-category of "competitive electoral authoritarian" states, where elections do involve competing forces, "accidents can happen along the way." One of those states, Venezuela, is holding a presidential election next year, and Diamond believes that "there is better than a 50-50 chance that it will transition to democracy," probably in the wake of a rigged election. The balance of forces in Venezuela are more favorable than they are in Russia, because President Hugo Chávez is less popular, and less effective, than Putin. Also, he may die of cancer beforehand.

There is a small cabal of democracy promoters inside the Obama administration, and they have worked hard, often in the face of stiff opposition, to keep the issue alive. Chief among their number is Michael McFaul, a former academic and the author of Advancing Democracy Abroad. McFaul has been named as the next ambassador to Russia. (The nomination is now before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.) Until recently, McFaul’s credentials seemed only ironically related to his new post. Now, the welcome wagon of history has deposited a wonderfully apt gift at his doorstep. Let’s hope it doesn’t blow up when he opens it.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

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